Washington Seeking to launch a second stage of welfare reform, House members 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 Democrat demands for a much larger increase.
The final vote of 229-197 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.
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, which was 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 people's lifetime entitlement to aid and gave the states new control over their welfare programs.
The broad outlines of welfare reform are now widely accepted in both parties. But new disputes flared Thursday over how to move forward, including questions about the treatment of immigrants, overall funding levels and whether government should actively champion marriage. The House Republican view on these matters is not universally shared in the Democratic-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 Thursday. "Marriage is a personal ... private choice."
Under the GOP plan, states would use up to $300 million for experimental efforts to promote marriage and family stability. The bill would also preserve a $50-million program to encourage sexual abstinence.
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 percent of adult welfare recipients into jobs, up from today's 50 percent target (and the actual rate of about 40 percent). Further, it would narrow the definition of acceptable work activities by imposing new limits on vocational education as a substitute for work.