TOPICS > Politics

Politics of Welfare Reform

July 31, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We’re joined on Capitol Hill by Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, and Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York. Welcome, gentlemen. Congressman Rangel, the President just signed this. You voted against welfare reform. How do you–how do you feel about this decision of his?

REP. CHARLES RANGEL, (D) New York: I didn’t vote against welfare reform. This is a political issue. Nobody wants to be against welfare reform. I just didn’t think that this bill dealt with the problem that we have with our children. It says that the mothers will have to find work for two to five years, and that’s if there’s no work available. And so when all of the providers, whether they’re Christian or Jews or Catholic or Protestants, they take care of these children, and they’re the ones that are losing.

The President won because he removed an issue from the Republicans. The Republicans won because they pushed the issue until the President finally had decided. The governors won because now they will have the full responsibility to take care of immigrants and those people who are jobless in their states. The only losers are the kids.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Breaux, how do you explain that the President did sign this, given the opposition from many Democrats like Congressman Rangel?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX, (D) Louisiana: Well, I think that the President, on balance, decided that he was for reform, and he said in his statement this is not a perfect bill. I think it’s not perfect. It still needs some improvements in the next Congress, and we’ll work on that. But I think it’s a major step in the right direction. It moves toward reform. It sets time limits. I think we all agree that, at least from my perspective, that the current system is not working very well neither for the people who are on it, nor for the people who are paying for it. I think this is a step in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Nickles, how do you feel about the President’s decision?

SEN. DON NICKLES, (R) Oklahoma: Well, Margaret, I think the President decided to sign it because it’s election year, and that’s one of the reasons why we decided to try and move this package one more time. As you know, we passed welfare reform twice. Unfortunately, the President vetoed it.

And we decided we’d break it off, try one more time, thinking this close to the election maybe the President would stay with his, his campaign promise, which he’d broken twice, to end welfare as we know it. He finally said that he would sign it. So we’re delighted. I think this is a good bill that passed by overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate, and I’m pleased that he will now sign it.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Sen. Nickles, as I think you know, if you watched the President today, he–he said he’d been completely consistent, there were certain principles he’d always insisted on in welfare reform, and he took a lot of credit for essentially making this bill what it is today. Do you think that’s true?

SEN. NICKLES: No. I don’t, Margaret. Frankly, I think if you look at this bill, you look at the bill that passed in the Senate last January, he vetoed a bill, the early part of January this year, he vetoed it late at night, hoping everybody was out of town, trying to almost hide the veto. But the facts are that bill passed with 87 votes in the Senate. This bill is not all that dissimilar from the Senate bill before. I think the difference is we’re talking about election time.

It’s getting close, and the President realizes that the present welfare system is broke, it’s a failure, it’s failed taxpayers big time, and it’s failed a lot of the people it’s trying to help, and I think the President realized it’s time to get on the bandwagon, and we have an overwhelming vote, and I compliment the House and the Senate, my colleague, John Breaux. We had 74 votes in the Senate this time. I think the President read the writing on the wall. The American people wanted this bill, and he decided to get on the bandwagon.

REP. RANGEL: I think I have to agree with the Senator that it is an election year and nobody in the House and Senate wanted to appear to be voting against welfare reform. But as the President once said, putting wings on a pig doesn’t mean that you have an eagle. And so the question really is: Are the children protected?

No one cares whether or not it’s the federal government or the state government that has responsibility. I do, because for 60 years we said we had an obligation to take care of children. No one cares whether or not a person that played by the rules, that is able to work, and wants to work, and there’s no job available, under this bill, if the government says two years and you’re off of welfare, you and the kid are off of welfare. That’s the end of it.

And so what we want to say it’s an election year and everyone did what they had to do, I agree with the Senator that the President came out ahead and the members of Congress voted against reform, and it’s a non-issue for the election.

SEN. BREAUX: Margaret, I would only disagree with my colleague, Don Nickles. This bill is far different from what the President vetoed in the past, and it’s $4 billion more in child care, it’s very important. We did not block grant food stamps to the states. That was very, very important. And we guarantee the continuation of health care through Medicaid for AFDC recipients. This bill is a far better bill than the one that the President vetoed in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Nickles, what about that?

