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Clinton Signs Welfare Bill Amid Division

By Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 23 1996; Page A01

President Clinton signed historic welfare legislation yesterday that rewrites six decades of social policy, ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor and turning welfare programs over to the states.

"Today, we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton said at a White House ceremony, where he was flanked by three former welfare recipients. "But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began."

Clinton's endorsement of the bill, which requires recipients to work and limits benefits to five years, fulfills a 1992 campaign promise that came to symbolize his image as a centrist Democrat. But yesterday, as the bill passed its final hurdle, there seemed to be less an atmosphere of celebration than a cloud of controversy hanging over the Rose Garden.

Gone were the Marine Band and Democratic congressional leaders who had attended bill-signing ceremonies earlier this week for bills increasing the minimum wage and making health insurance more accessible. Republicans, who had prodded Clinton for months to sign a welfare bill, refused to give him credit. And the divisions among Democrats over the legislation were readily apparent.

Even as Clinton signed the measure, women's groups and advocates for the poor protested along Pennsylvania Avenue, vowing to carry their dispute to the Democratic convention in Chicago next week.

Whatever divisiveness it has inspired, the bill's enactment is likely to be remembered as a defining moment for Clinton, who vetoed two previous versions and battled with himself over whether to reject this measure as well.

Yesterday, he labeled the measure "far from perfect," criticizing provisions that reduce spending on food stamps and deny aid to many legal immigrants. But he offered an explanation why he was signing it. "We can change what is wrong," Clinton said. "We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right."

And he suggested his decision to accept the bill should remove welfare from the political arena. "The two parties cannot attack each other over it. Politicians cannot attack poor people over it. . . . This is not the end of welfare reform, this is the beginning. And we have to all assume responsibility."

The president challenged Americans to join to make the legislation work, to end the denigration of the poor, to offer jobs to welfare recipients and reflect on ways to make the new welfare system better.

Sharing the stage with Clinton was Lillie Harden, a 42-year-old mother of three from Little Rock, Ark. Harden received welfare for two years before finding work and is now employed at a supermarket.

Clinton said his thinking on welfare has been influenced by Harden, whom he met a decade ago at a governors' panel on welfare reform. He said when he asked her what was the best thing about being off welfare, she answered, "When my boy goes to school and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer."

"I have never forgotten that," Clinton said.

In a statement, Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole praised the bill and said it would be remembered as a Republican victory. "My only regret today is that President Clinton did not join with us sooner in helping end a welfare system that has failed the taxpayers and those it was designed to serve," Dole said. "After two vetoes of similar welfare reform bills, President Clinton knew he couldn't afford a third strike."

The bill ends the long-standing cash-assistance known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, abolishing an entitlement created 61 years ago that guarantees any eligible poor person can receive aid.

In its place, states will establish their assistance programs, funded by an annual federal payment instead of the open-ended stream of federal funds they have received in the past. States can determine who is eligible and for how long, although federal funds may not be used to provide benefits for more than five years over a lifetime.

Under the measure, states are required to move half of adults on welfare into jobs by 2002. The bill also creates a comprehensive child support collection system, requires unmarried teenage parents on welfare to live at home and stay in school and provides $4 billion more in child-care funding than is available now for welfare parents required to work.

The legislation is estimated to save about $54 billion over six years, with about half of those savings coming from reductions in the food stamp program. Much of the remainder of the savings comes from benefit cuts to legal immigrants who have not become citizens. The bill denies them food stamps and Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled. States must decide whether to continue Medicaid and cash payments to poor immigrant families.

Clinton has vowed several times to revisit the food stamp and immigrant provisions in new legislation. And he is considering what can be done without congressional approval to ease impact of the bill.

The Justice Department is exploring, for example, whether the administration could order a grace period for immigrants who have applied for citizenship but may lose benefits while their cases are caught in a backlog at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The administration also is considering a tax incentive proposal designed to encourage employers to hire welfare recipients as a way of creating jobs, especially in inner cities where many adults on welfare reside.

His promise to fix provisions in the bill he dislikes was met yesterday with derision from critics protesting in front of the White House.

"What crystal ball does he have that he knows he can fix it," said Deborah Weinstein, an official at the Children's Defense Fund. "What powerful constituency would be treated that way? If he knew there were problems, why did he sign it?"

Labor unions, religious groups and organizations representing women, minorities and immigrants, all of whom are key Democratic constituencies, have expressed outrage over Clinton's decision to support the bill.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said the matter could haunt him politically. "While some of us may hold our noses and vote for President Clinton, many of us will refuse to lift a finger or contribute a penny toward his reelection," she said.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, one of several Democratic governors at the ceremony, argued that Democrats should not split over the issue. "People do not believe in this [welfare] system. This bill is better than the status quo." At the same time, he added, "it is not as good a bill as we would want. . . . It is unfair to certain groups." And he warned that in some states, "it could get a very conservative twist."

When asked after the ceremony about criticism from some groups, Clinton cited several concessions Republicans have made since he vetoed welfare legislation last year. "We saved medical care. We saved food stamps. We saved child care. We saved the aid to disabled children. We saved the school lunch program," he said. "And now, welfare is no longer a political football to be kicked around."

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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