By Mike Lillis - 09/20/12 08:14 PM EDT
GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is either uninformed or just devious when it comes to his attacks on President Obama's new welfare waivers, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charged Thursday.
Behind Romney, Republican leaders have hammered Obama's nascent waiver program, accusing the administration of “gutting” the work requirements included in the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform law championed by former President Clinton.
"It's really hard for me to understand [how] a person who would be president would go out and either speak without knowledge or without integrity on a subject," Pelosi said of Romney during her weekly Capitol press briefing. "It's simply a misrepresentation."
The welfare debate has swirled since July when Obama's Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced a new program granting states more flexibility to run welfare, officially known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. The agency said it “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”
The agency included a list of sample projects available to states, including those “that demonstrate attainment of superior employment outcomes if a state is held accountable for negotiated employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements.”
Republicans pounced, arguing that the changes are an indication that Obama wants to relax the requirement that a minimum number of welfare recipients either be employed, in training or seeking work to receive benefits.
The bitter debate has highlighted both the intense partisanship of the current political environment and the level of distrust Republicans have for the Obama White House. Indeed, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has vowed that no waivers will be granted unless states can demonstrate that whatever changes they adopt will increase the number of working welfare recipients by at least 20 percent. Republicans simply don't believe her.
"The president and congressional Democrats claim that waivers will be issued only to move more Americans from welfare to work," Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, said Thursday in a statement. "But the administration's track record suggests otherwise."
Still, Republicans have long called for more state power under the TANF program. Indeed, Romney himself had pushed for more state flexibility as governor of Massachusetts.
In a 2005 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Romney joined a long list of Republican governors in backing legislation to reauthorize TANF, emphasizing that it must provide “states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations.”
It's a trend that hasn't been lost on Democratic supporters of Obama's waiver program, and Pelosi on Thursday was quick to bring it up.
"The governors, including Republican governors, have asked for the waiver, and the waiver is accompanied by strict requirements that lead to job creation," she said.
Romney, for his part, has defended his call for more state power under TANF, arguing that he never intended it to roll back work requirements.
“I am all in favor of flexibility for states,” he said last month. “I am not in favor of reducing the work requirement.”
The welfare debate has dredged up a number of uncomfortable issues related to race and class – issues compounded by Romney's charge, recently unearthed, that 47 percent of voters are "dependent on government" and don't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Many Democrats have accused Romney and the Republicans of highlighting Obama's welfare waivers simply to rally white, blue-collar voters to the polls in November.
Pelosi on Thursday didn't go that far, but she suggested that much more than policy is at play.
"What message are they sending? What population are they trying to reach?" she asked. "This is really a bad thing that they're doing."