- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The House is likely to vote along party lines today as it considers Republican and Democratic bills to renew the welfare-reform law of 1996.

The law, which expires Sept. 30, includes the nation's major cash welfare program and its largest child care subsidy programs. It also has sections on child-support enforcement, child welfare and abstinence education.

The debate today is likely to be impassioned but respectful, unlike the 1995 debates in which House members chided and jeered each other's arguments.

The expected party-line votes will not be unusual; welfare-reform typically doesn't become bipartisan until final passage.

House Republicans primarily want a 40-hour-a-week commitment including three days a week of actual work from welfare recipients, in exchange for their benefits. This is an increase over the 30-hour a week commitment.

"As we reauthorize the welfare bill," President Bush said Monday at an event in Chicago with working welfare recipients, "it is essential that a central component of that bill be work. We must set high standards."

Republicans also want to give states a tool called the "superwaiver" to craft their welfare programs. Under the superwaiver or "State Flex" provision, a state could make a single application to waive rules of federal education, housing, labor, nutrition and social-services programs. Now, states have to go through a laborious process with each federal agency to change any rules.

A third Republican priority is to repeal a $100-million-a-year illegitimacy-reduction bonus fund and use that money to promote healthy, married families. Republicans further propose creating a $100 million matched-grant program for pro-marriage pilot programs and a $20-million-a-year grant program to encourage responsible fatherhood.

In their bill, House Democrats propose using the $100 million out-of-wedlock bonus fund for programs that encourage family formation, prevent teen pregnancy and reconnect noncustodial parents (mostly fathers) to their children.

House Democrats also propose:

•Letting states count going to school as work for two years (instead of one year), with no restrictions on how many students can be counted as working.

•Rewarding states for the number of welfare recipients they employ, not for having smaller caseloads.

In contrast, Republicans want only work to count as work, and have retained but modified the current law's "caseload reduction" credit.

Other big differences are in spending.

House Republicans say their plan to keep the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant at its historically high level of $16.5 billion a year is appropriate because there are only 5.3 million people on welfare, compared with 12.2 million people when the law was enacted in 1996.

They recently bowed to concerns about child care funding and added $2 billion over five years to the $4.8-billion-a-year Child Care Development Fund.

But House Democrats say this is not nearly enough: They want to increase TANF funds for inflation, raising it to $18.7 billion a year by 2007, and boost child-care funds to $11.2 billion.

House Democrats also want to reopen TANF to legal immigrants, allow pregnant immigrants access to Medicaid and disabled legal-immigrant children access to the Supplemental Security Income program. The cost for these things could be about $1 billion over five years.

Meanwhile in the Senate, the Finance Committee has not yet released its welfare reauthorization bill. It has scheduled a hearing tomorrow on the issue.

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