Congress Likely to Give Up on Welfare Reform for Year

House leaders said Tuesday they do not expect the Senate to act on a welfare reform (search) bill before the end of the year and will instead seek another extension of the law that expired last year.

The landmark welfare reform bill, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (search) program, reduced welfare rolls nationwide, cutting caseloads by more than half in many states.

The 1996 bill was set to expire last Sept. 30, and lawmakers, unable come to an agreement over contentious aspects of a new welfare reform bill, extended the existing measure.

"It's unlikely we're going to get a reauthorization passed," Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said Tuesday at a meeting of Maryland state lawmakers and their counterparts on Capitol Hill.

A staffer with the House Ways and Means Committee, which handled the bill in that chamber, confirmed Tuesday that officials planned to ask for an extension of the old law rather than hope for Senate action before Sept. 30.

The House passed its own version of a welfare renewal reauthorization bill in February and sent it to the Senate, which has yet to act on its version of the bill.

Calls to the Republican and Democratic staff on the Senate Finance Committee, which is handling the welfare reform bill, were not returned Tuesday night.

"We are very patiently waiting on our friends in the Senate," said Christin Tinsworth, a spokeswoman for Rep. Bill Thomas (search), R-Calif., Ways and Means chairman.

"Our preference would be to give states and TANF recipients more certainty and to help more people achieve independence to uplift themselves from poverty and get back to work," Tinsworth said.

The uncertain future of the bill is troubling, said Maryland state Delegate Hank Heller, one of the lawmakers at Tuesday's meeting with the state's congressional delegation.

"It makes it very difficult to plan the budget when you don't know how much money you're getting from the federal government," Heller said. Maryland's welfare rolls dropped 68 percent since the law was enacted.

But Tinsworth said that the Senate still has to finish work on most of its appropriations bills before Sept. 30, in addition to dealing with the continuing debate over Iraq and the overhaul of Medicare, making a TANF agreement less likely.

Congress "is trying to find bills where there's a consensus . . . those they can figure out without a fight," Heller said.

But provisions in the welfare bill have bogged it down in a Senate fight.

The Bush administration version of the bill, already approved by the House, would increase the number of hours that recipients must participate in a welfare-to-work program, from the current 30 hours per week to as much as 40 hours a week. The bill also calls for a $1 billion increase for child care programs over five years, which opponents have criticized as too low.

"This bill is much more controversial than it ever had to be," said Shawn Fremstad, a welfare analyst for the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (search). "Everyone is saying what a successful program this is, and if you had a modest proposal, this would've flown through."