The House voted Wednesday to block the Obama administration's attempt to waive a requirement that people must work or prepare for a job in order to receive federal welfare benefits.
The bill is a reaction to last year's guidance from the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS), which told states that the so-called welfare-work requirement can be waived.
Republicans criticized the waiver as an attempt to gut what they said was one of the most important pieces of the 1996 welfare reform law. That law turned the federal welfare program into a block grant to states under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
It also required that within each state, 50 percent of all families receiving help under TANF must be working or looking for work — states can be fined if they fail to hit that target.
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said that reform and others "led to more work, more earnings, less welfare dependence, and less poverty among families headed by low-income single mothers."
"Yet, without any thought of consulting Congress, as is required by law, the administration saw fit to unilaterally waive the work requirements and risk the progress that has been made in the last 16 years," Camp said. "Simply put, this bill would block waivers, so HHS cannot allow States to bypass the work requirements and financial penalties Congress put in place in 1996 for failing to engage welfare recipients in work."
Camp and other Republicans added that they don't believe the Obama administration had any authority to waive the work requirement, especially through a simple guidance document from HHS.
And while both parties have explored the possibility of waiving the rule in certain cases, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) said the administration's unilateral decision to waive it destroyed the chances of a bipartisan agreement.
"That announcement completely undermined bipartisan negotiations in our committee about ways to strengthen this program," Reichert said.
Democrats defended the Obama administration's policy by noting that HHS has said it would only let states waive the welfare-work rule if they can come up with a plan to boost the number of people moving from welfare to work by 20 percent.
"The President is not dropping welfare-work requirements, he's allowing the states to experiment, and you'd think our Republican friends would be entirely in favor of letting governors experiment in getting people back to work fairly quickly," Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said.
Other Democrats charged that by pushing the bill, Republicans were essentially trying to re-fight their battle against the waiver that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to fight during his campaign.
But Ways & Means ranking member Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said Romney's arguments were shown to be inaccurate.
"After the HHS spoke, the Romney campaign decided they might have a campaign issue," Levin said. "So they essentially put together a campaign ad with the fallacious claim that what the Obama administration was trying to do was to weaken welfare reform.
"The instantaneous reaction of fact checkers was four Pinocchios, pants on fire, complete untruth."
House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which is unlikely to consider it.