Republican challenger Mitt Romney said Tuesday that President Obama is "encouraging a culture of dependency" by gutting the work requirement in the landmark federal welfare reform law, and his campaign went a step further, saying the White House overstepped its legal authority last month to issue waivers of the law to the states.
Speaking at a campaign stop in the Chicago suburbs, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said the administration's announcement that states would be eligible to receive waivers letting them modify the law's work requirements for aid recipients undercuts the intent of the law that Mr. Obama's Democratic predecessor, President Clinton, signed in 1996.
"President Obama in just the last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare," Mr. Romney said. "That is wrong. If I'm president, I'll put work back in welfare."
The White House called the attack "categorically false" and said the announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services was designed to give states flexibility to write their work requirements for those on welfare — something they said several Republican governors have requested.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said HHS still will evaluate all waiver requests to make sure they achieve the overall goal of moving welfare recipients toward work.
"Any request from any state that undercuts the work requirement will be rejected," he said.
He also noted that Mr. Romney was one of a number of Republican governors who urged Congress to provide states with more flexibility on the program in 2005, when he was governor of Massachusetts.
The Romney campaign is trying to drive home its message with a new television ad contrasting Mr. Obama with Mr. Clinton on welfare.
"In 1996, President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare," the narrator says in the ad, which was done in coordination with the National Republican Committee. "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check. And welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare."
In a conference call with reporters, Jonathan Burks, Mr. Romney's deputy policy director, said Mr. Obama has consistently opposed the work requirement and said the welfare move is part of a recent spate of waivers and other exercises of executive authority, a list that includes the decision to exempt most young illegal immigrants from deportation.
"It is consistent with the Obama administration pattern recently of advancing policies that they can't get through Congress and doing it through executive fiat, regardless of whether they have the legal authority to do so or not," Mr. Burks said.
Last month's announcement by HHS would give states more leeway when it comes to the financial assistance they receive for so-called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare programs.
"HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment," the July 12 HHS announcement says. The move, according to the memo, would allow states to "test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
But the Romney campaign maintains that the HHS directive paved the way for the work requirement for recipients — considered a cornerstone of the 1996 law to end what critics said was a culture of dependency — to be undermined by allowing for waivers to be granted for projects that use other criteria than the law's work "participation-rate requirements."
Without that requirement, Mr. Burks said, the program falls apart.
"Essentially what the Obama campaign is trying to do is turn the TANF block grant into a blank check by removing the one and viable federal requirement, which is that a certain percentage of the welfare beneficiary population has to participate in work," he said.
• David Boyer contributed to this report.
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