A new line of attack by Republican Mitt Romney against President Obama has brought old antagonists out to battle.
Romney says an Obama administration offer to waive some federal welfare rules for state programs -- an effort, the administration says, to experiment with ways to put welfare recipients into jobs -- ends the requirement that recipients of government assistance must work. That dispute has turned the clock back to 1996, the year a welfare overhaul law was hammered out by President Clinton and then-speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Clinton, who signed the law requiring work as a condition of welfare payments, said Tuesday night that Romney's claim is "not true" and that his campaign ad is "misleading."
Romney's ad 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."
On Wednesday in Des Moines, Romney reiterated the attack against Obama. "He removed the requirement of work from welfare. It is wrong to make any change that would make America more of a nation of government dependency. We must restore, and I will restore, work into welfare," he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called Romney's attack "categorically false and blatantly dishonest." The Obama administration says it does not want to waive work requirements but wants to allow flexibility for states to test programs that may get more people into jobs.
Carney said the waivers are only available to states that increase the number of people moving from welfare to work. The Politifact fact-checking site rated the ad "pants on fire."
Gingrich -- in a conference call Wednesday with reporters arranged by the Republican National Committee -- said that Republicans' "immediate assumption is that (Obama) is setting up a dramatic reduction in the work requirement." The 1996 work requirements were designed "not to be waivable" because Republicans "deeply distrusted liberals who, we were convinced, would go back to the pre-1996 model," Gingrich said.
The Romney campaign has taken up the controversy as part of its broader theme that Obama doesn't understand or value free enterprise -- seen in earlier ads claiming Obama's "you didn't build that" comment displayed a hostility to small business.
The welfare dispute led both Romney and Gingrich to speak favorably of Clinton, who will make the speech nominating Obama at the Democratic convention next month. Gingrich praised Clinton for being willing to negotiate with Congress, and called Obama "the anti-Clinton."
"I hope that every American when they watch Bill Clinton speak, will realize how much weaker and ineffective as president Obama is," Gingrich said.
On July 12, the Obama administration told states they could seek a waiver from federal requirements. Facing GOP opposition in Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius clarified that the waivers would not be granted to states trying to reduce work requirements.
Welfare policy expert Olivia Golden of the Urban Institute says the waiver plan will allow states to avoid cumbersome documentation and spend more time on helping welfare recipients get jobs -- one of the goals of the 1996 legislation.
Golden, who was an assistant health secretary under Clinton, says the Obama administration "pinpointed a need ... to give states the opportunity to look for good ways to be effective in this economic climate, and the need to focus on results in a more intensive way, rather than the needs of the process."
Because of the way the law is written, a court may have to decide whether the waivers are allowable, says Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor.
Schuck says the 1996 welfare law increased employment and cut poverty among single mothers, and the work requirement "is an issue that resonates with lots and lots of middle-class and working-class Americans." If Romney "can depict it as being undermined by a zealous welfare-ist Obama, that may sway some votes," Schuck says.
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