Driving toward a summer recess, Congress is nearing completion of a pile of legislation, capped by a historic welfare overhaul and election-year bills to fight terrorism, increase the minimum wage and broaden access to health insurance for millions of people.
The spurt of legislative activity punctuated what had been a sharply partisan, generally unproductive session of Congress so far this year and should provide campaign fodder for both parties as they gear up for their national nominating conventions and head into the fall elections."I'm still somewhat numb from what all has happened in the last few hours," Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., one of the authors of the welfare bill, told reporters shortly after the House passed the measure Wednesday. "This plurality was tremendously important to show the resolve of the American people that we are going to change this welfare system."
"This is a remarkable vindication of the direction we're trying to help all of America get to," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.. "I think is a tremendous achievement."
The welfare bill, which would end the six-decades-old federal pledge of open-ended aid to the poor, passed 328-101 shortly after President Clinton's announcement that he would sign the bill after weeks of wavering.
Ninety-eight Democrats joined the House's Republican majority, and the Senate was expected to approve the measure Thursday afternoon. (Utah Reps. Jim Hansen, Bill Orton and Enid Greene voted for the bill; see story on A2.)
During his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton promised to end the current welfare system, but he vetoed two previous GOP welfare plans, calling them too harsh.
Clinton said the current plan had "serious flaws" but he would sign it because "I believe we have a duty to seize the opportunity it gives us to end welfare as we know it by moving people from welfare to work, demanding responsibility and doing better by children."
Acknowledging the concerns of the Democratic left, Clinton said the bill was "far from perfect" and that he would work to relieve cuts in food stamps and benefits for legal immigrants.
Likely Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole called Clinton's move "an election year conversion."
"There's not a dime's worth of difference between the bill he talked about today than the one he vetoed a few months back," Dole said while campaigning in Nashville, Tenn. "The only difference is it's 97 days before the election."
In other congressional actions Wednesday:
- House-Senate conferees reached agreement on a bill designed to guarantee access to medical insurance for workers switch-ing jobs. Republicans said they expected to send the measure to the House floor as early as Thursday and hoped to have it cleared for Clinton's signature by the end of the week.
- The health-care agreement was expected to clear the way for passage by the end of the week of a separate bill to raise the minimum wage by 90 cents an hour, in two stages, beginning Oct. 1.
- Key lawmakers reached agreement with the White House on a package of anti-terrorism measures that would expand wiretapping authority, tighten airport security and allow prosecution of suspected terrorists under federal racketeering laws.
- House and Senate negotiators worked out an agreement to provide tens of millions of dollars to upgrade municipal water systems and, for the first time, require that citizens be told what contaminants are in their tap water.
Republicans celebrating passage of the welfare plan said the vote also signaled a change in fortunes for their party and their agenda.
"We have shifted the whole emphasis of what is mainstream politics in the United States," Shaw said. "This lopsided vote . . . sets the norm for politics throughout the rest of this century and well into the next century."
Some Democrats complained bitterly, however, saying the welfare vote was a betrayal of American ideals.
"What we're doing is wrong, just plain wrong," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., shouted during a passionate speech on the House floor. "This bill will put 1 million more children into poverty."
The welfare bill, which is expected to save the federal government up to $56 billion over six years, would set a lifetime limit of five years of welfare per family and require most able-bodied adults to begin working within 24 months of entering the program. It eliminated a $3 billion work program the House had approved.