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Welfare Impasse Is a Tragic Case of Partisan Posing

Moments after leading the way in scuttling reauthorization of welfare reform, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) declared to the press that he’d never seen the Senate “so dysfunctional” in all his 41 years serving in the chamber.

He meant it as a blast at the Republican majority, which denied Democrats a vote on raising the minimum wage, but blame — disgust, in fact — is deserved on all sides. [IMGCAP(1)]

Congress, caught up in the rancid partisanship rife in all American politics, resembles an infinity of mirrors in which each frame shows one side pointing a finger of blame at the other — and getting nothing done in the process.

Welfare reform is only the latest victim, but it’s the most lamentable. The reform, requiring recipients to work in return for assistance instead of remaining dependent generation after generation, is one of the signal bipartisan achievements of the 1990s and an unquestioned social policy success.

It was originally the brainchild, in the mid-1980s, of the co-chairmen of the National Governors Association, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who made it a pillar of his “New Democrat” presidential campaign in 1992.

When Clinton entered the White House, he pushed reform against the fierce opposition of reactionary liberals in his own party and reactionary Republicans who wanted to make its terms as punitive as possible. After veto fights, it was passed by a GOP-dominated Congress in 1996.

And it has worked, as even former opponents like Kennedy acknowledge. The welfare rolls have fallen from 5 million in 1994 to 2 million, and the national poverty rate fell from 13.7 percent in 1995 to a low of 11.7 percent in 2001, though it rose to 12.1 percent in the 2002 recession.

With their mothers working, 2.3 million fewer children live in poverty, including 700,000 African-American children.

The 1996 law has expired. Congress keeps extending it, although it might stop doing so, depriving states of $16.5 billion in federal assistance to help poor women.

The pending reauthorization bill would increase women’s work requirements, but the Senate — by an overwhelming 78-20 vote Tuesday — added $6 billion over five years to make sure that an additional 100,000 lower-income women receive child care assistance to help them keep working.

The Bush White House, demonstrating once again that “compassionate conservatism” is a chimera, opposed the money, but 31 Republicans still supported it, including Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).

Now it’s all in jeopardy. Why? The two sides explain it with an endless chain of blame that goes from GOP refusal to allow a vote on the minimum wage to Democrats’ refusal to agree to House-Senate conferences to House Republicans’ refusal to give Democrats a proper role in decision-making.

If it wasn’t one thing, it would be another. Republicans accuse Democrats of, in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (Iowa) words, “a consistent pattern of obstructionism” designed to prevent the GOP Senate from achieving anything this year.

Indeed, there is a long list of blocked measures, including an energy bill (at a time when Democrats are blaming Republicans for high gas prices), a measure to free U.S. exporters from $40 million a month in tariffs (which might create jobs) and caps on medical malpractice liability awards (which might bring down the cost of health care).

Republicans refashioned the malpractice bill to apply only to especially burdened obstetricians and pediatricians, figuring that Democrats wouldn’t dare put women and children ahead of the trial lawyers’ lobby. The Democrats still filibustered.

Welfare reform reauthorization is close to dying because Democrats insist on attaching amendments to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment insurance and overturn a Bush administration labor regulation restricting overtime pay for white-collar workers.

There’s a strong case to be made for all three proposals. The minimum wage, for instance, hasn’t been raised since 1997 and its current level of $5.15 an hour leaves a family of three $5,000 below the poverty level. Kennedy proposes to raise it to $7 over a two-year period.

But, merits aside, there is also reason to suspect that, as Grassley charged, Democrats are “more interested in politics than product” and that these are “message amendments” designed to appeal to Democrats’ trade union base — and to embarrass GOP candidates — rather than achieve passage.

The likeliest target at the moment is GOP Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who would normally vote with Democrats on the labor measures but is facing a stiff primary from right-wing Rep. Pat Toomey, who could use the votes to charge that Specter is too “liberal.” Democrats think Toomey would be easier to beat in the fall than Specter.

Republicans are developing a minimum wage bill of their own — details to come — and promised Democrats the votes they seek if Democrats would agree to permit a final vote on the welfare measure and then to appoint conferees with the House.

Democrats refused, demanding that Senate Republicans get House Republicans to treat House Democrats with more respect. The supposed bottom line is that Democrats are killing welfare reform because Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) is mean to Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) in the Ways and Means Committee. I don’t believe it.

Some moderate Democratic Senators are privately furious with Kennedy, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and other hard-liners, but the whole Caucus voted in lockstep on welfare cloture. That’s what happens in gang wars.

Republicans claim that Democrats will get their comeuppance in November, when the GOP again will charge “obstructionism” and hopes to pick up seats as it did in 2002.

It remains to be seen if that’ll work. Right now, the country is not paying attention to the Senate. Poor women are about to be victimized by partisan point-scoring, but they have less clout than either the AFL-CIO or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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