WASHINGTON – The Senate's welfare bill cleared a committee hurdle Wednesday, but its future was clouded by debate over child care funding, work hours and a vastly different House version supported by President Bush.
By 13-8, the Finance Committee approved the bill to reauthorize the landmark 1996 welfare overhaul act, which expires in September. But it left unresolved one of the most contentious issues: child care money for working parents.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., promised to fight that battle during a debate on the Senate floor. But no one could predict when, or whether, Majority Leader Tom Daschle would call it up for a vote.
"Probably never," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's top Republican. "There just isn't time this year. It's not a priority for Daschle."
The schedule-setting majority leader voted against the bill Wednesday. An aide who demanded anonymity said Daschle, D-S.D., opposed it because of the child care funding issue, but if Republicans agree to provide more money for that purpose, he would consider bringing the bill up for a vote later this year.
"If we get a good bill ... it would be helpful for us to get it done before the end of the year," Daschle told reporters this week.
But raising the price tag would all but guarantee a presidential veto, Democrats and Republicans agreed.
"The worst thing we can do is build it up with a lot of spending that would guarantee its demise," agreed Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We've got to get real here or we're not going to have a bill."
"Many of us would prefer to support additional funding for child care, but we also recognize the political reality," agreed Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
If there's no agreement on the five-year version, the Senate may pass a temporary spending bill that would fund welfare for 12 more months. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a pioneer in welfare transformation as governor of Wisconsin, refused to rule out supporting such an extension.
As they struggle to retain their one-vote Senate margin this election year, Democrats and their key constituencies have made clear they believe the bill is insufficient -- particularly on child care. The measure proposes spending $5.5 billion to help working parents pay for child care, $1.8 billion more than the House version and $1 billion more than the current law.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., offered an amendment to boost child care funding to $7 billion. He ultimately withdrew it even as he fired an election-year warning at his colleagues: Underfunding child care for welfare recipients, he said, "is certainly not a result that I want to go home and explain."
But a fellow Democrat, Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, said, "In the real world, I can't support it because, number one, it's not going to pass."
"This bill is already way over what I believe (Bush) will sign," Hatch said.
Even if the internal Senate differences are bridged, a vast gulf exists with the House version. Besides child care funding, the chambers differ over how much welfare recipients would be required to work to receive government aid. The House bill would require people to work 40 hours a week, 10 more than current law. The Senate Finance Committee bill calls for 30 hours a week, and some Democrats are demanding even less.
In a rare area of agreement, both bills include $200 million to promote marriage among welfare recipients.
"I am a bit skeptical about the need for the government to get involved in this area," Baucus said. "But this is a priority for the president and many members, and the programs are voluntary."
The Senate Finance Committee also added amendments that would allow post-secondary and vocational education to count as work, and permit Medicaid funding for legal immigrants and their children.