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Big Welfare Act Changes Unlikely, Senators Say

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 2, 1996; Page A04

Congress is unlikely to go along with a White House proposal to soften the new welfare reform law by rescinding spending cuts of billions of dollars in food stamps and benefits to legal immigrants, two key senators said yesterday.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), the Republican whip, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, agreed that lawmakers would probably reject major changes in the GOP-crafted law, which President Clinton signed with reservations in August after vetoing two previous versions. But the two senators expressed sharply differing views on the prospective involvement in the issue of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She told Time magazine last month that she plans to "speak out about welfare reform" and would consider taking a "formal role" in shaping administration proposals to change welfare policy.

"I think she has suggested she'd like to see what is happening on the ground out there, and that's good," Moynihan said. "I'm for it."

Nickles, however, indicated that the GOP would take a dim view of such a role, saying he thought she was "philosophically opposed to the bill" and would be "the wrong person to be in charge of the review."

When Clinton signed the bill over the objections of many Democrats, he pledged to fix elements of it that he said were too harsh. In his weekly radio address Saturday, he urged that the change in welfare "not be to have even more children in more abject poverty, but to move people who can work into jobs."

The White House is reportedly considering measures that would forgo at least $13 billion of the law's projected $54.6 billion in savings over six years by softening its effect on food stamp recipients and legal immigrants.

"I think Congress is going to be very cool to make those changes," said Nickles. "I'm sure we'll take a look at whatever proposal he sends to Congress, but we don't want to undermine welfare reform." He said Congress would probably make "technical corrections" to the welfare law when it reconvenes next year, but not a "significant reforming" of the legislation.

Asked if he thought Congress would make any changes in the new law, Moynihan said, "No, none."

He had strongly opposed the bill, arguing that it would throw more Americans into poverty.

Of the projected savings, more than $20 billion is estimated to come from restrictions on welfare payments to legal immigrants. But some analysts say that figure is too high.

"I don't think this welfare bill will result in nearly the savings that have been projected," said Rosemary Jenks, a senior analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research group that supports cuts in legal immigration. The projections do not take into account a huge surge in naturalizations this year and exemptions for immigrants admitted on humanitarian grounds, who are more likely to be on welfare than other newcomers, she said.

Under the law, immigrants who are not citizens are barred from receiving food stamps and Supplemental Security Income permanently and cannot benefit from most other welfare programs for five years after arrival. Immigrants who are already on welfare can continue receiving it for a year, and refugees, asylum seekers, other "humanitarian immigrants" and veterans are exempt from the restrictions.

Many immigrants can preserve their eligibility for welfare simply by becoming U.S. citizens, and record numbers are doing so, Jenks said. In fiscal 1996, more than 1 million immigrants became naturalized citizens — more than double the previous record set in 1995 — and there are projections that a similar number will take their citizenship oaths in 1997.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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