Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Approves Historic Shift on Welfare

WASHINGTON -- Calling the latest version of welfare reform legislation the "last best chance to fundamentally change the system," U.S. President Bill Clinton said he will sign the landmark measure that sets in motion the biggest change in cash benefits for poor families in six decades.

Hours later Wednesday, the House voted by 328-101 to approve the bill, which will limit payments to five years and give states broad flexibility to create programs designed to move recipients from welfare to work.

"Today we have an historic responsibility to make welfare what it was meant to be -- a second chance, not a way of life," Clinton told a news conference.

Although the Senate will not vote on the package until late Thursday, the president's decision ended the suspense over the legislation's fate.

The measure cancels the 61-year federal commitment to provide cash assistance to every eligible family with children. States must require most recipients to work within two years of applying for cash assistance and cut recipients off after five years.The legislation gives states a year to implement their new programs or risk losing federal assistance. Legal immigrants who currently receive benefits will have a year's grace period before they become ineligible.

The action climaxes an intense 3-year struggle over the shape of the safety net for America's poor families, most of them headed by single mothers.

"July 31 has got to go down as independence day for those who have been trapped in a system ... which has corrupted their souls and stolen their futures," said Representative Clay Shaw, the primary author of the Republican-devised welfare overhaul.

The White House, Congress and the nation's leading governors all played a role in developing the new welfare framework, which attempts to break the culture of dependency by requiring recipients to work instead of providing them an open-ended source of subsistence-level support.

Clinton vetoed the first two versions of welfare reform that the Republican Congress sent him and had expressed reservations about the current package. His advisers were deeply divided, with some warning that the bill was too harsh and should be vetoed, and others arguing that his signature was a political imperative as the president seeks re-election.

The final plan more closely reflects a Republican vision than Clinton's proposals, but the Republicans have compromised on many provisions to win his support. After pledging to "end welfare as we know it" in his 1992 election campaign, Clinton was under great pressure not to cast another veto before facing voters again. His Republican challenger, Bob Dole, called Clinton's announcement "an election-year conversion."

Despite Clinton's endorsement, House Democrats split down the middle on the measure, voting 98-98. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri voted no, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota announced he would vote against the measure.

The overall measure is estimated to save $55 billion over six years, with most of the savings from food stamps and in benefits to legal immigrants.

Clinton criticized as "deeply disturbing" both the legal immigrant and food stamp provisions. He said he planned to introduce legislation next year to try to correct those parts of the bill, but members of Congress were skeptical that such improvements could be made.

"I wouldn't want people back home to be under any illusions," said Democratic Representative Robert Matsui.

Matsui, who voted against the bill, said his greatest worry was that the states, which will now have the greatest control over the welfare system, will not provide enough protections for children of welfare recipients who are cut off.