I was 14 when I first saw Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and I watch it again on television from time to time. It gives me hope -- in these Clinton-Lott-Daschle years -- that another Jimmy Stewart, another incorrigibly independent senator, will try to break through the bipartisan self-absorption of his colleagues.

I wish Frank Capra had still been here on May 25 when Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) spoke to a Senate chamber that was largely empty.

He was introducing an amendment to the fiscal 2000 defense authorization bill that would require annual reports to find out what is happening to families that have been dropped from the rolls as a result of the widely applauded "welfare reform" bill (its inspirational title: Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act).

Wellstone proposed that the secretary of health and human services and the states annually collect -- for 24 months after the recipients' cases have been closed -- basic facts about: "What kind of jobs do they have? Is it a living wage? Have their children been dropped from medical assistance? Do they have any health insurance coverage at all?"

He pointed out that since August 1996, the actual living conditions of these 4.6 million "reformed" citizens -- mainly women and children -- are essentially unknown, except for limited surveys by relief groups and a few other organizations.

Yet, Wellstone said, "I have not heard a whisper of concern, let alone a shout of outrage, from the Senate. But we keep trumpeting the `victory' of welfare reform since national welfare caseloads are at their lowest point in 30 years. President Clinton, you have not provided one bit of evidence that reducing welfare rolls has led to the reduction of poverty."

Wellstone then asked the other senators: "Can any of you give me any data from your states?"

Absent an answer, Wellstone quoted from a survey conducted in January by Catholic Charities USA that reported that "73 percent of the dioceses had an increase by as much as 146 percent in requests for emergency food assistance from the year before."

And, he continued, a study five months later by Families USA revealed that "over two-thirds of a million low-income persons lost Medicaid coverage and became uninsured as of 1997 due to welfare reform. Sixty-two percent were children. Moreover, the number of people who lose health coverage due to welfare reform is certain to grow rather substantially in the years ahead."

Wellstone added that "in every state, there is a drop-dead certain date when families are going to be eliminated from all assistance." He was referring to a five-year cumulative lifetime cap on benefits in this "welfare reform" law.

On May 25, the Wellstone amendment was defeated 50 to 49. Only three compassionate Republicans joined him: John Chafee (R.I.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.). After the vote, Wellstone said, "I'm outraged there wasn't the courage to debate me on this amendment."

He tried again in July, attaching his amendment to the Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill. On a voice vote, it was passed by the Senate.

"I suspect," Wellstone told me, "they didn't want any bad publicity, so they let my amendment through with the intention, maybe, of knocking it out in the conference committee."

And so they did.

On Oct. 7, the indomitable senator instead tried offering a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution to the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriation calling for the Senate to determine "the economic status of former recipients of assistance."

The resolution passed 98 to 1, and although it is non-binding, Wellstone wanted it to help build a record for the next time he will attach his tracking amendment to an appropriations bill. At that time, he intends to force debate by the Senate.

"I will not agree to a time limit," he says, "and I will stay on the floor for many hours."

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who did support Wellstone on the floor on May 25, told his colleagues that according to recent studies by the Children's Defense Fund and the National Coalition on the Homeless, "most former welfare recipients earn below poverty wages and do not receive the essential services that would enable them to hold jobs and care for their children."

Are Al Gore, Bill Bradley or George W. Bush at all curious about these disappeared Americans?