CHN: TANF Bill to Hit Senate Floor Next Week
With the latest extension of the federal welfare law due to expire on March 31, the Senate passed a bill on March 25 to extend TANF for another three months. Debate on full renewal of the law is scheduled to begin on Monday, March 29. No votes will be taken the first day.
Prospects for Senate floor action remain uncertain. Negotiations among Republicans and Democrats have proceeded fitfully, but more progress has been made on bipartisan agreements for amendments to the TANF bill than on most other issues before Congress this year. There is strong bipartisan support for an amendment to be offered by Senators Snowe (R-ME) and Dodd (D-CT) 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. The child care amendment is expected to be the first one offered. Because the $6 billion is paid for (by raising revenues through the extension of customs user fees), it will only require a majority vote.
Democrats have wanted to see the results of the child care amendment before accepting time agreements on the remaining amendments. Members of both parties are preparing between 30 and 40 amendments, although decisions on how many will be taken up await further negotiations. Some of the amendments under consideration may end up in the manager’s amendment, a set of changes prepared by Senator Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Items in the manager’s amendment are generally agreed to without floor debate.
In addition to the increase in child care funding, advocates have been seeking improvements to allow more effective preparation for work and to restore benefits for lawfully present immigrants that had been eliminated in the 1996 welfare law. Senators are working to increase from 12 to 24 months the amount of vocational education that counts towards the work requirement. There is a strong bipartisan effort to allow more time for parents struggling to overcome severe barriers to employment to receive rehabilitation services if the state considers it appropriate. Senators will seek to restore Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) benefits to legal immigrant children and pregnant women. A majority of the Senate supported restoration of health benefits as an amendment to the Medicare prescription drug bill, but it was not retained in the final legislation. Another amendment being prepared would allow states to use federal TANF funds to assist legal immigrants. More than half the states have used their own funds to provide assistance to poor legal immigrants, but maintaining these benefits solely with state funds is increasingly difficult as states face budget shortfalls.
Other amendments that are expected would allow states to avoid penalties for failing to meet the rising federal work participation rate if they show a certain level of improvement; give states more credit for placing parents in jobs with higher pay (making it easier for states to meet the work participation requirements and avoid penalties); allow states to provide income to parents who care for their own infants at home; make changes in tribal TANF; make changes in the marriage promotion funding in the Senate Finance Committee bill; and increase state by state data collection to measure the well-being of children under TANF policies.
Advocates are concerned about the possibility of an amendment to expand the “superwaiver” provision in the bill. The superwaiver provision in the Senate Finance Committee bill would allow states to combine and change program rules for TANF, child care, and the Social Services Block Grant. An amendment might add the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) or other programs, increasing concerns that basic eligibility and benefit provisions could be restricted with no federal control. There is some speculation that an amendment would be offered to increase required work hours to match the 40 per week in the House bill. Low-income advocates would prefer to see an amendment to reduce the work hours back down to current law.
Improvements are urgently needed, especially because the harsh provisions in the House legislation (HR 4) are likely to push a conference agreement between House and Senate in a negative direction. Proponents of improvements need to remain focused on strategies to prevent losses in conference.
Angry disputes over many other pieces of legislation have added contentiousness to the negotiations around TANF. Democrats continue to press to bring up votes on issues such as overtime pay and restoring expired federal unemployment insurance benefits whenever the opportunity presents itself. The Republican majority has resisted these efforts, and progress has been scuttled on important bills. TANF could fall victim to similar conflicts.
In the meantime, the end of March will still bring the expiration of TANF if the House does not agree to the simple 3-month extension passed by the Senate. So far, Representative Herger (R-CA), chair of the subcommittee that writes TANF legislation, has introduced two extension bills that include controversial provisions from the House TANF bill – one steeply increasing the work participation rates required of states; the other including marriage promotion funds. If the House balks at approving a simple extension, the prospect of delayed TANF funding to states will elevate tensions still further. Poor families needing cash assistance, child care, and help to prepare for work will find it painful to be caught in the middle of such a dispute.
Now is the critical time for advocates to call their Senators and urge them to make improvements to TANF. Click here to email a letter to your Senators from the Children’s Defense Fund web site.