The House voted Thursday to block the Obama administration's decision to let states waive the current work requirement for welfare recipients.
Members approved the Republican resolution of disapproval in a 250-164 vote, after a bitter debate in which Republicans charged President Obama with trying to change the law without consulting Congress, and Democrats said Republicans were raising the issue to help GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney after his widely criticized remarks about people on welfare. Nineteen Democrats voted for the resolution.
Republicans said the rule, from the Department of Health and Human Services, would gut a central element of the 1996 welfare reform law that created the current system under which federal welfare benefits are delivered through block grants to states. That law requires 50 percent of a state's welfare recipients to be working, or undertake efforts to prepare for work, such as training or looking for a job, which Republicans say is a critical component.
"The requirement that 50 percent of a State's welfare caseload work or prepare for work was a central part of the bipartisan 1996 welfare reforms signed into law by President Clinton," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said. "Those reforms were overwhelmingly successful in reducing welfare dependency and poverty while increasing work and earnings."
Camp also said the change is "unlawful," as the work requirement is in a part of the law that cannot be waived, and because the change was found to be a rule that was never notified to Congress.
Democrats argued repeatedly that several "fact checkers" in the media have found that GOP claims that the change would gut the welfare reform law are not true. This argument rests on the idea that the waivers could only be granted to states who are looking to put in place a new welfare program that meets the 1996 law's goal of getting more people to work.
Republicans rejected that by noting the Obama administration made a unilateral decision to create the waiver without any consultation with Congress despite the practical changes made in the implementation of the law. They added that this came after years in which former administrations said they did not believe they had any authority to waive the work requirements.
"I don't understand why my friends on the other side of the aisle are defensive about this," said Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). "This is nothing to defend. This is to say the White House made an error in engaging substantively in downgrading work requirements for welfare, and rather than being defensive about it, say, 'Look, they messed up.' "
Democrats spent most of the debate arguing that Republicans were dodging more pertinent issues such as the farm bill and the uncertainty over taxes, and called up the resolution in order to score political points as the November election nears.
Several Democrats went further by saying the vote was meant to help Mitt Romney's election chances, particularly after Romney's much-maligned comment that 47 percent of voting Americans believe they are entitled to welfare and other benefits.
"Just because the candidate for president made another mistake, we're going to have to now legislate something to show that we think he makes any sense," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said, describing what he presumed to be the motive of Republicans. "It is wrong and it ain't going nowhere."
"This is a paid political broadcast brought to you by the majority side of the Ways and Means Committee," Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said work on the welfare resolution was typical of the GOP-led Congress that has left several key issues until after the election.
"The bill before us today exemplifies the do-nothing Republican Congress," he said. "Once again, Republicans are choosing to focus on a political message over serious issues like jobs, middle-class tax cuts or a farm bill."