Santorum Dealt Setback on Welfare

GOP Conference Chairman Overruled by Frist on Reauthorization

Posted September 26, 2003 at 5:26pm

Though he normally wields plenty of clout as No. 3 in the Senate leadership, GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) lost his bid last week to force action this fall on a measure to rewrite portions of the landmark 1996 Welfare-to-Work law.

Early last week, Santorum threatened to object to any attempt to reauthorize the existing law, which would have expired Sept. 30, for six months. He preferred instead a one- or two-month extension that would require the Senate to pass a bill with new guidelines encouraging marriage and responsible fatherhood among welfare recipients, as well as requiring states to place more people in jobs.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) swatted down Santorum’s proposal and pushed through the six-month extension on Friday.

Santorum did win a concession from Frist that the welfare bill could still appear on the Senate floor this fall if any free time exists in the next month or so that Congress is in session. He had initially sought to get Frist to set a date certain for consideration.

As it stands now, Santorum will have to hope there is a hole in the already crammed Senate schedule, which includes action on a $87 billion supplemental Iraq war spending bill, integrating as many as 10 fiscal 2004 appropriations measures into an omnibus spending bill, and completing the House-Senate conferences on a Medicare prescription drug proposal as well as an energy policy measure.

Frist has also made tentative commitments to bring up a bill to send more class-action lawsuits to federal courts and a measure to stiffen federal penalties for injuries to pregnant women and their fetuses.

“There are too many variables. That’s what the leader’s telling me, and I understand,” Santorum said. “I’m not complaining, but I want to fit it in — if at all possible.”

Indeed, Santorum was optimistic that he would prevail in the end.

“We have a whole host of issues that we’d like to do by the end of the year, and I’m saying welfare should get done,” Santorum said.

He noted that the Senate’s adjournment schedule has not been set and that he is “willing to stay an extra couple of weeks to get things done.”

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was ready to move the bill, which his committee just recently approved, as soon as Frist asked him to bring it to the floor.

“I told him I wanted to do it this fall,” said Grassley of his conversations with Frist. “If you were committed to do it in one calendar week, you could do it.”

Still, Grassley pressed for the six-month extension given the expected difficulties of conferencing the bill with a House-passed measure that Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans, oppose.

The six-month extension, which is the fourth time Congress has extended the law since it was originally set to expire in September 2002, would require the Senate to act and conference the bill by the end of March 2004.

Though that may seem a long way off, Republican aides acknowledged last week that work on a mammoth highway trust fund bill, which also will be pushed to next year, and other pressing Senate agenda items could complicate efforts to act on the bill early next year.

Grassley suggested forcing the Senate to work during January — an unusual practice even though Congress formally convenes Jan. 5 or 6, 2004.

“You could do it sometime between Jan. 3 and Jan. 23, even though most Senators would rather be on a beach,” Grassley noted. “But if you wanted to get it done then, you could.”