Newt Gingrich may wax lyrical about family values, but practical politics will water down his rhetoric, says Rupert Cornwell

America's struggle to achieve welfare reform may be framed by deafening oratory about discipline, abstinence and how the restoration of family values is essential if the country is to be rescued from terminal moral decline. However, while some individual states quietly press ahead with their own innovations, any changes in the national system will be determined less by irresistible moral forces than the requirements of presidential politics.

Beyond doubt, the Republican-controlled Congress will approve some form of welfare reform this year - perhaps as free-standing legislation, but more probably as part of an overall spending Bill designed to balance the budget within seven years, in which welfare cuts perforce are a key element. Whatever emerges will be a far cry from the headline-grabbing talk from Speaker Newt Gingrich and the radical right about orphanages and compulsory adoption.

At the centre of the US welfare debate, focused on the need to get people off the welfare rolls and reduce illegitimacy, is one programme: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This alone accounts for half of all welfare spending and, critics charge, is primarily responsible for the "cycle of dependency" that has turned welfare into a self-perpetuating culture.

The problem is recognised by both political parties; indeed, a pledge to "End Welfare as We Know It", getting families off AFDC and back to work within two years, was a highly effective plank in Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign. Before he could deliver on it, however, the Republicans, committed to the far sterner proposals for welfare reform contained in the Contract with America, had taken over on Capitol Hill.

However, after sailing through the House in Mr Gingrich's much-ballyhooed first 100 days, welfare reform is bogged down in the Senate, always the more cautious and moderate of the two chambers, and additionally now paralysed by competing presidential ambitions as well.

The majority leader Bob Dole, faced with opposition from a conservative Republican faction led by his rival for the White House, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, last week withdrew his welfare Bill from debate. If he can strike a deal with the right, or - even less plausibly - with centrist Democrats and Mr Clinton, Mr Dole will bring legislation to the floor in September. Otherwise, welfare will be lumped into the broad budget Bill.

The crucial factor in the quarrel is the party's radical activist wing, a small minority in the country but one which wields disproportionate influence in the presidential primaries. The result has been a bidding war of ever more draconian welfare proposals, featuring not only Mr Gramm - who wants to end welfare payments to teenage mothers altogether - but also Governor Pete Wilson of California, who would deny benefits for extra children born to mothers already on welfare, and who would deny welfare to immigrants, legal as well as illegal.

All is shamelessly political, as shown by Mr Wilson's highly effective speech last weekend to Ross Perot's supporters (no doves on welfare, either). An explosion of out-of-wedlock births, largely caused by "the promiscuity of welfare mothers", was the biggest single threat to the nation: "A foreign power bent on ruining America could not have designed a more destructive system than the one Washington has imposed on the American people."

In this case, however, an extreme threat to national security will not draw an extreme response. For one thing, a clampdown on unmarried teen mothers could bring about what the militant Christian segment of the right hates above all else: an increase in abortion.

Furthermore, any draconian measure on its own would be certain of a Clinton veto, while welfare reform, contained within a comprehensive spending package, would be a bargaining chip between the White House and Congress to avoid a 1996 budget "train wreck" that would shut down the federal government. Most important of all, on welfare as on most else, America's majority resides in the centre. Left to themselves, Mr Dole and Mr Clinton could probably work out a deal on welfare quite easily.

In the meantime, 32 of the 50 states have already been permitted to introduce their own reforms. Mostly they are modest: time limits on payments, the use of welfare payments to subsidise wages paid by a private employer, and a requirement that teenage mothers live with their families.

These may fall short of turning over federal programmes to the states entirely, under the block grant system that is favoured by the Republicans. But the trend towards devolution is unmistakable.

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