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Over the summer, it seemed clear that Congress and the White House would soon agree on welfare legislation that would tinker only slightly with the 1996 landmark reform package. Two weeks ago, however, Congress extended the current legislation until December 31 (it was set to expire on September 30), delaying debate on the program while they deal with budget bills and a possible war in Iraq. With the possibility that November’s elections could put Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, local welfare advocates are preparing for an entirely different approach to the issue come January.

“It’s wide open now,” said Don Friedman of the Community Food Resource Center in New York.

Political prognosticators say they expect the House to remain Republican. The Senate, currently 50-49 Democratic, is considered a true toss-up, with close races for at least four Senate seats. “It’s a tie,” said Thomas Riehle, president of the leading pollster Ipsos-Reid.

If Republicans take the Senate, they are expected to ignore the current leading Senate welfare proposal when they take office in January. (Beltway observers expect that the lame-duck Congress will extend the program for a few more months, shifting the matter to the new Congress.) Passed by the Senate finance subcommittee in June, the bill maintains current work requirements–30 hours a week–and adds $5.5 billion in child care funding over the next five years.

Instead, the Republican Senate would likely enact a program modeled on the bill the House passed in May. Their proposal, virtually identical to President Bush’s, increases the number of hours that welfare recipients are required to work to 40 hours a week, raises the proportion of a state’s caseload that has to meet those work requirements from 50 percent to 70 percent, and adds only $1 billion to child care.

State and local welfare authorities generally oppose these tough requirements–as the city’s own lobbyists told Congress in the spring–arguing it would rob them of flexibility needed to serve their diverse caseload.

The House bill also includes the “superwaiver,” which grants the White House authority to exempt states from federal rules governing almost all of the basic federal benefit programs for low-income people, from food stamps and Medicaid to public housing and welfare.

Advocates in New York fear the fruits of their lobbying in the Senate will soon be lost. “Why would the White House rush this?” asks Bich Ha Pham of the Hunger Action Network of New York. “If they wait until January, they could get the superwaiver, the work requirements, and the marriage promotion money.”

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