WASHINGTON – A divided House approved Republican welfare legislation Thursday that would press more single mothers to work and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to promote marriage and sexual abstinence.
The 229-197 vote, along party lines, came after a partisan House debate over changes needed to the massive 1996 welfare overhaul.
Democrats were now looking to the Senate, where they hoped to get more money for child care, education and training. They also want to restore benefits for legal immigrants, cut from aid programs in 1996.
In the six years since that landmark bill became law, tough new rules and a roaring economy combined to cut the rolls by more than half. Most people who have left welfare are working, making more than they got from welfare but not enough to escape poverty.
As Congress renews the program, the question is how to help those who remain on welfare, many with complicated health and other problems, and how to help those who leave the rolls move upward on the economic ladder.
Throughout the two-day House debate, united House Republicans reminded Democrats of their dire predictions in 1996 and declared themselves vindicated by overwhelming success. They said the law can be improved if states are pressed to put more people to work.
Under the GOP bill, states would have to have 70 percent of people on welfare working 40 hours a week by 2007.
"We believe in the human spirit so strongly," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., a prime author of the 1996 law. "If we raise that level of expectation, they will rise to meet it."
Under the GOP measure, most welfare recipients would have to work three days a week in regular jobs or government-created workfare positions. The other two days could be spent in training, drug treatment and other programs.
Democrats complained that states will be forced to create make-work jobs simply to fill their quotas, and states will lose the power to devise the most effective plan for each person on welfare.
"The bill before us is a one-size-fits-all, Washington-knows-best mandate on the states," said Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a leader on welfare issues.
Under current law, a welfare recipient may take vocational education courses for a year and still be counted as "working," Cardin said. That option is gone from the GOP bill.
Democrats were barred from offering amendments to change individual aspects of the bill, so there were no votes on their proposals to increase spending on child care, restore immigrant benefits or allow more welfare recipients into education and training programs.
Along party lines, the House rejected 222-198 the Democratic package. That bill would have provided $11 billion more for child care, opened aid to legal immigrants and let states put welfare mothers in education and training programs.
The bill approved by the House includes up to $300 million per year for experiments promoting marriage and extends a $50 million program promoting abstinence from sex until marriage. It continues to bar non-citizens from welfare, health and disability programs for their first five years in the United States and maintains the five-year lifetime limit on benefits, whether people are working or not.
Republicans dismissed Democratic critics with poster-size displays quoting their warnings that the welfare bill would be a disaster for poor families.
"They were wrong then. They're wrong now," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.
Republicans did add $2 billion over five years to the program, partly at the urging of Republican women. But House Republicans argued privately that they should not compromise with Democrats now to leave room for negotiations down the road with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
It left House Democrats frustrated.
"Fortunately there's a Senate to correct the hopelessly partisan effort of this majority," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.
Already, Senate Democratic leaders were staking their own course. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he was highly skeptical of the GOP marriage plan.
"In my state, we don't think the government has much business getting into your life," said Baucus, D-Mont. "Marriage is a personal, it's a private choice. I recommend it. It's not something the government should interfere with."
Like Bush and the House GOP, Senate moderates of both parties are advocating tougher work requirements. But many of them want to give states more flexibility to decide what counts as "work."
Democrats also want more money for child care, saying there is not enough now and even more will be needed if more single moms are forced to work.