WASHINGTON — Seeking to launch a second stage of welfare reform, House members on Thursday approved stiffer work requirements for people on welfare and new efforts to promote marriage among the poor.
As Congress conducted its first major debate on welfare since a sweeping policy overhaul in 1996, the Republican majority also approved a $2-billion hike in child-care spending, rejecting Democrats' demands for a much larger increase.
The final vote of 229 to 197 closely followed party lines and reflected a sharp partisan divide over government's role in helping those who depend on public aid or are struggling to escape it. Only 14 of the chamber's 211 Democrats supported the bill.
"Millions of Americans have moved from welfare rolls to payrolls, but our work is not finished," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, a top-ranking Republican. "We need to reach out a helping hand to those remaining welfare recipients and help guide them into the work force and independence."
The bill, which embodies priorities of the Bush White House, would maintain welfare spending at about $16.5 billion a year. The current welfare law, enacted in 1996, expires in September.
Republicans took credit Thursday for welfare reform as a historic success and repeatedly needled Democrats for past predictions that it would be a calamity for the poor. The 141-page bill is the government's most significant initiative in welfare since 1996, when Congress established work as the official goal, ended lifetime entitlements to aid and gave the states new control over their welfare programs.
"It is the best social program in terms of improving people's lives that we have ever had probably in the history of the Congress," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.)
The broad outlines of reform are now widely accepted in both parties. But new disputes flared Thursday about how to move forward, including questions about the treatment of immigrants, overall funding levels and whether government should actively champion marriage. The House GOP view on these matters is not universally shared in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where welfare will be debated next and members are seeking a bipartisan compromise.
"In my state, we don't think the government has much business getting into your life," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said. "Marriage is a personal ... private choice."
Under the GOP plan, states would use as much as $300 million for experimental efforts to promote marriage and family stability. The bill also would preserve a $50-million program to encourage sexual abstinence for single people.
Much of Thursday's debate focused on Republican efforts to sharply scale upward the work expected of those receiving welfare.
States would be expected to gradually move 70% of adult welfare recipients into jobs, up from today's 50% target (and the actual rate of about 40%). Further, it would narrow the definition of acceptable work activities by imposing new limits on vocational education as a substitute for work.
The House bill also would establish a 40-hour week of activities for welfare recipients, demanding 24 hours of actual work and leaving open a more flexible 16 hours that states could use for many purposes, including education, training and family activities. The current law envisions a 30-hour week, but it applies to relatively few recipients.
The House bill also would allow certain exceptions to the 40-hour week of activities, including as much as four months every two years for welfare recipients to complete certain training programs.
"We believe in the human spirit so strongly we feel that if you raise that level of expectation they will rise to meet it," said Rep. Clay E. Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), recalling how the foes of welfare reform had predicted it would lead to children sleeping on street grates. "History tells us that we were right."
But Democrats said the work proposal would take away the flexibility states have in designing welfare programs, and create pressure to establish large community service programs for recipients to meet the work requirements.
"Everyone agrees that the welfare reform bill of 1996 worked, but it worked because we did not impose unrealistic, make-work requirements on states and then leave them with no way to pay for them," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). "It worked because we gave states the flexibility they needed to create a mixture of training, services and work that helped their citizens find decent-paying jobs."
House Democrats also warned that the bill would saddle states with costly new demands for child care and other expenses, amounting to an "unfunded mandate" in the billions of dollars--$2.5 billion in California alone, according to some estimates. They pushed to give states more latitude to steer recipients into education and training rather than into the first available job.