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President Seeks Balm for Anger Over Welfare Bill

By Barbara Vobejda and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 22 1996; Page A01

With several key Democratic constituencies furious over his decision to sign the landmark welfare legislation passed this summer, President Clinton is considering how to soften the bill's impact and smooth relations with those groups as the party heads into its nominating convention next week.

Clinton, who is scheduled to sign the welfare measure today, has asked the Justice Department to explore whether he could allow a limited grace period for some immigrants who will lose benefits under the bill. He also is considering measures to help create jobs for welfare recipients whose benefits will be cut, probably through tax incentives to employers.

These and other initiatives could be announced during next week's convention in Chicago. But the president's olive branch may not be enough to mollify those in the Democratic Party base who strongly opposed the bill, including unions, women, minorities, immigrants and liberal religious organizations.

For these groups, which charge the legislation abandons the most needy Americans, the president's endorsement represents a step away from traditional Democratic values.

"It really makes people angry and I think it's going to dog him," said Rosemary Dempsey, an official at the National Organization for Women. "It's a big, big mistake."

NOW is planning a protest rally in front of the White House following today's bill-signing, and other groups have vowed to protest in Chicago.

Clinton pledged during the 1992 presidential campaign to "end welfare as we know it," and used the promise to lure Reagan Democrats to come back home. But the legislation, which ends the 60-year-old federal guarantee of aid to the poor, carries immediate and longer-term consequences that make today's signing ceremony less a celebration than an exercise in political management.

Liberal Democrats have predicted that the convention may not be the polished show of unity the president would like.

The White House is bracing for a backlash but is not certain whether the protest will be significant enough to disrupt their program highlighting successes in Clinton's first term.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who opposed the welfare bill, once derided Clinton's use of the issue in 1992 as "boob bait for the Bubbas" – a way to attract conservative swing voters.

Administration officials claim they are not hoping for protests over the signing to serve the same purpose. "We're not trying to pull a Sister Souljah," one senior administration official said, referring to Clinton's criticism of the rap singer during the 1992 campaign.

Rather than highlighting the president's differences with important Democratic constituencies, the White House appears anxious to placate them.

"He will be showing his sincere belief that welfare [reform] is about work," White House official Rahm Emanuel said of the package of job-promoting tax incentives for inner city businesses. "We've ended welfare; now we're beginning the process of welfare reform."

Another initiative under consideration would grant a grace period for legal immigrants who have applied for citizenship but could still lose their benefits because of a backlog of naturalization applications at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We would welcome anything that would lessen the pain," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza. "But to put Band-Aids on a gaping wound is little consolation."

In Clinton's new book released this week, "Between Hope and History," he writes that parts of the welfare legislation "are just plain wrong," citing cuts in child nutrition programs and assistance to legal immigrants.

Emanuel said the new initiatives were "not about appeasing political allies; it's about fulfilling the president's policy goals. Anybody who's seen his work over 12 years on this issue will see he's always sought to replace a welfare check with a paycheck."

To some extent, Clinton already has moved to take some of the sting out of today's ceremony, timing last week's signing of the minimum wage bill to coincide with the welfare measure.

Many Democrats believe Clinton will suffer only minimal political damage over welfare within the party, given that Democrats are united in opposing a much larger target this fall – House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the GOP Congress. Advisers expect that even those angry with Clinton on welfare will hold their noses and vote him a second term rather than allow Republican nominee Robert J. Dole and Gingrich free rein.

But Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute said the president may be incurring a longer term debt for which liberals would expect repayment in a second term. "I think there may be repercussions afterward," Faux said. "There will be a lot of people out there who are going to want something back on this issue, maybe bigger than he wants to give."

Yzaguirre warned that the belief that liberals will not desert Clinton may prove untrue, citing calls from union and Latino groups for formation of a third party or a vote for "none of the above."

Even as the administration was reaching out to the left, it was drawing criticism from Republicans for granting permission to the District and some states to ignore key provisions of the new bill, including a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits.

This week, the Health and Human Services Department told the District it had been granted a 10-year "waiver" to exempt welfare recipients from the time limit.

In a letter to Clinton yesterday, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, wrote, "I reget that your administration decided to proceed on its own to weaken welfare reform before it has a chance to even begin."

HHS spokesman Michael Kharfen said the waivers had been granted not to undermine the bill but to be consistent with the goal of giving states flexibility.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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