WASHINGTON — In a vote that broke sharply on party lines, the House approved a $5-billion welfare reform bill Wednesday that would require millions of recipients to work in return for their benefits but also would provide day-care payments for mothers with young children.
The Democrat-backed measure, which was approved on a 230-194 vote, would also crack down on parents who fail to make child support payments and would give generous financial incentives to states to significantly increase the level of welfare payments.
Sponsors said the proposal would help end welfare dependency and put more poor people to work. But Republicans called it inappropriate to propose such legislation, given the nation's current financial difficulties, and fought unsuccessfully to win passage of a less costly bill.
The far-reaching legislation, which now goes to the Senate, faces an almost certain veto by the White House, which has blasted the measure because of its high cost.
During a sometimes rancorous debate, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the current welfare system, which includes more than 13 million recipients in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, is out of control and does not encourage people to escape poverty. But they sharply disagreed on ways to reform the $30-billion program.
"Today, the choice we are facing is between the status quo and a chance to make some long-overdue changes in a welfare system that continues to emphasize dependency and waste," Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) said. "Anytime you talk about welfare reform it is going to cost money. . . . We have to be realistic about that."
Recovery of Costs Cited
Panetta and other sponsors said the bill would recover nearly $1.7 billion in costs during its first three years in a variety of ways, including mandatory withholding of child support payments from paychecks, even before payments are delinquent.
The IRS would also streamline collection of various debts owed to the government and eliminate several tax benefits, including the dependent care deduction that some parents have claimed for their children's overnight camp expenses, Democrats said, contending that the bill would not widen the federal budget deficit.
Under the legislation, all adult welfare recipients would enroll in a national network of job training, education or work programs in return for their benefits. Mothers with children under 3 would be exempt and those with children under 6 would participate part time, and then only if adequate day care was available.
The bill also would "stabilize" welfare mothers entering the work force by offering them day care for the first 12 months in which they have left the welfare rolls and have begun working. Just as important, all states would be required to offer welfare benefits to two-parent families in which the principal wage-earner is unemployed.
'Terrible Cost' of Breakups
Now, 24 states refuse benefits to homes in which the father and mother are unemployed, and numerous welfare studies have indicated that this failure to provide assistance has "caused families on welfare to break up . . . at a terrible cost to the nation," Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) said.
Republicans criticized many of these features, saying they would not put enough welfare recipients to work and would encourage some to remain on public assistance. Several predicted that welfare mothers could draw benefits and avoid work by continuing to have children.
"We should not call this kind of bill welfare reform because it is truly welfare expansion," said Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who criticized the bill's day-care provisions.
"There are thousands of women in this country who get up every morning, leave their children, work for a minimum wage and pay taxes," he said. "They don't get a nickel of assistance or any day care. . . . What about them?"
Others said it is wrong to exempt welfare mothers with children under 3 from the work requirements. In particular, they criticized the notion that mothers had to be encouraged to work and support their families.
"This bill is not squarely founded on American values, which require parents to support their children," Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) said. "In today's world, this is absurd. Most women with children work. . . . They don't have to be asked to take care of their children."
Most Republicans, however, objected to the bill's cost.
"This is the wrong kind of bill to be talking about at this time," Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) said. "What we have here is Democratic compassion . . . which is better described as putting one's hands into someone else's pocket to show how merciful we are."