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THE BUDGET

Accord Includes Clinton's Promise to Fix Welfare Law

Politics: Reform's basics remain, but $15 billion would be restored for disabled legal immigrants, food stamps and employers hiring aid recipients.

May 04, 1997|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The new federal budget agreement gives President Clinton much of what he wanted when he promised to fix some of the most glaring problems he saw in the welfare reform measure he signed into law last year.

The bargain struck Friday between the White House and Republican leaders in Congress does not change core features of the welfare law, including its work requirements and time limits on benefits.

But it would restore benefits for disabled legal immigrants, loosen some restrictions on food stamps and provide new incentives for employers to hire welfare recipients.

Hailing the budget agreement Saturday in his weekly radio address, Clinton said: "It keeps my pledge to continue the job of welfare reform by providing tax incentives to businesses to move people from welfare to work, and restoring some of the unwise and excessive cuts included in last year's welfare bill."

Although details of the budget agreement remain in flux, administration officials estimate that it would provide about $15 billion in new welfare spending over five years, compared with about $22 billion Clinton had originally sought. Clinton had requested a broader restoration of benefits for legal immigrants and able-bodied food stamp recipients than provided under the agreement.

Under the welfare law enacted last year, 500,000 legal immigrants nationwide--41% of them in California--are scheduled to lose disability payments under the Supplemental Security Income program as early as this summer. SSI assistance is limited to the elderly, blind and disabled.

Most but not all of those immigrants will continue receiving benefits if Congress approves the budget agreement's welfare add-backs, which include roughly $10 billion over five years for legal immigrants. That's less than immigrant advocates had hoped for, but administration officials consider it a big victory to have won that much from Republicans, who had started the year refusing to consider any changes in the welfare law.

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The budget agreement must be turned into legislation and passed into law by Congress before the proposal can take effect. But if approved, the agreement would:

* Maintain SSI benefits to disabled legal immigrants now on the rolls. Benefits for elderly legal immigrants who are not considered to be disabled would still be cut off.

* Allow SSI benefits to be granted to legal immigrants now in the country who become disabled in the future.

* Maintain Medicaid health care benefits for the children of poor legal immigrants, repealing a provision that gave states the option of cutting off those benefits.

GOP budget negotiators rejected the Clinton administration's earlier proposal to restore food stamps for legal immigrants.

They did, however, reach a compromise on another controversial area of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Clinton wanted to drop the bill's strict limits on the length of time food stamps can be received by able-bodied, childless adults between the ages of 18 and 50. Under the welfare reform law, those people can receive food stamps for only three months in any three-year period, unless they are working part time.

Republicans would not drop the restriction, but they agreed to make it easier for states to give food stamps to such people if they are willing to work. The agreement would provide $2 billion for states to create additional "workfare" slots or exempt some hardship cases from the food stamp limits.

What's more, the budget agreement also provides $2.5 billion of the $3.5 billion Clinton sought for grants and tax incentives to encourage employers to hire welfare recipients.

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