- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Senate easily voted yesterday to boost child care funds for low-income families by $6 billion over five years as part of its efforts to renew the landmark 1996 welfare-reform law.

The debate stalled, however, as Senate Democrats pressed for consideration of a bill to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7 an hour. Republicans said they were willing to consider such legislation, but not during the welfare debate.

The House, meanwhile, passed its sixth extension of the 1996 welfare-reform law, which technically expired in September 2002.

The House bill passed yesterday extends the welfare law to June 30, the same as a Senate extension bill that passed last week.

Child care has been a perennial sticking point in the welfare debate. When some lawmakers try to increase work requirements for recipients, other lawmakers insist on more funding for child care.

The House bill, passed more than a year ago, includes a measure to add $2 billion over five years to the $4.8 billion a year already allocated for child care.

The Senate bill passed last fall by the Finance Committee adds $1 billion for child care. The Senate yesterday upped the ante, passing an amendment 78-20 to add $6 billion in new child care funds.

The doubling of child care funds is necessary to prevent 450,000 low-income children from losing child care, said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.

“If we want the nearly 5 million people that remain on welfare caseloads to be able to transition off welfare and remain off welfare, they must have access to quality, affordable child care,” Mrs. Snowe said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, was one of 31 Republicans voting for the $6 billion amendment.

However, many Senate Republicans agree with the Bush administration and House Republican leaders that federal child care funds are already more than ample.

“The idea that there isn’t enough money out there for day care is a ruse,” Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said during yesterday’s welfare debate.

For instance, Republicans said, even though enrollment in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has fallen by 60 percent — from 12.3 million persons in 1996 to 4.8 million persons in 2003 — the TANF program will continue to be funded at the 1996 level of $16.5 billion a year.

States can already use up to 30 percent of their TANF funds for child care. The House bill would raise the threshold to 50 percent.

“In 2005, states will spend an estimated $11.6 billion for child care from state and federal child care and TANF funding streams, more than three times the level in 1996,” the Office of Management and Budget said this week.

“States now have far greater capacity to meet the challenge of welfare reform then they did in 1996; therefore, increases to the Child Care and Development Fund are not needed,” the OMB said.

Senate Republican leaders want to finish work on welfare reform this week, but Democrats have insisted that because welfare reform is an employment bill, the Senate should vote on amendments dealing with workers’ wages and benefits, including a proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage to $7.

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