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As welfare reauthorization heads to the Senate floor this week, now in its tenth extension in four years, two distinct camps have emerged among welfare watchdogs: One favors keeping up the negotiations between Senate and House, pushing for a compromise. The other backs keeping the bill out of negotiation—even though committee leaders have threatened to cut TANF’s budget if it isn’t revised.

The proposed Senate bill ramps up funding for child care by $6 billion, and broadens the definition of work activities to include medical treatment and rehab, changes favored by advocates for the poor. Here in New York, it would support efforts by the local officials to better accommodate disabled or mentally ill recipients.

The House proposal, on the other hand, is widely regarded as draconian. It would mandate that families who run afoul of program requirements lose their entire welfare grant (currently, only the parent’s share is nixed). It would also mandate drug testing of clients, and offer little new child care funding.

While it’s too early to say what would be traded during conference bill negotiations between the two houses, Shawn Fremstad, deputy director of welfare reform and income support at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says it won’t be dire. Because the Senate bill came out of bipartisan negotiation, says Fremstad, “there’s an argument that they’re more invested.” And, adds Fremstad, “there are some hopeful signs that [the administration] will be reasonable about this.” Besides, he says, revamped legislation is less likely to be under-funded.

The alternative is allowing the current TANF bill to stand and risk that congressional leaders will make it part of budget reconciliation, in which committees are given dollar amounts to carve off their budgets however they see fit. Because it’s part of the budget process, reconciliation is technically charged only with making changes to funding levels, not policy. And that, say advocates on the other side of the fence, offers its own measure of safety.

“In reconciliation, there are limits to the kind of policy changes you can make,” said Margy Waller, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Even if cuts had to be made, said Waller, “I think we’d be better off with that than with what we’d get out of a conference committee [reauthorizing welfare].”

Rachel Gragg, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Community Change, a low-income advocacy group, agrees. She questions Fremstad’s suggestion that a new TANF bill would be safe from the axe. She notes that the House committee dealing with welfare is already being asked to make $15 billion in cuts. “When I look at the House budget resolution, I don’t know how you can make the math add up,” said “The House has done everything but skywrite in neon letters, ‘We plan to cut these programs.’”

Cuts or no, everyone agrees that, with Republicans in charge of welfare’s fate, advocates are left to make the best of a bad situation. “I just think Congress can do less damage though reconciliation than through the conference process,” said Gragg. “That’s not the conversation I’d like to be having, but that’s where we are.”

—Tracie McMillan

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