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Bush Touts Welfare, Corporate Reforms

Following up on a wave of legislative successes, President Bush urged Congress Monday to pass a welfare reform bill that he said would pick up where the 1996 bill left off.

Bush also announced he is pleased to sign a corporate fraud reform measure to stop executives from disguising company debts.

Welfare reform is set to expire at the end of September and the president is pushing a bill that would increase the work requirements for recipients from 30 hours per week to 40 hours.

The House has already passed the bill, but the Senate, which is in town for another week before its summer recess, has yet to act on the measure. The Senate Finance Committee, however, removed the increased work requirement in the bill passed out of that panel.

"Help people help themselves and amazing things will happen in America," Bush said. "Work is the pathway to dignity and to freedom and to self-respect."

Welfare caseloads have dropped more than 50 percent since 1996, and the percentage of blacks and children in poverty is at its lowest rate ever, measures the president called a "success story."

"The success of welfare reform is not in the numbers, however. The success in welfare reform is not in case loads cut. The success in welfare reform is the number of people whose lives have been changed in a positive way," Bush told an audience at West Ashley High School in Charleston, S.C., the school from where his mother Barbara Bush graduated.

The president's speech comes one day after his economic team flooded the weekend news shows to discuss the "fundamentally strong" nature of the economy, an issue that could damage the GOP in the fall elections if confidence is not restored in the economy and the stock market.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill told Fox News Sunday that the administration is working with Congress on several bills, including trade powers for the president, pension protections, and terrorism risk insurance, to "assure that our economy will continue to be the envy of the world."

While some doubt that the economy is in such good shape — the stock market hit a five-year low last week and the president's chief economist predicts a $165 billion deficit this year — O'Neill said he expected U.S. economic growth will to be about 3 to 3.5 percent by the end of the fiscal year.

With future numbers expected to rebound, Bush cited low interest rates, low inflation and increasing productivity as markers of a sound economy and said he is also enthusiastic about signing a bill to reform corporate accounting practices.

A mix of Senate Democrat-led regulations and House GOP-led penalties, the corporate reform bill is intended to place strict oversight of the accounting industry by separating auditing and consulting functions, creating an independent review board, and imposing severe penalties on executives who try to cheat the system.

Bush said Monday that he is pleased that he can sign the bill into law.

"I am going to sign a bill that says as clearly as we can possibly say out of Washington, D.C. — by the way the bill is supported by both Republicans and Democrats — that if you're a CEO and you think that you can fudge the books in order to make yourself look better, we're gonna find you, we're going to arrest you and we're going to hold you to account," Bush said.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed three measures of critical importance to the White House — a homeland security package, trade promotion authority and the corporate responsibility law.

The Senate has not acted yet on the first two bills, but is in town for another week before its August recess and could get to homeland security and a prescription drug bill before members depart for a monthlong holiday.

South Carolina has been very good to Bush, marking the turning point in his presidential primary race against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the place where he trounced then-Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election.

The president attended a fund-raiser for Rep. Mark Sanford, who is running for the governor's seat against Democratic incumbent Gov. Jim Hodges. The event was expected to raise $1 million for Sanford and another $200,000 for the state GOP. Hodges has about $4 million in his political war chest.