Bush Touts Welfare Reform

As part of a strategic shift to domestic issues, President Bush Friday took his plan to move more Americans off welfare and into the workplace on the road and urged Congress not to abandon programs promoting abstinence and marriage.

With the Republican-controlled House to vote next week on welfare reform, Mr. Bush met with former welfare recipients at a community center in Columbus, touting plans to tighten work requirements, cut the number of Americans on welfare and lengthen their work week from 30 to 40 hours.

Mr. Bush also promoted hotly contested initiatives encouraging abstinence by teens, saying "it works every time," as well as a $300 million plan to counsel couples on welfare to stay married "for the good of our children."

"I recognize that not every marriage is going to survive," Mr. Bush said. "But I firmly believe that in order to make the welfare program work, in order to help people, wherever couples seek help in trying to figure out how to save a marriage, our government ought to be responsive to that need."

Democrats accused Mr. Bush of playing election-year politics with welfare, and called for more funding, state flexibility and access to education.

Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Human Resources Committee, and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a leading advocate for state control of welfare, told a news conference the Bush plan would be counterproductive and put states in a straight jacket.

"It is a typical example of Washington's one-size fits all," said Cardin. "We should be trusting the states to develop the type of program that is best for their constituents."

"This bill is a step backward," said Dean. "It is not welfare reform. It is politics."

Others called Mr. Bush's plan "welfare in wonderland," accusing him of using welfare to promote a conservative social agenda.

"Women do not need to be pushed into marriage by the federal government. We need every opportunity for a good education that will in turn lift us out of poverty," said Tracy Colunga Hollingsworth, a former welfare recipient and organizer for the Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness in Los Angeles.

Mr. Bush has divided his time between urgent meetings at the White House on the crisis in the Middle East and campaign-style swings through key states, underscoring Republican worries the war on terrorism may not be enough to carry them to victory in the November congressional elections.

This week he visited Michigan and Wisconsin, promoting education reforms popular with voters in an effort to help Republicans retake the Senate and retain control of the House.

In Ohio, Mr. Bush sought to counter criticism of his welfare plan from state officials and congressional Democrats, as well as to raise $2.1 million for Gov. Bob Taft, who is seeking re-election, and other Republican candidates in the state.

The official appearance on welfare reform allows the White House to split the travel cost for the trip between taxpayers and the GOP, reports CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer.

Since 1996, the number of people receiving cash aid has plummeted by 56 percent. The overhaul was achieved with bipartisan support and Congress must now renew the program.

But critics of Mr. Bush's welfare plan accuse him of placing too many strict demands on states and providing too little money, especially for the extra child care that will be needed if mothers are working longer. Mr. Bush has not included any more day care funds in his welfare budget.

Many state governors have said they fear Mr. Bush's more stringent requirements will be much more expensive, and that the new rules could force them to redesign or scuttle programs that have proven successful in the last five years.

Mr. Bush wants to increase the percentage of welfare recipients required to have jobs or take part in related activities by 5 percent a year until it reaches 70 percent in 2007.

"I've heard them complain that's too high a goal," he said. "It's not too high a goal if it helps a person. If it brings dignity into someone's life, it is not too high a goal."

Mr. Bush said his welfare plan included provisions allowing state and local governments to consolidate a range of welfare programs, such as food stamps and housing. House Republicans — have embraced his plan.

But House Democrats, led by Cardin, have offered an alternative that would reward states that do a good job getting welfare recipients into good jobs, seeks more money for child care and would restore legal immigrants' eligibility for benefits, eliminated in the 1996 reform.