Welfare Reform in Legislative Limbo

Welfare reform seems to have slipped off the congressional front burner, a situation that may leave states in limbo as the fall deadline to reauthorize the program approaches.

Congress seemed on the mark earlier this year to re-authorize the $16.5 billion welfare reform act, which expires in October. Members openly debated President Bush's call for beefed-up marriage education programs and tougher work requirements. Bush's plan got a lukewarm reception from state officials, who wanted more money for child care and less-stringent work mandates.

But in recent months, even Bush seems to recognize it won't be easy for Congress to take major action on welfare, preoccupied as it is with corporate accounting blunders, homeland security and judicial nominations.

Speaking in mid-June at a fund-raiser in Missouri for U.S. Senate hopeful Jim Talent, Bush talked about the debate over welfare reform and said "it may spill over when (Talent)'s a senator."

The Associated Press reported June 26 that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson refuses to rule out support a temporary spending bill that would fund welfare for 12 months.

But HHS spokesperson Tony Jewel denied that's the case. "The AP story didn't reflect the spirit of what was said that day, and that's unfortunate. When (Thompson) said 'one year,' it was presented to him by a reporter as 'one year or no years.' He's made it perfectly clear whenever asked: we need to do a five-year reauthorization," Jewel said.

The U.S. House approved a welfare reauthorization measure in mid-May, while the Senate Finance Committee okayed another version on June 26. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) told the Associated Press that same day "there just isn't any time this year" to debate a five-year reauthorization.

Senate leaders did not return phone calls to comment on the issue. But Christin Tinsworth, spokesperson for the House Committee on Ways and Means, said she doesn't see welfare on the Senate's plate anytime soon.

"The Senate plans to take the rest of the time before the August recess to work on Medicare, and members have not passed a single appropriations bill. They have a pretty full plate which begs the question, 'Where's welfare?" she said.

Some policy experts say a lack of action on the issue may be problematic for states.

"A one-year extension leaves states and localities with a lot of questions and uncertainty. It's difficult for states to do long-term planning when (officials aren't sure) what changes may take place next year, " said Steve Savner, senior staff attorney at the DC- based Center for Law and Social Policy, a left-leaning nonprofit research group.

California Rep. Dion Aroner, a Democrat who co-chairs the Assembly's committee on human services as well as a national task force on welfare reform, said a delay in reauthorizing welfare raises new questions.

"There's a 50-50 chance for reauthorization, and the question becomes for states, what do we need? " she said.

Aroner said if it comes down to passing a continuing resolution, states would like such a measure to run for two years. "From most of our perspectives, that's reasonable as long as the rules won't change. We can still continue to move forward and leave everything in place," she said.

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