Republican anger over President Obama’s directive to grant states flexibility on implementing welfare reform has hit the campaign trail, and the White House is offering rankled Republicans a response: Get over it — your own party’s leaders, including Romney himself, asked for those waivers.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote a letter to Republicans (PDF) reminding them of their party’s own prior support for state leniency in implementing welfare reform. She argued that in 2005, Republican governors wanted even more flexibility than Obama is now willing to grant.
“For years, Republicans and Democratic Governors have requested more flexibility in implementing welfare reform so they can meet their states’ specific needs,” she wrote Wednesday to House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and Senate Finance Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who have unveiled legislation to block the move. “In 2005, 29 Republican governors requested ‘[i]ncreased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit’ so they might more ‘effectively serve low-income’ Americans. Certain elements of the proposal endorsed by the 2005 Republican governors were very far-reaching and would not be approved under the Department’s proposed waivers.”
Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts, was a signatory to that letter. It was also signed by other prominent Republican governors and recent presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Mark Sanford, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.
Romney’s spokesperson Andrea Saul defended the ex-governor against the White House.
“They’re wrong,” Saul told TPM. “Governor Romney has always been a strong supporter of welfare reform’s work requirements. As governor, he led a state that had previously been exempted from some of those requirements, but he pressed to align the state program with federal law and vetoed a proposal to move in the other direction. President Obama’s efforts to gut welfare reform are just another of his attempts to return to the failed liberal policies of the past that have prolonged our economic crisis, created record levels of long-term unemployment, and swelled the rolls of Americans dependent on government assistance.”
The squabble began last week after the Department of Health and Human Services announced a state waiver program from work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program so they can test new strategies to meet the law’s goals of moving residents from welfare to work. The directive made clear that states will be denied or rescinded the waivers if they fail to meet the aims of the law.
“[I]f a governor proposes a plan that undercuts the work requirements established in welfare reform, the plan will be rejected,” Sebelius wrote. “No plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be considered or approved.”
Republicans are nevertheless keeping up the heat, accusing Obama of “gutting” a central pillar of the 1996 law that ended welfare as an entitlement by slapping work requirements and time limits for recipients. Republican governors such as Rick Scott (FL) and Terry Branstad (IA) also criticized the president for attempting to be more lenient with them.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.