According to a transcript, Thompson told the Senate Finance Committee in 2003 that "more can be accomplished" with "greater flexibility" under the welfare-reform law known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
He was then serving as Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary under President George W. Bush, and came to the Senate to discuss "the next phase of welfare reform."
"In our proposal," he said, "we establish new state program integration waivers to permit states to further integrate welfare and workforce development programs in order to improve the effectiveness of these programs."
He added, "The proposed waiver authority could apply to many aspects of selected federal programs, including funding and program eligibility and reporting rules, enabling states to design fully integrated welfare and workforce development systems that could revolutionize service delivery."
A policy memo from the Bush White House dated February 2002 explained further, promising "broad state flexibility to design new strategies and approaches for achieving stated program goals" under welfare reform and several other federal assistance programs.
"States will be able to establish or modify eligibility criteria and program rules subject to specific and minimal federal requirements," the memo states.
"In their waiver proposals, states will be required to identify the programs and activities for which waivers are requested, describe how the program purposes will be achieved, and show how the proposal will improve or enhance the achievement of such goals ... Waivers [are to be] granted on the basis of likelihood of success."
Under the Obama administration's new policy, waivers would allow states to test new approaches to improving employment among low-income families under TANF. In exchange, states would have to prove that their new methods are effective, or lose the waivers.
Federal health officials noted that the new policy comes in response to requests from states — both Republican and Democrat — for more flexibility under TANF's bureaucracy.
"This new flexibility will strengthen welfare reform rules and the effectiveness of state efforts to connect families with work," wrote George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, in a blog post. "Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be approved."
On Wednesday, Thompson called the policy part of "the president's leftist ideological rampage" and argued that it would "relieve work requirements in welfare reform."
"It is not an exaggeration to say the president’s decision to hand out checks without requiring work is blatantly calling the question on what kind of nation we will be," he wrote.
In response to The Hill's request for an explanation to his apparent change of position, Thompson's campaign issued a statement:
"As both Secretary and Governor, Tommy Thompson has been the leading voice in the welfare to work effort, understanding that it's work and not handouts that helps people out of poverty."
Thompson served as Wisconsin's governor for 14 years and as HHS Secretary from 2001 to 2005.
He is facing three other Republican candidates in an August Senate primary. The winner will run against Rep. Tammy BaldwinTammy BaldwinLawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March Trump says he supports Dem ‘Buy America’ bill Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups MORE (D-Wis.) to fill the seat Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) will vacate.