- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

The House yesterday passed an update of its 2002 welfare reform bill, despite spirited protests from Democrats.
The vote was 230-192. Eleven Democrats supported it and two Republicans opposed it; all other lawmakers voted along party lines.
"The 1996 reform law turned the welfare program in the right direction: the work direction," said Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and House Ways and Means Committee chairman.
This legislation improves the welfare system "by encouraging even more welfare recipients to work," said Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, one of the panels that crafted the bill.
A core change is the requirement that welfare recipients work 24 hours a week, plus spend 16 hours a week in productive activities, such as education. The 40-hour week builds on the previous requirements, which stipulated 30 only hours per week.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, last night called welfare reform "a high priority" and said his committee would work on its bill "as soon as possible."
House Democrats said that according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the 40-hour work rule adds $11 billion in costs to states over five years.
"That makes it an unfunded mandate," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, who pushed unsuccessfully for $11 billion in new child-care funds to offset those costs.
Republicans, however, released a letter sent yesterday to Mr. Thomas from the CBO that said that "because of the broad flexibility generally afforded to states," the new requirements would not be unfunded mandates.
Also last night, Congress passed a catchall $397.4 billion bill to finance every agency but the Pentagon for the final two-thirds of the federal budget year. The House passed the bill last night on a 338-83 roll-call vote, and the Senate later followed suit.
The omnibus bill will end the stalemate that began last year when President Bush demanded lower spending than many in Congress wanted. The White House has said Mr. Bush will sign the bill.
On the welfare bill, House Democrats also protested Republicans' bringing the proposal to the floor for a vote, bypassing subcommittee and committee sessions.
Republican leaders said they expedited the bill because the welfare law expired in September and was on extension.
Still, said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, the fast-track process meant that Democrats and the people they represent were "shut out of the this process."
"We have 54 new members [in Congress] that have never seen this bill," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee.
The House bill maintains the $16.6 billion-a-year welfare grants to states and gradually increases the portion of the caseload that must work to 70 percent.
It adds $2 billion over five years to the $4.8 billion a year in child-care funds, plus allows states to use half their welfare budgets on child care.
The bill also renews a $50 million-a-year abstinence grant fund and allows up to $300 million a year for marriage promotion.
The Transitional Medicaid Assistance program, which provides medical coverage for families for a year after they leave welfare, also was renewed.
Two Democratic welfare reform bills, one of which called for a $20 billion increase in child-care spending, were defeated.

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