CHN: TANF Reauthorization Debate Heats Up

Senate Prepares for Finance Mark-Up House action on the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (TANF) culminated on May 16 with the passage of the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act of 2002 (HR 4737). Approved by a 229 to 197 vote, the House bill closely resembles President Bush’s reauthorization proposal, including a “superwaiver” provision that would grant sweeping authority to the Executive Branch to allow states to waive federal rules that govern a range of low-income and other domestic programs.

In addition, the House bill imposes strict work mandates on welfare recipients while providing no new TANF block grant dollars, and while increasing mandatory child care funding by just $1 billion over five years – an increase that would not even keep pace with inflation over that time. The measure would also continue to deny welfare benefits to legal immigrants, require states to terminate a family’s benefits after just two months of failing to meet program requirements, and devote significant TANF resources to marriage promotion activities.

Meanwhile, Senate action on TANF reauthorization is in full swing, with the Finance Committee slated to mark-up a bill as early as the week of June 10. On Thursday, May 23, a group of nearly 20 Democratic senators – led by Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) – outlined their TANF priorities in a letter to Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA). Advocates are pleased with many of these principles, which include maintaining the current 30-hour per week work requirement, providing an additional $11.25 billion for childcare, allowing flexibility for more education and training, and restoring benefits to legal immigrants.

For their part, a “tripartisan” group of senators – John Breaux (D-LA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), James Jeffords (I-VT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) – weighed in with their own set of welfare reauthorization principles on May 2. While many advocates believe that the tripartisan plan does not go far enough in addressing the issues facing welfare recipients, the proposal makes some key improvements over the House bill and President Bush’s plan. Like the principles endorsed in the Kennedy letter, the tripartisan proposal rejects the Administration’s plan to mandate that recipients work a 40-hour workweek, includes increased funding for childcare, and restores TANF benefits to legal immigrants. Baucus and Grassley are expected to incorporate some of the tripartisan principles in the bipartisan bill they will introduce in the next few weeks.

The Work and Family Act (S 2524) – introduced by Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Tom Carper (D-DE) – was referred to the Finance Committee on May 15. Supported by a small group of centrist Democrats, this measure would follow the House plan and the President’s proposal to increase the work requirement for TANF recipients from 30 to 40 hours per week. The measure would also give states the option to restore benefits to legal immigrants, but includes only limited improvements to the meager education and training opportunities available under current law. Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Bob Graham (D-FL), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Zell Miller (D-GA), Jean Carnahan (D-MO), Ben Nelson (D-NE), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) are all original cosponsors of the bill.

In other Senate activity, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Max Baucus (D-MT) introduced a bill (S 2552) on Wednesday, May 22 that holds up as a model Maine’s Parents as Scholars program, a post-secondary education program that has been successful in helping parents transition from welfare to work. The Pathways to Self Sufficiency Act of 2002 would create a similar program in TANF. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) also introduced a bill (S 2548) on Wednesday that would further expand education and training opportunities. Among other things, the measure would lift the 30 percent cap on the number of TANF recipients allowed to participate in education and training and eliminate the time limits currently attached to education and training activities.

In addition, many senators – including Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Russ Feingold (D-WI) – are individually weighing in with Senate Finance Committee members about specific TANF priorities. Congress must reauthorize legislation governing the TANF program by September 30, 2002.

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Temporary Assistance for Needy Families