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Senate Committee Approves Welfare Bill

On June 26, after three hours of debate, the Senate Finance Committee approved, 13-8, legislation (H.R. 4737) that would renew a majority of the programs under the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193) through FY2007. Three Republicans, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Frank Murkowski (R-AK), voted for the bill. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) was the only Democrat to vote against the measure.

Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT), sponsor of the bill, said he tried to build on the success of the 1996 welfare law, using the President’s plan as a starting point, to find a balance that would suit a majority of the Members of the committee. The committee bill “continues the journey we started in 1996,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but I believe it reflects a reasonable middle ground among many competing perspectives,” he added.

“It’s a step backwards,” argued Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX). “It’s a far cry from the President’s plan and a retreat from current law,” he said.

Like the welfare bill passed by the House on May 16 (see The Source, 5/17/02), the Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids (WORK) Act (H.R. 4737) would provide level-funding of $16.5 billion annually from FY2003 through FY2007 for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). TANF provides block grants to states to design welfare programs that focus on moving recipients away from government dependence and into the job market. Both measures also would require states to put at least 70 percent of their welfare clients to work by 2007, up from the current 50 percent in 2002, and both would replace the illegitimacy bonus in current law with an initiative to promote healthy marriages.

“I’m a bit skeptical about government getting involved in this area,” said Sen. Baucus, pointing out that the healthy marriage proposal is a priority for the President. The program is voluntary, he added, “and in the spirit of compromise, I’m prepared to give it a try.”

Defending the marriage initiative, Ranking Member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) responded, “We should not shy away from public policies that help low-income families stay intact.” He pointed out that 70 percent of child abuse cases are at the hands of the boyfriends of single mothers. “When you have a divorce, the female income goes down, the male income goes up,” he said. It’s the “feminization of poverty,” he added.

The WORK Act would maintain the current 30-hour work week for welfare recipients and would allow up to two years of vocational training to count toward direct work activities. The House-passed bill, however, would increase the work week to 40 hours and would allow only up to four months of vocational training over a two-year period to count as work. Both proposals require welfare recipients to be involved in direct work activities for 24 hours of the work week. While the House bill would provide an additional $1 billion over five years for child care, the Senate legislation would increase child care funding by $5.5 billion over the next five years.

The WORK Act would replace the high performance bonus with an employment credit to reward states for achieving goals of moving welfare recipients into the job market. Under the bill, states would be required to implement “universal engagement” procedures to ensure that each welfare recipient has a plan for leaving welfare and gaining self-sufficiency.

Additionally, the Senate committee bill would authorize $25 million each year from FY2004 through FY2007 for grants for responsible fatherhood programs and $50 million annually for five years for the abstinence education program within the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant. The bill would reauthorize for five years the Transitional Medical Assistance program, which provides temporary health coverage to individuals and families moving off welfare who, because of increased earnings or hours of employment, lose their Medicaid eligibility. It also would authorize $33 million annually from FY2004 through FY2007 for grants to create or expand maternity group homes for unwed teen parents.

In contrast to the House-passed legislation, the Senate bill would allow states to use TANF funds “in any manner reasonably calculated” to achieve the goals of the program, including allowing the funds to be used to help legal immigrants who arrived in the United States after the enactment of the 1996 welfare law.
During the mark-up, Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) offered an amendment to provide states with the option of providing Medicaid or State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) coverage for pregnant women who are legal immigrants and legal immigrant children.

“Federal immigration policy does not encourage people to come here who will be a burden on the economy,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), objecting to the amendment.

“This is good policy,” responded Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). “We’re talking about people who work in low-paying jobs…legal immigrant women and children,” he said. “There is no rationale to leaving immigrant pregnant women and children out of the health system,” he added.

The committee adopted, 12-9, the amendment.

The committee also approved, 13-8, an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that would allow state and local governments to use their own money to provide health care coverage to legal immigrants.

The most contentious debate revolved around an amendment, introduced and then withdrawn, by Sen. Bingaman that would add $1.5 billion for child care. “There are 12.9 million eligible children who are not getting child care,” said Sen. Bingaman. “A $1.5 billion increase over five years is still inadequate, but it’s better than the chairman’s mark,” he said.

“There’s only so much this bill can do,” responded Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). “You can’t argue against child care, and I’d love to do more, but we’ve got to have a bill,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is load it up with a lot of spending,” he added.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) agreed. “We’re at the limit on this bill, and we shouldn’t go over the budget that was approved by 59 percent of the Senate,” he said.

“If you’re going to require a single mother to work, you’ve got to have child care,” admonished Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AK). “It’s not something that’s irrelevant, not if we want jobs to be sustainable,” she said. “Look at that issue for the reality that it is; it’s about the sustainability of independence,” she added.

The committee approved a number of amendments by voice vote, including:

  • an amendment by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) that would allow states to count postsecondary and vocational education as an “approved work activity” that would count toward a state’s work requirements and work participation rates;
  • an amendment by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) that would increase funding for the Social Services Block Grant by $252 million in FY2005, to a total of $1.952 billion;
  • an amendment by Sen. Conrad that would allow states to exempt a certain percentage of caregivers of family members with disabilities from the work requirements under TANF;
  • an amendment by Sen. Bingaman that would allow states to apply for waivers that would allow them to develop innovative programs that address the needs of their TANF caseloads; and
  • an amendment by Sen. Baucus that would add separate funding of $50 million per year over five years for “abstinence-first” teen pregnancy prevention programs that would allow states the flexibility to include discussions about contraception.

Additionally, the committee rejected, 8-12, an amendment by Sen. Kyl that would have added $120 million annually for hospitals that are required by federal law to provide emergency care to illegal aliens. The funding would have gone to hospitals in states with the highest percentage of illegal aliens receiving medical emergency care.

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