The Welfare Merry-Go-Round: Part 2

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Given the other issues at hand, you might not think welfare reform would be a hot one for President Bush. But he has long wanted to toughen the 1996 law that led to a dramatic reduction in welfare rolls and imposed work requirements on many recipients — and he is now a step closer. Voting along party lines, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill last week that would replace the expired 1996 law with a stricter set of rules. The measure would raise the number of hours that welfare recipients must work or be enrolled in training or course work. It would gradually require that 70% of recipients be working or preparing to work, up from 50% today. And it would provide up to $1.5 billion for activities that promote marriage, such as couples counseling.

Though toughening the law has bipartisan support in Washington, cash-strapped states are less sanguine. The Senate committee's bill includes about $1 billion to help struggling states pay for child care, but that could be as much as $500 million short of what they need, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Twenty-three states have backlogs of parents who qualify for child-care funds but can't get them, according to a General Accounting Office report.

As Governor of Texas, Bush worked extensively on welfare reform, and he champions the idea that making the program stricter will help the poor. Democrats racked up points in the '90s by embracing President Clinton's call to "end welfare as we know it." In February, the House passed a bill that was more austere than the Senate committee's version. But both parties are in a bit of a bind. Republicans don't want to come across as Scrooges, and Democrats don't want to look as if they are soft on welfare — a tricky position for both in an election year.