As Deadline Nears, Senate Still Pondering a Welfare Vote
With the nation's main welfare law set to expire next week, child-care advocates—and many members of Congress—have grown increasingly concerned that the Senate will not act to reauthorize the legislation and approve spending to expand child-care services for low-income families.
"I don't think we can allow this to fail," Rep. Wally Herger, the California Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, said last week during a news conference. "It was no secret that welfare would expire on September 30. Congress has known this for six years."
Mr. Herger's subcommittee—a panel of the House Ways and Means Committee— produced a welfare bill that was approved by the full House in May.
Fifty members of the Senate, including Democrats and Republicans, also wrote Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., this month, asking him to quickly schedule a floor vote on welfare.
A bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee in June would add $5.5 billion over five years to the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which currently stands at $4.8 billion annually. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee also passed the proposed Access to High-Quality Child Care Act, which would add another $3.1 billion for child- care and school-readiness programs in fiscal 2003, which begins Oct. 1.
"If they can't complete reauthorization, there has to be some sort of continuation in order for states to get continued funding," said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.
But states, Rep. Herger said, will be at a "considerable disadvantage" if the current law is just extended for a year or two, because they won't be able to plan ahead, especially if their legislative sessions are held every other year.
The fact that the gap between the House and Senate proposals is so large may explain why the reauthorization has stalled.
The bill passed by the House mirrors President Bush's proposal for reauthorizing the welfare-reform law that President Clinton signed in 1996. It would increase the number of hours welfare recipients would be required to work or do work-related activities, from 30 to 40 hours, and would authorize funding to states to encourage marriage.
But it recommends $2 billion to $4 billion in child-care spending over five years, compared to $8.6 billion in the Senate plan, said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.
Mr. Herger said the Senate Finance Committee bill would weaken the law's work requirements, by keeping the number of hours at 30. He added that Republicans want to increase the number of hours to 40 because many states still have welfare recipients who are not working or participating in job training.
Mr. McCrery called the extra child-care money proposed by the Senate committee unnecessary.
"There's no reason why there shouldn't be adequate money for child care," he contended, noting that because welfare caseloads have declined since 1996, states have more money to spend on child care.
Cuts in State Aid
Yet some experts argue that it's more critical than ever that Congress boost funding for child care, particularly in light of a recent report from the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy organization, showing that states are cutting aid for early-childhood services and after-school programs because of tight budgets. Advocates also want states to expand subsidies for the working poor.
California's Mr. Herger acknowledged that even if the Senate does pass welfare and child-care legislation, it's extremely doubtful that the differences between the House and the Senate could be worked out in a conference committee before the end of the month. But he added that he would support only a short-term "continuing resolution" if the Senate did begin working on a bill.
"This is getting ridiculous," said Mr. McCrery, the Louisiana Republican. "At some point, the Senate has to do its constitutional obligations and get something on the floor."
Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Sen. Daschle, said last week that the majority leader has indicated he hopes to pass a welfare reauthorization soon, but that he wants to make sure there is sufficient time for a debate on the issue.
Vol. 22, Issue 4, Page 23