GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at Acme Industries in Elk… (Stacey Wescott, Chicago…)
ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. — Courting frustrated middle-class voters, Mitt Romney accused President Obama on Tuesday of trying to weaken work requirements for welfare recipients, feeding a "culture of dependency" and undermining a hard-fought bipartisan agreement that is credited with reducing poverty in America.
"I hope you understand President Obama in just the last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare," Romney told supporters gathered in a precision machining factory in this Chicago suburb hours after he unveiled an ad on the subject. "That is wrong. If I'm president, I'll put work back in welfare."
Romney was referring to a July directive from the Department of Health and Human Services that would grant waivers to states in how they administer welfare. Five states led by governors of both parties have requested such waivers to reduce red tape.
The matter has caused controversy in the nation's capital, with Republicans arguing that such a move is not in the executive branch's purview, and that it waters down the welfare reform agreement hammered out by President Clinton and Republicans in 1996.
"Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job," Romney's ad says. "They just send you your welfare check."
But Democrats have argued that the move simply gives states more flexibility, and note that any state that accepts a waiver will have it revoked if the state doesn't move at least 20% more people from welfare to work than in prior years.
State leaders have long sought flexibility, including Romney, who in 2005 as governor of Massachusetts signed a letter along with other governors calling for "increased waiver authority."
"Perhaps his argument is with his past self," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who angrily dismissed Romney's assertions as "an utter misrepresentation."
The Obama campaign went further, accusing Romney of not telling the truth and being a hypocrite.
"As governor, Mitt Romney petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients," said Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith. "These false and extremely hypocritical attacks demonstrate how Mitt Romney lacks the core strength and principles the nation needs in a president."
But Republicans tried to use the dust-up to paint Obama as more liberal than Clinton, a theme they have repeated in recent months that is aimed at peeling away moderate Democrats who are frustrated with the president's tenure.
"Through this action, President Obama apparently believes that Bill Clinton was way too conservative and that the Obama administration is and should be far, far to the left of the Clinton administration, and I don't think sacrificing the welfare of the most vulnerable in society for political purposes, which is what President Obama and his administration is doing, is right, or makes any sense at all," Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz told reporters on a conference call set up by the Romney campaign.
Late Tuesday, Clinton spoke out, saying that Romney was misleading voters and that the directive would not dilute welfare reform.
"We need a bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads," Clinton said in a statement.
Mehta reported from Elk Grove Village and Parsons from Washington. Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.