Republicans losing popularity over welfare cuts

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The Independent Online

President Bill Clinton's popularity is on the rise and the Republicans are running into trouble over their plans to cut welfare.

As the Republicans introduced a bill in Congress yesterday designed to reduce federal spending on school lunches and abolish welfare for unmarried teenage mothers, a poll showed Mr Clinton's approval rating had increased to 46 per cent over the past month. According to the poll, for CNN and USA Today, 59 per cent disapproved of the way Congress is doing its job.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll had the President's approval rating at 52 per cent, while 59 per cent agreed with the statement that congressional Republicans "will go too far in helping the rich and cutting needed government services that benefit average Americans as well as the poor".

It is on the welfare bill, due to be voted on by the House of Representatives tomorrow, that the Republicans have run aground.

The Republican plan, part of their much-vaunted "Contract with America", is to save more than $60bn on federal spending over the next five years by:

n eliminating cash payments to unwed mothers under the age of 18, children whose paternity is not established and additional children born to welfare mothers (53 per cent of children on welfare were born out of wedlock);

n the transfer of federal funding for school lunches to the state governments in the form of lump-sum grants; and,

n the abolition of welfare benefits for legal immigrants who have not taken steps to become US citizens.

"Our bill encourages work and discourages illegitimacy, and at the end of five years more children will be in two-parent, working families instead of on welfare," said the House Republican leader, Dick Armey of Texas. Yes, say the bill's critics, but where does that leave abortion, which the Republicans say they so vehemently oppose?

The US Catholic Conference issued a statement last Sunday from the nation's bishops arguing that a Republican bill cutting aid to unwed teenage mothers would encourage abortion, as well as punish children for the sins of their parents.

The bishops' views, which echoed those of other "pro-life" groups from whom the Republicans derive much of their electoral support, have forced the bill's supporters to backpedal. Yesterday Republican congressmen were busy fine-tuning last-minute amendments designed, for instance, to provide vouchers for young mothers to buy cribs, baby food and nappies.

On the school-lunch issue, the Democrats have been attacking the Republicans with relish. "It is immoral to take food from the mouths of the children of this country," said Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, at a protest on Sunday which brought thousands of schoolchildren and their parents to Capitol Hill.

One protester, quoted by USA Today, observed, as numerous Democratic congressmen have already done, that if the school-lunch funds are transferred en bloc to the state governments, who was to stop the governors from using the money to renovate their offices?

The school-lunch money will not only be transferred from Washington under the provisions of the Republican bill, the amounts earmarked for distribution to the states will fall short of the total amount deemed necessary by President Clinton in his budget proposals last month. Mr Gephardt claimed that the Republicans' budget cuts would deprive 2 million children of school lunches over the next five years.

The Republican caucus dismissed Sunday's rally as "a sad display of exploitation and propaganda", maintaining that it was "a big lie" for the Democrats to claim that the Republicans were taking food from the mouths of the babes. Big lie or not, it will be the Republicans and not the Democrats who will be on the defensive during the next two days of debate. And that marks a shift in the political landscape.