GOP governors differ on Obama change to welfare, amid larger 'safety net' debate

Republican governors differed Sunday on the Obama administration’s announcement to allow states more flexibility on the work requirement for welfare, as the issue of a safety net for the poorest Americans emerges as an election-year issue.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad lashed out at the plan, suggesting the administration has exceeded its authority, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott suggested the flexibility would allow him to keep the work requirement.

“This is a huge step in the wrong direction,” Branstad said on Fox News Sunday. “I think it’s illegal.”

The Department of Health and Human Services told states Thursday that they may seek a waiver for the program's strict work requirements.

Scott made clear that Floridians seeking benefits will still have to look for a job.

More On This...

    “People need to be going out and looking for a job,” he said. “We believe in personal responsibility, and we’re going to have that in our state.”

    Following the policy directive Thursday, Mitt Romney and other Republicans accused the administration of unilaterally gutting welfare reform, thus overhauling one of the most important bipartisan agreements of the past several decades.

    The argument continues amid debate on Capitol Hill over a proposed five-year, $500-billion farm and nutrition bill that pays for food stamps and a controversial ad campaign that encouraged Americans to apply to that federal program.

    The bill has cleared the Senate and was approved last week by the House Agriculture Committee with some changes.

    The passage in the House puts added pressure on the chamber’s Republican leaders to take a position on the bill that will redesign safety nets for food producers, set conservation and energy policies and fund the food stamp program.

    Food stamp rolls have swelled since the recession, growing roughly 40 percent since 2009. As of April, more than 46 million people were in the program, which costs $80 billion a year.

    GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for diverting from their election-year agenda for a bill that could take days to complete and could be difficult to pass. GOP conservatives don't like the high cost of the bill and the federal subsidies going to farmers while Democrats are unhappy with proposed cuts to the food stamp program.

    Meanwhile last week, the Department of Agriculture moved to "cease future production" of advertisements that encourage people to go on food stamps, following criticism over what was described as an "aggressive" campaign to grow enrollment.

    The department had come under fire for a 10-part series of Spanish-language "novelas" that trumpeted the benefits of the food stamp program. The radio ads were produced in 2008, but continued to be available for use. After those ads drew scrutiny, though, the USDA removed them from its website.

    The Spanish-language radio ads composed a 10-part miniseries called "Hope Park." In it, the characters were shown persistently trying to convince a character named "Diana" to go on food stamps -- known these days as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- even though her husband works and she doesn't think she needs it.

    How the change to the welfare program will play out is unclear. The directive said only that states may seek a waiver from the work component of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program to "test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

    HHS stressed that any alternative should still aim to get welfare recipients into gainful employment. Any plan that "appears substantially likely to reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families," will not be approved, the memo stated.

    States currently must have 50 percent of their caseload meet certain work participation requirements, though there are ways around that as many states fall short.

    The hard-fought welfare reform agreement in 1996 was struck between the Bill Clinton administration and a Republican-led Congress. It is still considered a signature legislative achievement from that period.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.