Senate Welfare Debate May Spark Fireworks

Posted March 29, 2004 at 6:29pm

The Senate this week will continue its now-familiar pattern of working on legislation that has little chance of passage.

The reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare to Work Act will be following in the footsteps of the international corporate tax bill, the medical malpractice legislation and the gun manufacturers liability measure.

With only a week allotted for debate on the controversial legislation, both parties anticipate replays of recent floor fights on social policy amendments that Democrats have vowed to offer to any and all measures moving through the Senate this year.

“It’s going to become Armageddon,” predicted one senior Senate GOP aide of the debate this week.

Republicans, however, appear to be holding most of their fire until the Democrats reveal their hand. “It all depends on what Democrats decide to do in the caucus tomorrow,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Monday as the debate on his welfare bill was just getting started.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he’s planning to offer his amendment to increase the minimum wage, and aides said they expect Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to follow suit with his proposal to roll back proposed rules that would allow employers to exempt some employees from overtime pay.

It’s those amendments that have come up repeatedly during floor debates on all manner of bills that have made rank-and-file Republican Senators increasingly incensed at the Democrats’ tactics.

And this week they are likely to hit back with some divisive amendments of their own, according to the senior Senate GOP aide.

The thinking goes: If Democrats want to force us to take uncomfortable election-year votes, Republicans should fight fire with fire.

“If it becomes clear that the Democrats are not going to let [the welfare bill] pass or that they’re just going to block conferees if it does pass, then we may just have Members come out of the woodwork with amendments,” said the GOP aide. “It’s not so much a leadership strategy as a Member strategy.”

That might include more so-called “legal reform” votes to limit the civil liability of various industries as well as tax cuts and GOP social policy priorities, like providing religious institutions with incentives to get involved in more social programs.

But amendments that have nothing to do with welfare aren’t the only problem. It’s also Democrats’ general opposition to the bill, which would increase the work requirements from 30 hours a week to 34 hours a week for most participants in the program. The House bill would go even further, increasing the work requirements to 40 hours a week.

Both House and Senate measures would also up the ante for states, requiring them to find jobs for 70 percent of welfare recipients within five years of enactment.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said he is firmly opposed to the work requirements in the Senate bill.

“The work requirement and not adding enough funding is something my state can’t handle,” said Breaux. He said that rather than rewriting the law, “I’d be happy to just extend it as it is.”

Indeed, it seems the likely outcome for the welfare bill is for Congress to pass an extension that punts the issue to next year.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) hopes to get a resounding vote this week to increase the funding for child care under the bill, which may assuage some of Breaux’s concerns.

However, it appears that GOP hopes that Snowe’s efforts would mute the Democratic opposition to the bill will not materialize, given that Democrats would like to see even more money for child care than Snowe’s proposed $6 billion over five years.

Meanwhile, the welfare debate is likely to be interrupted this week by a separate debate on appointing conferees for the budget resolution.

Though Democrats have so far successfully blocked all conference committees this year, they don’t have that luxury with the budget resolution.

Under Senate rules, the appointment of budget conferees cannot be filibustered. However, the rules do allow for 10 hours of debate time that Democrats could demand be used.