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Welfare Panel Heeds Clinton on Food Stamps

July 30, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a move that makes the pending welfare reform legislation more acceptable to President Clinton, congressional negotiators agreed to scuttle plans to allow states to take over the food-stamp program, congressional aides said Monday.

The White House had warned that Clinton might veto the bill if it is not changed this week by lawmakers charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the welfare legislation. The food-stamp provision--one of those most objectional to the administration--had been approved by the House but not the Senate.

Negotiators did not back away from another provision of the legislation opposed by the White House, however. They agreed that the final bill will include a House plan forbidding states to increase payments to welfare families who have additional children, according to congressional aides involved in the negotiations.

The White House favors the concept, but argues that the federal government should not impose the so-called family cap. Clinton favors giving states the option of doing so. But the issue is not expected to be significant enough to elicit a veto.

Overall, the GOP measures would end the 61-year guarantee of cash assistance to every eligible family, put the first-ever time limit on cash assistance and require parents to work within two years of applying for welfare. The bills would save $60 billion over six years, largely through cuts in the food-stamp program and by making legal immigrants ineligible for most benefits.

Welfare reform's congressional sponsors hoped to complete action on the legislation today so that the full House and Senate can vote on the final version before Congress begins its August recess at the end of the week.

The food-stamp provision would have given states control of the program within their borders and provided each state with a flat grant from the federal government to pay for it. Opponents feared that under such a system, some states would be unable to meet the need for food assistance at times of economic downturn or natural disaster.

Republican supporters had argued that states are better suited to determine and meet the needs of people within their borders.

As of late Monday evening, negotiators were still debating whether illegal immigrant children would be allowed to buy federally subsidized school lunches. Under the House version, illegal immigrant children would not be allowed to buy lunches in most school cafeterias. The Senate bill does not contain such a provision.

Another difference between the two measures concerns food-stamp eligibility for able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 without dependent children. The Senate version limits to four months a year the amount of time such individuals could receive food stamps without working. The House version is tougher, limiting eligibility to three months in a lifetime for such individuals, unless they are working at least 20 hours a week.

At a Capitol news conference, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) predicted that Clinton will sign the final version.

"I don't believe the president is going to veto this," Gingrich said. "It's good for America, and I think it's good for the poor."

At another press conference, however, civil rights activists and religious groups denounced the measure as too harsh on children.

"It is as though Congress has wearied of the war on poverty, switched sides and decided to wage war on the poor instead," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League.

Some lifelong Republicans also assailed the measure.

"The new Republicans have turned their backs on the poor," said Arthur Flemming, a former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The welfare overhaul, he said, amounts to a group decision to "ignore the poor and those who are suffering and to walk on the other side of the street."

Flemming suggested that lawmakers are willing to end the guarantee of federal assistance to all eligible families because they do not know what the nation was like before such a guarantee existed.

"If you're 60 or younger, you've been living in a country that has always had a safety net," he said.

Justin Dart, another longtime Republican who served on President Bush's commission on the disabled, said that the GOP bill "violates every value that makes America great."

Urging Clinton not to sign the bill, Dart added: "Let us reject the politics of hostility."

Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, called the Republican measures "social and political time bombs that will explode in families, schools, neighborhoods and cities all over America for years and decades to come."

Edelman, a close friend of the Clintons, said that she was disappointed with the president for failing to stand up firmly against the bill, but stressed that she did not believe he would sign it in the end.

"The ballgame is not over," Edelman said. "We will not give up. We have taken at the president's word his commitment that he will not hurt children."

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