President Clinton hailed welfare recipients as potentially industrious workers who can be "good for the bottom line" of companies that hire them. At the same time, he warned Congress to stay away from the money the federal government sends to states to run welfare programs.

In part because the welfare rolls are shrinking, states have not spent $4 billion in block grant aid due to them under the 1996 overhaul of welfare. Some Republicans have proposed having the federal government keep the unspent money, using it to help finance a GOP-sponsored tax cut.

Governors from both parties have objected to that idea. Clinton today said that states should get to keep the money, and spend it on measures to help more people on welfare into the work force, and to ensure that people who have made the transition do not slide back into dependence.

"In every state, there are still people who could move from welfare to work if they had more training, if they had transportation, if they had child care," Clinton said, during a day trip here. "In every state, there are people who may be working today who might have to leave the work force, for lack of transportation or child care. In every state, there are people who can stay on the job if they get further training. So, I say, let's spend this money to develop the human capacity of our people."

Clinton made his remarks at a convention of the Welfare to Work Partnership, a nonprofit group dedicated to prodding businesses to hire welfare recipients. The nonprofit group sprang from Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign, from an idea by campaign aide Thomas Freedman, now on the White House domestic policy staff. Clinton inaugurated the group with a challenge that it enlist 5,000 businesses to hire welfare recipients. But in three years the group has enlisted 12,000 businesses that have hired more than 410,000 welfare recipients.

The theme of the event, from Clinton and others in a panel discussion that followed his remarks, is that hiring welfare recipients need not be a mere act of charity for the businesses that do it.

Ted English, chief operating officer of TJX Cos. Inc., which owns T.J. Maxx and other retailers, said his firm found as an "unexpected benefit" of hiring welfare recipients that they typically stay in their jobs longer than other new hires, saving on training costs. The Massachusetts-based firm originally pledged to hire 5,000 workers on welfare, but has decided to hire more than 10,000. Rosemary Mead, head of human resources for the CVS Corp. pharmacy chain, said her firm has had a 70 percent retention rate with welfare workers, a figure she pronounced "way off the charts."

Skeptics of welfare reform have said that, in a prospering economy, the most capable welfare recipients can find jobs more easily, but that they remain vulnerable in times of recession. And, critics contend, the most needy, often least capable welfare recipients in many cases will not get jobs, and face eviction from public assistance once they reach the mandatory time limits under the 1996 law.

While in Chicago, Clinton added to his schedule a meeting with emergency workers who have helped victims of the heat wave. He announced the release of $55 million in new federal aid for Illinois and eight other Midwest states to help needy people pay for air conditioning and for unusually high electricity bills. The government has spent $150 million in "cooling assistance" nationwide this summer, the president said.

Before returning to Washington this evening, Clinton met with leaders of the AFL-CIO, who were convening here.