CHN: Senate TANF Debate Starts With Strong Bipartisan Vote For Child Care Funding; Bill Then Stalls

The long delayed bill to reauthorize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) hit another snag last week when the Senate was unable to agree on how the bill should move forward. The Senate began an abbreviated debate on HR 4 on Monday, March 29 before Majority Leader Frist (R-TN) pulled the bill from the floor three days later, after failing to win a procedural vote to close off debate. Before the bill was pulled, the Senate voted by a margin of 78 to 20 to increase child care funding by $6 billion on top of the $1 billion in new funds in the bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee.

Although senators filed more than 50 amendments to the bill, only the child care amendment sponsored by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Chris Dodd (D-CT) was voted on. The child care vote, which garnered more than 30 Republican senators, represents an important victory for advocates. Thousands of families are on waiting lists for child care across the country and fewer than one in seven children eligible for federal child care help receives it.

After the child care vote, Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on how the debate should move forward. Two major issues are at the heart of the stalemate. First, Senate Democrats are wary they will be shut out of a conference committee on the bill, pointing to recent conference committees on the Medicare prescription drug bill and the energy bill. The House-passed TANF bill is much more restrictive than the Senate Finance Committee bill, and Democrats fear that a conference agreement would look much more like the House bill.

Second, Senate Democrats are eager to vote on a handful of amendments to help working families (such as raising the minimum wage, restoring federal unemployment benefits, and protecting overtime pay). Democrats have offered these amendments on various bills considered in the Senate this spring. Most Senate Republicans, reluctant to take these votes in an election year, charge the amendments are not germane to the TANF debate.

The amendments Democrats are hoping to vote on would gradually increase the minimum wage to $7.00 per hour (sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA)); extend the Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation program (sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA)); and protect workers from new Department of Labor rules limiting overtime pay (sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)).

Majority Leader Frist offered a deal that would set the rules of debate for both the TANF bill and a corporate tax bill also being considered. The deal would have allowed Democrats votes on overtime, minimum wage and unemployment, but would have limited all other amendments on both bills to germane amendments. Under the deal, both bills would have to be completed by a set time and the Democrats would agree to appoint conferees for both bills. Democrats rejected this time limits for consideration of TANF and would not agree to name conferees before the bill was finalized. They instead offered to come up with a finite list of amendments on both bills and work through each amendment. The majority rejected the counter-offer.

In the end, Senator Frist signaled the impasse by filing a cloture motion (which would have placed a time limit on debate.) As expected, the cloture vaote failed to receive the necessary 60 votes (the vote was 51 – 47, largely along party lines). The majority then pulled the bill from the floor.

While the next steps are not clear, Congress has extended the current program until June 30, 2004. Advocates are encouraged to continue working to get support for amendments improving the bill. Some key amendments filed include:

* Graham (D-FL): to restore health benefits to legal immigrant children and pregnant mothers.
* Levin (D-MI), Jeffords (I-VT) and others: to increase the allowed number of months in vocational education to 24.
* Jeffords, Smith (R-OR), Collins (R-ME), Chafee (R-RI): to give states more flexibility in serving recipients with disabilities.
* Lincoln (D-AR): sense of the Senate motion that the final TANF bill should not increase hours of work beyond the hours required in the Senate Finance Committee bill.
* Alexander (D-TN): to provide flexible demonstration projects that measure outcomes on earnings, job retention and child well-being.
In addition, Republicans filed amendments making the work hours and work participation rates more restrictive, and encouraging marriage.

For More Information
To read the Senate debate and for a list of the amendments filed, go to the Thomas web site and look at the Congressional Record for March 29, 30 and 31. (Most of the amendments were filed on Wednesday, March 31). A very helpful intern at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities compiled all amendments filed – it runs more than 100 pages. To get a copy, e-mail Jen Beeson at

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