- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Senate Finance Committee appears ready to tackle welfare-reform legislation this month with a new twist on work rules.

The long-awaited Senate Finance bill to reauthorize the 1996 welfare-reform law has not been introduced yet, but last week committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. James Talent of Missouri, all Republicans, held a press conference to discuss the upcoming legislation.

Mr. Grassley said his goal was for the Finance Committee to pass a welfare bill this month.

According to an outline obtained by The Washington Times, the Senate Finance bill would maintain much of the landmark 1996 reform, such as its five-year time limit on benefits and ineligibility for benefits for most noncitizens.

It would also, as the House did in its welfare bill passed this spring, allocate up to $300 million a year in welfare funds for pro-marriage demonstration projects and activities.

The Senate bill, however, might offer a new approach to the issue of work and work credits.

Currently, states do not get credit for helping a welfare recipient work unless he or she works at least 30 hours a week.

This means if someone worked 29 hours, the state doesn’t get credit for those efforts, Mr. Santorum said. This has created a disincentive for people to work.

According to the outline, the Senate bill might offer states partial credit for welfare recipients who work between 20 and 33 hours a week, full credit for recipients who work 34 to 37 hours a week and extra credit for recipients who work 38 or more hours a week.

The Bush administration wants a mandatory 40-hour week, with 24 hours of work and 16 hours of other productive activities. Mr. Santorum said Thursday that a 40-hour-a-week standard was “too much” and the tiered-credit approach would encourage more work.

The $300 million-a-year pro-marriage fund is supported by the Bush administration, many lawmakers and state officials and traditional-values advocacy groups. It is opposed by feminist groups, antipoverty advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Cato Institute.

The measure is likely to pass because Mr. Grassley has expressed strong support for the marriage measure and Senate Democrats recently identified child care funding, work rules and restoring welfare for immigrants — but not marriage money — as their priorities for the new welfare law.

Child care funding is likely to entail a significant debate. Currently, there is $4.8 billion for child-care in the law. The House welfare bill added $2 billion to that over five years, but Democrats and antipoverty advocates have called for new funds as high as $11 billion.

At Thursday’s event, Mr. Santorum praised the “astounding results” of the 1996 welfare law. A case in point, he said, is a new General Accounting Office report that shows that despite increases in unemployment, the overall welfare caseload hasn’t gone up.

The July 15 GAO report noted that the nation’s unemployment rose from 4 percent in January 2000 to 5.8 percent in March 2003. However, between December 2000 and December 2002, the national caseload continued to fall, from 2.15 million families to 2.03 million, the GAO said, citing data from the Department of Health and Human Services and Center for Law and Social Policy.

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