WASHINGTON – Republicans are hoping to carry the president's welfare legislation through the House by Memorial Day, pushing for tougher work requirements and new money to promote marriage.
They smell a political victory, looking to put Democrats on the defensive as Congress begins revising the landmark 1996 law.
House GOP leaders introduced legislation mirroring the White House plan Wednesday. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the 1996 law was "the most successful social policy change in decades" and said the revisions would put more people to work.
"This plan encourages states to keep up the good work they have started and pushes them to change even more lives by moving more recipients into real paying jobs," Hastert said Wednesday.
House Republicans appear united, but more complicated political maneuvering lies ahead among the nation's governors and in the Senate, where moderate and liberal Democrats are working on other versions.
Governors are on the record supporting a welfare policy that is closer to the Democratic plan, and a survey of state welfare directors suggested that a key element of the White House plan would be unworkable.
Govs. Howard Dean, D-Vt., and John Engler, R-Mich., each told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday that states should retain the power to decide which plan is best for individual welfare clients. Under the House GOP and Bush plans, states could offer most welfare recipients a maximum of 16 hours per week of education, training, drug treatment and other nonwork activities. The rest of the week, at least 24 hours, would have to be spent at work.
Engler said many state programs rely on greater flexibility. The 1996 changes, he said, "succeeded because Washington focused on the overarching goals and left the strategies to the states."
"Give us the tools and we can deliver," he said.
Dean said the Republican plan would force states to create public-service jobs for welfare recipients in order to meet higher work requirements. A better approach, he said, would give states more power to write individual plans for welfare recipients.
"We think we've earned the trust of Congress by our deeds," Dean said.
In the Senate, the top Democrat and Republican on the Finance Committee are working on a bipartisan bill they hope will attract overwhelming support. They plan to introduce it by Memorial Day.
Beyond work requirements, the welfare debate is focusing on a few other more straightforward issues.
Democrats want to increase overall welfare spending and spending on child care; the White House wants to maintain current levels. Democrats want to let states give legal immigrants benefits; the White House doesn't.
Under repeated Democratic questioning, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson signaled there's room for compromise on child care. "I know there will be negotiations," he told a House committee Tuesday.
The Bush plan also includes up to $300 million for experimental programs to promote marriage.
The debate gets more complicated over the issue of work requirements -- what states must require of welfare recipients and what the federal government requires of states.
Under current law, 50 percent of welfare recipients must be working, but states have largely avoided the requirement through a provision that allows them to meet it by moving people off welfare altogether. Under the Bush plan, this credit would be gone, and the percentage of recipients required to work would climb to 70 percent.
The House GOP bill, sponsored by Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., diverts slightly from the Bush plan. States would still have to reach 70 percent, but they would retain most of their caseload reduction credit.
The Bush plan's definition of "working" would require a welfare recipient to be in a "work activity" for 40 hours per week, up from 30 hours. At least 24 hours each week would have to be in a job, up from 20 hours now. The remaining hours could be spent in education or training programs.
In another small change, the House GOP bill would allow some flexibility for welfare recipients to take sick time and holidays off.
A survey of state welfare officials found that most states believe the Bush proposal would require them to make "fundamental changes" to their welfare programs. Several said they were concerned that it would require them to redirect money they are spending elsewhere and limit their ability to offer recipients education and training.
But Republicans governors have been loathe to criticize the president outright.
"They're in a tough spot," Dean said in an interview. "The White House is just putting a lot of pressure on the Republican governors. Privately, I think they are making the case behind the scenes."