Republicans press harder to cut welfare

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Washington - Republicans have stepped up their pressure for a radical overhaul of the US welfare system that would impose tough new qualifications for many schemes, scrap others and transfer most of the responsibility for running welfare away from the federal government to individual states, writes Rupert Cornwell.

In his first major examination of the issue since Republicans took control of Congress, President Bill Clinton spent five hours on Saturday discussing welfare reform with governors and Congressional representatives of both parties. The session, however, only served to underline how Republicans intend to press on with their own proposals, irrespective of the plans of the President.

Cutting the $60bn the US spends on welfare each year is part of the Republican party's self-appointed mission to scale back government and proof of its sincerity in promising to balance the federal budget. It is also at the heart of an even deeper constitutional debate, over a wholesale transfer of power from the centre to the states.

Although the tussle is in its early stages, once more the President is having to run merely to stand still. In mid-1994, towards the end of the previous Democrat-controlled Congress, Mr Clinton tabled his own proposals to "end welfare as we know it" - essentially by requiring recipients to take a job after two years. But the legislation, eclipsed by the struggle over health care reform, never got off the ground.

Despite differences between a more ideologically driven, conservative Congress and more pragmatic Republican governors, momentum is building behind the notion of putting the states in charge of welfare, to be paid for by grants from Washington. Thus the states would run both food stamps and the largest single welfare programme, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Firm proposals could be voted upon by autumn, said Republican Bob Packwood, of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Republicans agree with Mr Clinton's two-year limit, but would stiffen it by ending some forms of assistance, not just for illegal immigrants, as under Proposition 187 approved by California's voters two months ago, but also for legal immigrants who are not US citizens.

Much of the argument surrounds how much discretion the states should enjoy. Democrats say that if they impose flat caps on welfare outlays, some families would be thrown off the rolls and on to the streets.