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House to vote on bill preventing welfare waivers

Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House is taking up a politically charged bill that would block the Obama administration from waiving any work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform law.

House Republicans are using the bill to renew a political fight that started during the presidential campaign. They say President Barack Obama is trying to gut work requirements in the law — a claim that is disputed by administration officials.

The bill also authorizes funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program through the end of the year at current funding levels. Without an extension, funding for the TANF program would run out March 27.

The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday. Democrats who control the Senate are expected to oppose the waiver provision. However, the Senate is expected to take up a bill that continues funding for the TANF program, potentially setting up a showdown over the issue.

Last summer, the Obama administration announced it would be willing to grant states waivers of some of the law's requirements but only if governors can show they can accomplish the same welfare-to-work goals using different methods.

No state applied for a waiver. The White House said they were "deterred in part by inaccurate claims about what the policy involves."

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seized on the issue during the campaign, accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform. The issue became the subject of many campaign ads.

"The only reason you'd need a waiver would be to lessen the work requirement," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "The states are free to strengthen them, now."

Democrats claim that Republicans are distorting the goal of the waivers. The administration said the waiver program was a response to concerns from state officials that the law's work requirements created bureaucratic hurdles to placing welfare recipients in jobs.

"Flexibility was requested by governors on both sides of the aisle to allow states to test new, more effective ways to place more people on a path to self-sufficiency," the White House said in a statement Tuesday. "The administration is disappointed that the bill includes this unnecessary bar to innovative welfare-to-work strategies."

The 1996 welfare act created the TANF program, provided states with block grants to carry out welfare reform, limited how long families may receive cash benefits and required that 50 percent of families receiving benefits be participating in work activities.

Welfare caseloads declined after the law was enacted. In 2012, an average of 4 million people received benefits each month.

In a July letter to congressional leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that to qualify for a waiver, governors must show how they will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. States must also show clear progress toward that goal within a year.

"What HHS proposed was allowing states in demonstration projects to see if they could undertake further innovations to help people move to work," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "I just think it's a mistake to take the campaign of last year and project it onto the floor of the Congress."

Republicans contend that the Health and Human Services Department was acting illegally in offering the waivers, saying the welfare law bars the administration from waiving the work requirement.

"The issue is the precedent," Camp said. "It would weaken an integral part of the welfare reform bill. If you're getting federal benefits and your able-bodied you need to work."


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