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Seeking to take back the initiative on overhauling welfare, Republicans are accusing President Clinton of playing politics in his surprise support of Wisconsin's tough welfare-to-work program.

"Because there are many differences between your current national welfare proposal and the position you seem to have taken yesterday concerning the Wisconsin proposal, there is ample ground to be confused about where you stand," four House Republican leaders wrote Clinton on Sunday.Clinton surprised Republicans in a radio address Saturday by endorsing a welfare program initiated by GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin that would enforce strict work requirements for people now on welfare.

Monday, White House spokesman Mike McCurry denied Clinton had reversed himself. Republicans "are sputtering, just sputtering away there, because this is not something new," McCurry said.

The president said that over the past three years, his administration has cleared away federal rules and regulations to permit 38 states "to build effective welfare reforms of their own" that meet his criterion of protecting children.

Republicans accused Clinton of trying to undercut Sen. Bob Dole, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, who plans to make a major welfare address in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Dole is expected to propose mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, Newsweek magazine reported.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Clinton was treating Americans as "suckers" and urged Dole to expose the president's campaign as "perhaps the most shameless in the history of this country."

Dole, noting Clinton's endorsement of the Thompson plan shortly before his planned visit to Wisconsin, quipped: "If we go to enough states we may straighten out the country."

In their letter, the four House Republicans - Speaker Newt Ging-rich of Georgia, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Texas and Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman E. Clay Shaw of Florida - criticized the welfare proposals Clinton made in his 1997 budget plan.

They said his work-requirement proposal had too many loopholes, that it gave non-citizens continued access to benefits and that it maintains "the current perverse incentive structure" where states get more money when welfare rolls increase.

"Your bill's continuation of inflexible federal controls guarantees that the worst features of today's failed welfare regime would continue indefinitely," they wrote the president.

Republican plans put forth last year would give states block grants and permit them to design their own programs, would limit how long people can receive benefits and would deny benefits to non-citizens.

Clinton vetoed GOP welfare bills twice - the first time because he said it did not protect children and maintain minimum federal standards, the second time because it was attached to a balanced-budget bill he found unacceptable.

Republicans promise to come back this spring with another bill giving the states far greater powers to run welfare and Medicaid programs.