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House Committee Clears Welfare-Reform Measure for Floor Action

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Washington

Following days of heated debate and stalling by Democratic members, the House Ways and Means Committee last week passed a welfare-reform bill that would transfer to the states control over programs that serve millions of poor, disabled, abused, and neglected children.

The panel passed the measure on a 22-to-11 vote--with only one Democrat in favor--after Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., invoked a seldom-used rule in demanding that the bill be written in formal legislative language before a final vote could be taken.

The parliamentary maneuver illustrated the tension between Democratic and Republican members of the committee, who voted along party lines on nearly every proposed amendment.

However, the sponsors did alter some of the language in the bill to make it more palatable to Democrats and moderate Republicans. Most notably, Rep. Bill Archer, R-Tex., the committee's chairman, inserted language that would allow unwed mothers to receive public assistance once they turn 18. The previous version would have barred unwed teenage mothers and their children from ever receiving cash payments.

The bill would replace a host of federal entitlement programs governing child welfare and foster care with block grants to the states. Under Title II of the bill, more than 20 federal programs designed to protect abused and neglected children would be collapsed into one block grant and 30 percent of those funds could be transferred to other welfare programs at a state's discretion. (See Education Week, March 8, 1995.)

But the panel approved an amendment by Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn., that would prohibit a state from transferring money from child-protection programs if the length of the average stay in foster-care homes there increased, if the number of fatalities among children under state care increased, or if the state was under a court order to improve its child-protection system.

The committee also endorsed an amendment by Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., that would require states to maintain at least the current funding levels for child-welfare programs for the next two years.

S.S.I. Restrictions

Another provision in the bill would radically restructure the Supplemental Security Income program, which serves disabled and elderly people with low incomes. The bill would restrict S.S.I. benefits for children with disabilities and deny benefits to drug addicts and alcoholics.

In an effort to crack down on what sponsors say is abuse of the system--under which some parents have allegedly coached their children to display behavior that would qualify them for S.S.I. grants--the bill would allow only the children with the most severe disabilities to be eligible for cash benefits. The new rules would make some poor, disabled children and their parents totally ineligible for help, and would limit others to eligibility for services, rather than cash benefits.

But the committee approved a group of amendments sponsored by Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka, D-Wis., that altered those provisions.

One of the amendments would eliminate a disincentive to work by insuring that an S.S.I. recipient who found and then lost a job could still receive cash payments. The original bill would have restricted access to benefits once a recipient found work, but would not have reinstated them if he later became unemployed.

The amendments would also guarantee that anyone eligible for S.S.I. would also be eligible for Medicaid. The earlier version would have let states decide who qualified for those benefits.

Mr. Kleczka's amendments also included a recommendation that a federal commission review the eligibility requirements for S.S.I. to determine if some childhood mental illnesses should be removed from the list of conditions that make a child eligible for disability payments.

The panel also approved by voice vote an amendment that would allow illegal-immigrant children to be eligible for child-welfare aid. The bill would make noncitizens, including children, ineligible for Medicaid, food stamps, child-care subsidies, and funds from 32 other federal programs--even if they are legal residents.

The leaders of the House Republican majority contend that their welfare bill would save $35.7 billion over five years.

They expect to move the bill to the House floor later this month, after it is combined with several other welfare bills, including one that would replace child-care programs and child-nutrition programs with block grants. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

It is unclear when the Senate will take up the issue.

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