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Clinton to Sign Bill Overhauling Welfare

By John F. Harris and John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 1 1996; Page A01
© The Washington Post

President Clinton ended what he described as an intense and searching debate within his administration yesterday and announced that he will sign into law the most radical overhaul in 60 years of the way the nation gives help to the poor.

For months, Clinton has prodded Congress to come closer to his views on reforming welfare but preserved his options by staying silent about whether he would sign or veto the various versions churning through the legislative process. Yesterday, he finally announced his intentions just hours before the House acted on a plan that would end the federal guarantee of direct cash payments to the needy, limit assistance to five years, and give states wide freedom to design their own relief programs requiring work for benefits rather than traditional welfare.

The bill sailed through 328 to 101 and is likely to comfortably pass the Senate either today or Friday. All Washington-area lawmakers voted for the legislation.

Clinton said the measure has "serious flaws" – the most important, aides said, is the elimination of benefits for legal immigrants – but he pledged to sign it anyway because it is the "best chance we will have in a long, long time" to fulfill his 1992 campaign promise of "ending welfare as we know it."

The legislation, which was negotiated this week by House and Senate conferees, will "transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence," Clinton told reporters shortly before the House vote.

His decision to sign the bill was a defining moment for Clinton, assuring passage of the most significant piece of social legislation und er his administration. Welfare reform has been a signature issue for Clinton since he was governor of Arkansas, but his failure to push the issue early in his administration meant that he has had to accept a bill largely written on Republican terms.

Clinton's acquiescence to a bill far less generous to the poor than the one he initially proposed strips an issue that GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole had planned to use against the president in this fall's campaign. But it also revealed a deep ideological fissure in Clinton's own party; Democrats in the House split on yesterday's vote 98 to 98 (only two Republicans, Florida Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, voted against).

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) voted against the bill, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he planned to as well. But the Democratic Governors Association praised Clinton's move, which will markedly increase state power.

Dole tried to reap some gain yesterday by asserting that he had forced Clinton's hand. "The first 100 days of the Dole administration have begun 97 days before the election," he said.

But there was unusually sharp criticism from liberals. "My president – he's a winner . . . and the kids are the losers," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Anticipating the protests, Clinton said that he would work to correct the bill's deficiencies with later legislation. And he was candid about the agonizing that preceded his decision.

The president huddled for 2 1/2 hours yesterday morning with Vice President Gore and more than a dozen senior aides and Cabinet officers, discussing what to do. "There was significant disagreement among my advisers about whether this bill should be signed or vetoed, but 100 percent of them recognize the power of the arguments on the other side," Clinton said, saying he left the Cabinet Room meeting having not yet told the assemblage what he had decided. "It was a very moving thing."

At the Cabinet Room meeting, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala was the most vocal in opposition, according to administration officials. Policy aide Bruce Reed, a veteran of the Clinton campaign and administration point man on welfare reform, was among the most forceful proponents, joined by Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, a political adviser to the president.

Clinton campaign consultant Dick Morris, who was not at the meeting, had told the president that adding a third veto to the two Clinton had issued to earlier welfare plans could be politically catastrophic, according to administration officials familiar with his advice.

Morris and some other advisers were worried that a veto would put Clinton on the opposite side of what polls say is overwhelming public sentiment for revamping welfare, would open a door for Dole, and would contradict Clinton's methodical efforts over the past year to show the electorate that he is a centrist who shares middle-class values about work and responsibility.

Other advisers were not sure that a veto necessarily would be a political setback, but were reluctant nonetheless to have Clinton be perceived as endorsing what everyone agreed is an unacceptable status quo. Torn by such ambivalence, one aide said, many at the White House concluded that "if you're going to leap into the unknown, this may be the right leap."

About an hour before the vote – and shortly after Clinton's statement – many House liberals were still struggling with the vote. "I'm equivocating, I'm really torn," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.). She voted for the bill.

More than three times as many Democrats supported the final compromise as voted for the House bill last week. One of those who switched was Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), who said, "The president saying he is going to sign this, the fact that it's going to become law puts a different light on it. We're torn between trying to fix a defective system and protecting children."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) described the vote as "a major, major achievement," and hailed it as "a bipartisan majority." But on a partisan note, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said Clinton's backing reminded him of the old adage: "When you're being run out of town, jump up front and act like it's a parade."

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who has been active on the welfare reform issue for nearly 30 years and who had warned Clinton that this measure would lead to devastating increases in the number of children living in poverty, was stoic in defeat. "The president has made his decision," he said in a statement. "Let us hope that is for the best."

But advocates for the poor were not so reserved in their disappointment. David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, said, "to call this proposal reform is a joke. The president said families will be better off with the changes set forth in this legislation," he said. "That is absurd. This debate is now more about politics than real reform."

Without naming specific groups, Clinton said yesterday that he long ago parted company with many liberal advocacy groups on basic philosophical issues, such as whether it was acceptable to end the guarantee of cash assistance in favor of experiments to encourage work.

Clinton said his objections to the bill were not primarily over the fundamentals of welfare reform but over the way the GOP bill achieved $55 billion in savings over six years. He said it is unfair to say to legal immigrants that they can serve in the U.S. armed forces, as many do, but that they are barred from receiving the kinds of help from government that full citizens do, including food stamps, medical assistance, and other benefits.

He said he would also work to overturn other cuts Republicans made in the food stamp program.

The original welfare reform plan Clinton proposed two years envisioned no spending cuts, but as the administration moved to meet Republicans it eventually came up with $42 billion in welfare savings.

Despite the spending cuts in the GOP plan, Reed asserted that the version Clinton endorsed yesterday "is very close to what we set out to do" at the beginning of the welfare reform debate, and that Clinton does not accept projections from some liberal groups that more than a million children will be cast into poverty because of it. "He firmly believes that over the long haul this bill will be better for children."

Staff writer Judith Havemann contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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