President Bush prodded lawmakers yesterday to embrace changes to the nation's welfare laws that the White House was unable to push through a polarized Congress last year: stricter work requirements without changes to child care subsidies for welfare mothers who must get a job.
At a White House ceremony, the president made plain that the administration has not reshaped the approach to public assistance that it set forth a year ago, appealing to neither its critics nor its allies. Instead, Bush reprised his call for 40-hour work weeks for people on welfare, programs that try to foster marriage and new freedom for states to spend anti-poverty subsidies in ways that bypass standard federal rules. He said basic welfare grants to states would remain $17 billion a year.
Bush sought to pressure lawmakers, who missed a deadline last year for renewing a major 1996 law that redesigned the welfare system. That law transformed welfare from an unlimited federal entitlement to a state-run system of temporary cash assistance while states coach people to hold jobs.
"I'm calling upon both houses to get after it," Bush said, urging Congress to enact legislation similar to last year's White House initiative that passed in the Republican-controlled House but faltered in the Senate, then controlled by Democrats. Republicans now hold a slightly larger House majority and a two-vote Senate majority.
Yesterday's remarks, the third time in a year that Bush has used an East Room event to promote welfare changes, signaled the administration's hopes of taking advantage of its improved political strength on Capitol Hill.
Administration officials had quietly indicated to lawmakers late last year that they might be willing to negotiate certain aspects of the House welfare bill -- including child care subsides, a key Democratic concern -- to make it palatable to senators. But the Senate recessed without passing a welfare measure, and both chambers gave themselves until March 31 to try again.
Yesterday, the House's leading Democrat on the issue, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), accused the White House of moving backward, and noted that the principles the president once again laid out would provide $1 billion a year less in child care subsidies than last year's House legislation.
In an interview, Cardin renewed several additional complaints with the White House's approach. He said Bush's proposal would make it more difficult for people on welfare to count education toward their work requirements, and he said it would not include the reduction of poverty as a basic purpose of welfare programs. Still, Cardin acknowledged, "if they want to jam a bill through the House, they probably can."
A spokeswoman for the Ways and Means Committee said House leaders probably would bring a welfare bill directly to the House floor in time to meet the new March deadline, bypassing the traditional consideration by committees because the measure was debated in detail by several House panels last year.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he, too, will soon introduce a welfare bill, although he is still conferring with committee members.
As he has in speeches about welfare nationwide, Bush yesterday stood next to a former welfare recipient now firmly ensconced in the labor market -- in this case, a woman from Columbus, Ohio, who works for the wife of Ohio's governor. Citing "what is possible in America," Bush said, "people on welfare are not charges of the state." Jobs, he said, are the best route out of poverty.
As guests filtered out of the East Room, a pianist in the corridor was, intentionally or not, reinforcing the president's theme. The musical selection was "Heigh-Ho" (Heigh-Ho, It's Off to Work We Go).