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Welfare bill may reach Clinton this week

The guessing game continued Sunday over what President Clinton will do with the welfare bill emerging from Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted he would sign it, but the White House said the president will keep his silence as long as there is a chance to shape the bill more to his liking.

"My experience," said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, "is that as soon as the president says, "Oh yes, I'm going to sign that or I'm going to veto that,' everybody walks away from the pressure of trying to improve this bill."

House and Senate negotiators are expected to agree this week on a final version of a massive bill that would require welfare clients to get a job after two years and turn over to the states much of the management of welfare programs.

Clinton could have the bill by week's end, before Congress leaves for its August recess.

Clinton has vetoed two previous GOP plans to overhaul the welfare system, but Gingrich predicted on NBC's Meet the Press that he'll sign this one into law.

The bill "fits, I think, over 90 percent of what President Clinton has said he favors," the Georgia Republican said. "There may be bits and pieces that he doesn't like; I just think he's going to overrule his advisers who are going to nitpick it to death."

Clinton and the Republican leadership agree on the main tenets of the bill, such as giving states more flexibility to design their programs and moving people from welfare to work. The bill sets a five-year lifetime limit for families to receive benefits.

Panetta, speaking on ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, said the administration has been pleased with some changes, including the addition of $4-billion for child care, and smaller cuts in school lunch programs and programs to help the elderly poor. Still at issue, he said, were provisions in the bill that would cut off benefits to most legal aliens and reduce funding for food stamps.

But, he said, the Republican "leadership that we have spoken to is really serious about trying to get a bill that the president will sign."