Updated 9:30 p.m. ET(CBS News) ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. - Mitt Romney on Tuesday accused President Obama of "taking the work requirement out of welfare," part of an escalating line of attack that also included a TV ad and a conference call with top Romney campaign allies.
Speaking to about 200 people at a precision-parts manufacturer in suburban Chicago, Romney offered praise for former Democratic President Bill Clinton, who worked with a Republican Congress to enact welfare reform.
"They reformed welfare not just to save money, more importantly, they reformed welfare to encourage people to work," Romney said, before pivoting to accuse Mr. Obama of trying to reverse the accomplishment. "That is wrong. If I'm president, I'll put work back in welfare."
Romney is focusing on a memo issued in mid-July by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that will allow states to apply for waivers from certain parts of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The move, sought by several states, is meant to allow states more flexibility in meeting the work requirement. "The Secretary is interested in approaches that seek to improve employment outcomes," the memo says.
The policy drew sharp criticism from several prominent Republicans, including Romney, who called it "completely misdirected" when it was announced more than three weeks ago. His campaign launched a full-out attack on the policy Tuesday, releasing a new ad that says "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check." Politifact rated the ad "pants on fire" the same day it appeared.
The Obama campaign maintains that the new HHS policy does not remove the work requirement. It called Romney's statements untrue and hypocritical and noted that some Republican-led states had sought the new waiver policy.
"The Obama administration, working with the Republican governors of states like Nevada and Utah, is giving states additional flexibility only if they move more people from welfare to work - not fewer," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement emailed to reporters. She also noted that "as governor (of Massachussets), Mitt Romney petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients."
In 2005, Romney joined with 28 Republican governors to ask Congress for welfare waivers similar to those HHS authorized in July. "Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit, and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work," the governors wrote in their letter to Congress.
The eruption over welfare led to rival conference calls featuring top allies and aides of each campaign. Jonathan Burks, Romney's deputy policy director, echoing the campaign's new TV ad, said the Obama administration has "essentially made this into a blank check from the federal government to the states, with no work requirements at all."
John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff in the White House, said on the Obama campaign call that the Romney TV ad is "completely false." Obama is trying to administer the welfare program with the same goal as Clinton had, "which is to give people the dignity of a job," Podesta said. He added that he spoke with Clinton before the call and "he completely agrees with my analysis."