SEN. NICKLES: Well, Margaret, I–let me just add–I want to correct my friend, Charles Rangel too. There’s a 20 percent exemption, a hardship exemption, and so before everybody says wait a minute, there’s no tolerance, there’s no exemptions for the really hard cases, that’s not the case.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, on the five-year limit?

SEN. NICKLES: On the five-year limit–


SEN. NICKLES: –we have a 20 percent hardship exemption. We know some people are really unable to get out. And so we took account of that, but we have a lot of families, unfortunately, second and third generation, that are dependent on welfare cycles that we really have to break. This bill moves big steps towards saying, hey, you should be in work.

And we put some incentive for the states to go to work. And we give the states some flexibility. We have 334 federally defined welfare programs. A lot of them aren’t working. Finally, Margaret, I want to say one other thing. The President made some comment about aliens, non-citizens who served in armed forces, would be denied benefits. That’s totally wrong. If you’d look on the bill, we, we make an exception for those individuals and so I would hope before he would criticize it, he’d do a little more homework on the bill.

REP. RANGEL: Yeah. That was my amendment, but don’t let a legal immigrant on the way to the recruiting station get hit by a truck. He’s not included. But when you say we made a 20 percent provision for those hardship cases, you mean for the governors. We’re out of it. And if you have hard economic times, no jobs, we as a Congress and as a government have no responsibility for those kids at all.


REP. RANGEL: We’ve given it over to the governors, so we didn’t–don’t have the 20 percent. The governors in their wisdom have the 20 percent.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Rangel, let me follow up and ask you to, to further explain something you said earlier when you said that you didn’t, you were essentially saying you didn’t think that the President had been–had stuck to his principle of protecting children. Now he said today that was one of the things he insisted on, he felt it had been met. Are you saying he abandoned it, or he just has a different understanding of that?

REP. RANGEL: I have been trying very hard not to be critical of the President. He had a moral position and he had a political position, and he took the political position. No one cares at election time about the children. There is no way for anybody, including the President or the Cardinals or the Bishops or the Rabbis, to say that when someone is cut off from welfare because no jobs were available but they so-called capped it and the kids get no benefit, that is wrong.

Any way that you look at this under the Senate bill originally it was 2 million people, 2 million kids that were pushed into poverty. Now under all the statistical data, it’ll be 1 million children that will be pushed into poverty and an unknown number of legal people that played by the rules, that came to this country, that will just wash off, and why not? They can’t vote.


SEN. BREAUX: I’ve got to disagree with that. I mean, I think from a Democratic perspective, there were a lot of Democrats who supported this bill, 98 in the House. There will be a large number, I think, in the Senate when we vote tomorrow. Even after, I would point out, Margaret, after the time limit expires, there are still about 49 other federal programs that are still available to families.

I wish we had done more, but I want to say very clearly the children are not going to go hungry. There is still a large number of federal programs that are available to families. We protect children with Medicaid. Food stamps will continue to be a federal program. Children are not going to suffer. We hope this thing works. I think it will.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Breaux, one of the things–excuse me, gentlemen–let me just ask Sen. Breaux this one question. Sen. Breaux, the President did say today on this question of legal immigrants, as we saw in the taped piece he didn’t like it–he thought he could send a bill to the Hill, get somebody to introduce a bill on the Hill, and that part would be reversed. Do you think that’s realistic?

SEN. BREAUX: Margaret, we’re working on an immigration bill and I think there’s a possibility that will be some changes on the immigration bill to certainly take care of the children of illegal immigrants. I think that is a deficiency. We still need to work on it. The President is committed to doing it. I think there’s a possibility it can be done.


REP. RANGEL: I think that our spiritual leaders would see how cruelly the lesser among us have been treated that when they get together, of course, after the election, that we could erase the whole thing.


SEN. NICKLES: Well, Margaret, I certainly hope that’s not the case. We’ve had several generations now, thirty, forty, fifty years of a welfare state that’s been ever expanding, and my good friend, Charles Rangel, said well, we’re trying to protect the children. These programs were designed to hopefully protect people that were less fortunate and frankly, it made a lot of people addicted to welfare, and that hurt the kids. Giving people opportunities to climb out of welfare is what this bill is about, moving towards work. It will help kids a lot more than, than giving them a legacy of government dependency.

