The House of Representatives passed a measure Wednesday to block the Obama administration's ability to grant states waivers from work eligibility requirements for welfare — a politically-charged issue that the Republicans seized upon during the 2012 presidential campaign.
On a largely party-line vote of 246-181, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill party members said will retain the heart of the 1996 welfare-reform law negotiated between congressional Republicans and President Clinton.
"Clearly, the best way out of poverty is a job, and it is critical that our laws both foster job creation as well as ensure welfare is always a pathway to work," said Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and sponsor of the legislation.
Democrats, meanwhile, decried the vote as a political stunt and pointed to fact-checking organizations that they say have debunked claims the waivers would "gut" the work requirements of the law.
"This is a time when we should not try some partisan efforts," said Rep. Sander M.Levin, Michigan Democrat. "This is essentially, this bill, a pure fabrication of what is true."
In a statement, the White House said that flexibility for the plan was requested by governors of both political parties to allow states to test ways to potentially make the program more effective.
"Ultimately, no States formally applied for State waivers, deterred in part by inaccurate claims about what the policy involves; therefore, the limiting provision would have no practical effect on any pending application," the statement said.
The bill also extends the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program's authorization at current funding levels through the rest of the calendar year, setting up a potential showdown with a Democrat-led Senate that will likely want to extend the funding but strike the waiver prohibition.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would consider requests from states that wish to waive the requirement.
Current law requires that at least 50 percent of welfare-receiving households in a state —- and 90 percent of those with two parents — have an adult participating in regular "work activities," which range from full-time employment to job training, community service or pursuit of a GED certificate.
Supporters have credited the provision with drastically reducing welfare enrollment throughout the nation, but critics say it has provided inadequate support during the economic downturn and has bogged states down in paperwork.
The work requirement for recipients is detailed in a section of the Social Security Act, which the Obama administration does not have authority to waive. However, the administration is allowed to waive another section of the act that includes language requiring states to enforce the work requirement.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained that in a memo to states, concluding that while the executive branch is technically barred from waiving the work requirement, it can give states permission not to enforce it.
Republicans argue it is a blatantly incorrect interpretation of the law and contradicts a portion of the act that states that the work requirement cannot be waived.
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