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NEWS ANALYSIS

Decision on Welfare Reform Was Difficult for Clinton, Tough on Dole

Politics: President and his aides spent long hours debating the Republican proposal. His choice takes away a key issue from his GOP rival.

August 01, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, faced with a choice between signing a welfare reform bill he views as deeply flawed and giving his Republican foes a powerful issue to use against him, on Wednesday opted to embark upon the social policy experiment rather than endanger his reelection prospects.

In announcing his decision to support the sweeping GOP welfare proposal, Clinton acknowledged that he acted against the advice of many of his senior policy advisors. But he asserted that the measure represents a "historic opportunity" to transform a system that he believes fosters dependency and encourages irresponsibility.

Although Clinton and his aides have spent hours debating the substance of the bill as it emerged from a legislative conference committee, there was virtual unanimity about the political merits of signing it. Clinton's top political advisors believe that by endorsing the GOP plan, the president has effectively eliminated welfare as an issue in the fall contest against former Sen. Bob Dole.

Thus, two weeks before Dole is to accept his party's nomination at its convention in San Diego, Clinton has completed the complex series of maneuvers that have positioned him astride the vast center of the American electorate.

One obviously pleased senior aide said Wednesday he expected a few days of complaints from Democratic liberals but little damage from Dole, who cannot attack Clinton on welfare reform without repudiating his own position.

Dole grudgingly conceded as much in a statement Wednesday afternoon, tweaking Clinton for vetoing previous versions of the bill but commending the president for "finally climbing on board the Dole welfare reform proposal."

Dole said the main difference between the current bill and the ones Clinton vetoed "is it's 97 days before the election. Suddenly he sees a great deal of merit to a bill he denounced a few months ago."

Clinton may not have been able to deliver on his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" without prodding from the Republican Congress. But he appears to have gone a long way toward the reinvention of the 20th century Democratic Party.

"What we learned today about Clinton is that he continues to hew to the center in his quest for reelection . . . and that he's prepared to take flak from his own base in order to maintain, if not broaden, his appeal among swing voters and moderates," said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"I don't doubt that some [liberal] critics will keep up a drumbeat against him, but in some respects that's not going to hurt him politically," Mann added. "I honestly believe that there's no question but that this will do more political good than harm."

In presenting his decision to accept the GOP bill, Clinton sounded at times almost apologetic about being part of the dismantlement of a 6-decade-old guarantee of public assistance to the poor.

"I think we all have to admit here--we all need a certain level of humility today," Clinton said at a White House news conference. "If this were an easy question, we wouldn't have had the 2 1/2-hour discussion with my advisors today and we'd all have a lot more answers than we do. But I'm convinced that we're moving in the right direction."

Clinton was referring to a large meeting in the White House Cabinet Room that stretched from 10:30 a.m. EDT until after 1 p.m. as top White House aides and Cabinet officers analyzed the bill and gave the president their recommendations on whether he should sign it.

Attending the meeting were 15 top officials, including Vice President Al Gore, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and senior advisor George Stephanopoulos.

According to several participants, the advisors did not know when they entered or left the room what Clinton would do. Several urged him to veto the bill because of objectionable provisions on food subsidies and the denial of benefits to legal-immigrant families.

Others found reason for hope in the bill as a vehicle for ending a system the president decried as "broken."

By the end of the meeting, most concluded that Clinton would swallow his misgivings and sign the bill. "But no one left the room kicking the table" in anger, said one participant. "It really was conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and everyone agreed that they'd respect [Clinton's] decision. He knows more about this issue than we do."

Clinton then repaired to the Oval Office for a final brief meeting with Gore and Panetta. He told them that he intended to sign the measure and they began calling Democratic leaders in Congress and drafting a statement to the press.

At 2:27 p.m., a grim-faced president stepped into the cramped White House briefing room to announce his decision.

He said that for 15 years, as governor of Arkansas and president of the United States, he has tried to find a way to move welfare recipients into jobs, impose time limits on benefits and ensure adequate nutrition and health care for poor families.

The GOP bill does that, although in a more miserly and punitive fashion than he would have liked, Clinton said.

"All of us have to rise to this challenge and see this reform not as a chance to demonize or demean anyone, but instead as an opportunity to bring everyone fully into the mainstream of American life, to give them a chance to share in the prosperity and the promise that most of our people are enjoying today," the president said.

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