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Will Welfare Go Way of Health Reform? : Senate: Dole's postponement of debate shows growing difficulty of changing major social programs in the current political climate.


WASHINGTON — Is welfare reform becoming the kind of debacle in Congress that health care reform was last year?

For the first time this question was being posed seriously in Washington after Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) on Tuesday unexpectedly postponed debate on the issue until next month because of the serious divisions over central aspects of the proposed new system.

"An issue as complicated as welfare reform can fall into the health care trap," said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican representative from Minnesota who now works at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank. "This is a very complicated bill. . . . It's very hard to pass a bill like this in the Senate."

The main players in both parties insisted Wednesday that a new blueprint for welfare will be approved before the end of the year because--unlike health care reform--there is strong support in both parties for the goal.

Prospects for welfare reform also are brighter because it would not have a direct impact on as many people as health care reform, and those who would be affected have far less political clout. As a result, public opinion is not nearly as likely to swing against it as it did against health care reform.

"The prospects for changing a system that Americans see as affecting poor people and not themselves is greater," said Drew Altman, president of Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based health care research group, and a former director of New Jersey's welfare program.

The complications Dole experienced in trying to pass welfare reform, however, show how difficult it is to change a major social program in Congress given the powerful political and ideological forces involved.

Chief obstacles include the battle for Republican primacy between Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), both contending for the Republican presidential nomination, and the reluctance of Republican and Democratic lawmakers to cooperate with each other.

Under the GOP welfare reform plan, authority over designing and carrying out welfare programs would be passed from the federal government to the states and a first-ever time limit would be placed on cash benefits. The measure would save 10%, or an estimated $70 billion over seven years, compared to the current law.

Even though both parties have declared that overhauling the welfare system is one of their top priorities, party leaders have yet to meet to try to craft a bipartisan initiative.

On Wednesday, Dole called a press conference to denounce the Democrats' alternative plan, which would leave most authority at the federal level. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), in turn, called a press conference to heap criticism on the GOP plan as a phony strategy.

"It was politics that killed health care reform in the end," said Dave Durenburger, a former senator from Minnesota who is now a Washington-based health care consultant. "Here the same thing seems to be the case."

Durenburger was the chief Republican sponsor of the last federal welfare reform effort, which passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin in 1988 and was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, Durenburger said, such days of bipartisan effort are gone.

"Every year--you can actually trace it--it's becoming more and more and more partisan," which he said has made it impossible for the Senate to pass major domestic policy changes.

"I would not put money on" welfare passing, he added.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.) expressed the same concern about party politics thwarting social reform.

"The whole Congress has become far more polarized and partisan so it makes it much more difficult to reach bipartisan agreements," Snowe said. "The more significant the issue, the more partisan it becomes. There used to be a time when you could expect some bipartisanship on major issues. Not any more."

The politics are complicated even further because Gramm seized upon the issue as a way to draw a clear line between himself and Dole. Gramm's plan to offer 10 amendments to make Dole's welfare bill tougher was at least partially responsible for Dole's decision to withdraw the measure from floor debate.

At the top of his list of priorities is a provision to deny cash benefits to teen-age mothers, which Gramm and other conservative Republicans believe will help fight the growth of out-of-wedlock births.

But if Gramm wins this battle, Dole could lose moderate Republicans, who find such provisions untenable.

If provisions to cut benefits for teen mothers were included, Snowe said, "that could prove problematic for the passage of welfare reform."

Gramm, however, rejected the idea that welfare reform, like health care reform, will die.

"As you will recall on health care, Sen. Dole and I started out far apart," Gramm said in an interview. "At the darkest moment of the debate--when Republican pollsters were telling us that it was political suicide to look into a camera and say you opposed health care reform--Sen. Dole signed on to a big government compromise, but I stood up and said the Clinton heath care plan is going to pass over my cold, dead political body. At that point, Sen. Dole started moving toward my position. At the end we were both against health care reform."

In the same way, Gramm said, "I believe Sen. Dole and I can work out a consensus bill on welfare reform."

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