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Debate over welfare shifts to Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Debate over how to improve the nation's program of aid to the poor moved to the Senate after the House approved welfare legislation requiring more people to work more hours.

The House bill, approved Thursday on a near party line vote, also would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to promote marriage and sexual abstinence.

Nearly identical to a plan put forth by President Bush, the House bill would renew a 1996 welfare overhaul that allowed states to impose tough new rules and helped spark a massive reduction in welfare rolls.

The Senate failed to renew the program last year, and the 1996 law has been extended several times to keep the program operating.

Even though Democrats no longer control the Senate, rules there give them more power than the House minority enjoys, and the Senate welfare bill is expected to differ in significant ways.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate want substantial more money for child care. There is more support for restoring benefits to legal immigrants and for allowing more education and training for people getting assistance.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Thursday the Senate bill should include stricter work requirements and more money for child care.

``Since the Senate is narrowly divided, we can't act as quickly and decisively as the House on welfare legislation, but I hope the Finance Committee will approve a bipartisan bill in the next few months,'' he said in a statement.

Sen. Max Baucus, R-Mont., the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, also expressed hope for a bipartisan bill.

People in both parties acknowledge that the House bill has no chance of becoming law in its current form. ``It can't pass on the Senate floor,'' said Ron Haskins, a welfare expert who worked for the White House last year.

The House bill was approved by a 230-192 vote.

It requires states to have 70 percent of people on welfare working 40 hours a week by 2007, with a strict definition of work.

It continues to limit people to five years of benefits over their lifetimes and bans legal immigrants from aid programs. It provides $16.5 billion a year for states to run their programs. It offers a modest increase in child care spending.

Studies find that most people who have left welfare are working, earning more than they got from the government but not enough to escape poverty.

Republicans said the key to success in welfare is putting people to work.

``A check in the mail every month won't teach responsibility. It won't build confidence,'' said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio.

Democrats said simply getting someone off welfare is not good enough and argued that education, training and access to child care are key to helping people earn a decent wage.

``You don't care whether they have a livable wage,'' Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. ``Just shove them off the rolls and leave them out there.''

The House bill includes up to $300 million per year for experiments promoting marriage. It also extends a $50 million program promoting abstinence from sex until marriage, which bans any discussion of contraception.

Both programs have attracted strong opposition, with opponents saying neither has been proven effective. Some worry the marriage program could push people into bad marriages.

But House Democrats voiced few complaints about them Thursday, focusing instead on the central issues of welfare.

Since peaking in 1994, the number of families receiving monthly welfare checks has fallen by nearly 60 percent, thanks in large part to the roaring economy. The Bush administration said Thursday that the national total continued to fall through September, albeit by a tiny amount.

At the same time, the rolls are rising in more than half the states. And data released this week found that after several years on the rise, the portion of poor children with working parents fell in 2001.

The House considered _ and defeated _ two Democratic alternatives to the Republican bill.

The first, sponsored by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., was a moderate bill that increased money for child care, allowed more education and training and restored benefits to legal immigrants. That lost by a 225-197 vote.

The second _ defeated 300-124 _ was a more liberal measure, offered in memory of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii. It would have provided even more money for child care and more money for states to run their basic programs. It would have allow states to continue benefits for people longer than five years if they are complying with welfare rules.
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