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Governors' Proposal Focus of Welfare-Reform Debate

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Congressional leaders are hoping that a proposal submitted by the nation's governors last month will help revitalize welfare-reform legislation that has languished since President Clinton vetoed a GOP-backed measure in January.

Republican lawmakers have not fully endorsed the National Governors' Association plan, however, and are negotiating over which of the organization's suggestions might be included in a free-standing welfare bill that Congress may begin work on next month.

The bipartisan NGA plan is loosely based on the Republican welfare bill, HR 4, which would give control of more than 40 federal welfare programs to the states in the form of block grants. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1996.)

However, unlike most block-grant plans, which trade flexibility for funding caps, the governors' proposal calls for a $1 billion contingency fund to help states with high unemployment rates offset their welfare costs. Most analysts say the NGA plan would not save the federal government any money.

And the fate of welfare reform is intertwined with presidential politics in this election year. Republican leaders are privately evaluating, aides say, whether it is a preferable campaign strategy to blame President Clinton for his veto of HR 4 or to push through another reform package the president will sign and promote the accomplishment on the stump.

Mr. Clinton campaigned in 1992 on a pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

"Everything that occurs will be connected to the presidential race," said a Senate aide close to the process. "Folks are just trying to figure out what strategy the Republicans should embrace."

Some GOP lawmakers have already criticized the governors' plan for being too costly.

Conservative Republicans have also balked at the recommendation that states merely have the option of denying payments for additional children born to parents already on welfare. HR 4 would have required states to deny recipients extra money unless states passed legislation to offer benefits for those children.

Clinton administration officials have also criticized the NGA plan, which they contend fails to protect poor children and their families.

Administration Objections

"We all want welfare reform that promotes work, requires responsibility, and protects children," Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month. "But some of NGA's recommendations fall short."

The plan would require most welfare recipients to enter job training or work at government jobs, and would set a five-year time limit for receiving benefits. The secretary suggested that Congress require states to provide children whose parents reach the time limit with vouchers that are redeemable for goods and services.

Secretary Shalala said the governors' separate plan for Medicaid could leave poor children without adequate health-care coverage. The plan would reduce spending in the federal health-insurance program for the poor and disabled and allow states more latitude to determine who is eligible.

But Ms. Shalala praised the governors for asking that $4 billion be added for child-care services.

Some liberal Democrats have gone further, arguing that the proposed time limits would be catastrophic for children. At the Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said that in the first five years of the plan's implementation, 5 million children would be dropped from the welfare rolls. Half of them would be black, he said.

"To drop 2,414,000 black children in our central cities from this life-support system would be the most brutal act of social policy we have known since Reconstruction," the senator said.

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