WASHINGTON -- House Republicans pressed for legislation Wednesday that would push more welfare mothers into jobs, working more hours than ever before, as floor debate began over changes to the landmark welfare overhaul.
With the welfare rolls more than cut in half, Republicans said the 1996 law was a sparkling success and that tougher work rules would move even more families off assistance.
"This is a bill about opportunity for Americans," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said as the House prepared to renew the welfare program.
Democrats argued that leaving welfare was not enough. Most former recipients still live in poverty, they note, even those who are working because the jobs they find pay so little.
Democrats want to let states put more people into education and training, reviving a long-running debate over how best to aid the poor.
"Why is education important for everyone in this country except for people that happen to be on cash assistance?" asked Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a leader on welfare issues.
Democrats said the increased work requirements would force states to create "make-work" jobs to meet their quotas, and they want more money for child care, saying there is not enough now and even more will be needed if more single moms are forced to work.
The Republican bill, which closely mirrors President Bush's plan, includes up to $300 million for experiments promoting marriage and continues to bar legal immigrants from aid programs for their first five years in the United States.
Republicans were set to impose rules for debate that barred votes on any individual issue. Rather, members were voting up or down on the total GOP and Democratic packages.
Action on the measure stalled for hours over a plan that would let states ask for special permission to merge some aid programs -- including housing, food stamps and child care -- and get around federal rules in the process.
Republicans on the Appropriations Committee objected, saying they did not want their decisions about how much money goes to each program to be ignored. That led other committees to demand that money for their programs remain intact, too. So the bill was being rewritten to clarify that dollars could not be moved from one program to another, stripping much of the state flexibility that advocates were trying to create.
That was a victory of sorts for Democrats, who are highly skeptical about the experiments. But overall, Democrats were unlikely to prevail in what shaped up to be a highly partisan issue in the House.
Rather, liberals were turning their attention to the Senate, where moderates from both parties were working on compromise legislation likely to embrace some of what each party wants.
"Thank God there is a Senate," Cardin told reporters.
Most Democrats voted against the bill in 1996, fearing an end to guaranteed benefits would leave many families destitute. They now say a vibrant economy helped the new work-oriented system succeed.
Republicans dismiss Democratic objections by pointing to earlier opposition.
"They're making the same dire predictions for this bill that they made in '95 and '96," said Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.