REP. RANGEL: Let me agree with you if you’re guaranteed a job. If you’re guaranteed a job, I’d be right there will you. You just said after two, three, four, five years you don’t have a job, the kids are off of welfare. It’s not right.

SEN. BREAUX: Charlie, let me just point out that with regard to the jobs, a lot of people raise a legitimate question that whether there is no job in the private sector, what happens? This bill does allow the states to use their block grant money for the first time to help encourage employers to hire welfare recipients. I think that’s going to get a lot of people jobs for the first time in the private sector by government helping these employers to offer jobs to people on welfare, and we also allow the block grant money to be used to–for the states to help children after the time limit has passed. I think there are some things that apply to this.

REP. RANGEL: Well, the President made a plea to the governors to do this, but as far as we’re concerned, we wash our hands with it and we say, governors, do the right thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, in the time we have left, you’ve all mentioned this is an election year, let me get you to address the politics of this directly. Sen. Breaux, let’s start with you. What do you think will be the political impact of this both in the presidential year and also in these races for Congress and open seats in the Senate?

SEN. BREAUX: Margaret, I think the American people want Congress and want this administration to pass welfare reform. This is not a perfect bill but I think you see the Congress working in a positive fashion to get something done. I think it’s good politics, and I think it can be good policy ultimately.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s good politics for incumbents of both parties and the President?

SEN. BREAUX: I think it is. I think any time Congress starts working in a fashion of reforming any program I think that’s good politics because it is good government. I think that’s how people want their Congress to work, instead of fighting all the time.

MARGARET WARNER: And Congressman Rangel, do you think that’s why so many of your fellow Democrats voted for it?

REP. RANGEL: No. When the President said he was going to sign it, then it really would take a profile in courage for some people to vote against it. Nobody wants to explain why they voted against something that was described as welfare reform, and so clearly all the politicians, when it’s Democrats, Republicans, the governors won, Dole is already saying, I dare you to veto this one, the President once again has removed another major issue from the campaign. The question is, it’s not reform because it moves people toward jobs that don’t exist.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that this could undercut in any way the enthusiasm that liberal Democratic voters have for the President?

REP. RANGEL: No, because there are any number of issues, well, compared to Dole–don’t laugh–my God–you have to have a candidate. No. I think that America is better with having a candidate that we have issues with than having a non-candidate like Sen. Dole, former Senator Dole.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Nickles, yes.

SEN. NICKLES: There’s no question the liberal left will continue to love Bill Clinton because they know that he really doesn’t like welfare reform. He had vetoed it twice, but I will say a great deal of credit should go to Sen. Dole because he was the architect, helped put this together. We did pass it twice, unfortunately the President vetoed it twice, and now maybe the third time he’s going to sign it. But I think Sen. Dole deserves a great deal of credit because he helped lay the foundation. This is the first time in history that we’ve actually reformed an ever-growing welfare cycle that frankly has had good intentions, but unfortunately hurt a lot of people it tried to help and certainly hurt taxpayers in the process.

REP. RANGEL: And let’s give credit to Speaker Newt Gingrich because most everything that Sen. Dole is saying really comes from Newt Gingrich anyway, so–

SEN. NICKLES: I wouldn’t say that, but I will say that this is very significant reform, and it happened in a Republican Congress, and we’re proud of the fact that at long last we finally have reformed welfare.

MARGARET WARNER: But Sen. Nickles, do you think this takes away a very potent issue for Sen. Dole? I mean, there was some talk that Senator Dole–Senator Dole’s campaign would just as soon not have had had this come to a vote so he could have continued to have it as an issue against the President.

SEN. NICKLES: Well, actually Sen. Dole contacted us. We talked about it because some of us know that we need to do more but he said let’s do the best job we can do this year, so we made it plain we’re trying to do it, but we know we need to do more. Welfare reform is just the first phase of what we really have to do in a lot of areas. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve got something done, I’m pleased–I think the President is going to sign it because it is election year.

My guess is if we passed it sometime in the future, heaven forbid if President Clinton was reelected, I don’t think he would sign it, so I, I think we’ve tried to work together. I compliment John Breaux and the Democrats who are willing to work with us to make significant entitlement reform, and this is a giant step in the right direction.

REP. RANGEL: And I thank them both for the compromise.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, on that amicable note, we’ll leave it. Thank you, gentlemen, very much.