WASHINGTON -- Rep. Paul Ryan stepped off the campaign trail Thursday to join House colleagues voting against a welfare regulation change that the White House and Republican governors had hoped would help people move from government assistance to work.
Republicans for years said they had hoped to get changes in the landmark welfare reform of 1996 that would grant states flexibility in how they measure work requirements, with the idea being to focus more on outcomes than process.
The Republican Governors' Association under then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney asked for such waiver authority in 2005. And last year, after the Obama administration asked states for suggestions on how to get the federal government out of the way of getting people into jobs, the GOP administrations of Utah and Nevada asked for flexibility in the work requirements.
But soon after President Barack Obama's Health and Human Services department proposed the change, conservatives attacked it as gutting welfare.
Numerous independent analyses found that charge false, noting that the rule change requires states who want to try pilot projects to show they are raising the numbers of people leaving welfare for work.
Still, House leaders on Thursday stuck with their game plan, and lawmakers voted 250 to 164 to disapprove of the administration effort.
"It was one of the most successful parts of our welfare reform plan," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "To gut these rules at this point in time is a giant step backwards."
Ryan, the vice presidential candidate and congressman from Wisconsin, said in a statement, “Most Americans understand that work, not dependence on government, is the path to dignity and self-respect that welfare recipients deserve. President Obama’s actions suggest he believes otherwise. I am proud to have cast a vote in favor of ensuring that work remains an inviolable part of welfare.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pointed to a Congressional Research Service report that found the population of people getting food stamps who would normally fall under work requirements had spiked because certain restrictions were relaxed as part of the stimulus act of 2009.
"The class of individuals who are eligible for food stamps and would have been subject to the work requirement more than doubled," Cantor said. "The president has consistently supported waiving the work requirement, and this is the result you get."
The stimulus moves were aimed at pumping cash into the economy and buying more time for people while jobs were especially scarce. The new waiver proposal is unrelated.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose welfare department officials testified to Congress that the state wanted the change in 2011, told The Huffington Post during the Republican convention that flexibility is a good thing, and agreed it could be used, for instance, to enroll the refugees that Utah accepts in English language programs. That is not permitted under current rules.
He said that his problem with the Obama proposal was not that it gutted welfare reform, but that it was going around Congress.
Democrats hammered the vote as strictly political.
"This bill has one purpose –- to provide a fig leaf of credibility for a political attack ad that has no credibility," said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"The whole effort is about promoting more work, not less, as eloquently stated by President Clinton, who led efforts on welfare," Levin said, referring to the Democratic convention speech of the former president who lambasted the "gutting" charge. "The administration has heard from state officials that if they are allowed to focus more on outcomes and less on paperwork, they can put more people to work. So HHS said to the states, prove it. "
"This is the same Republican Party that passed their own, much broader version of welfare waivers in 2002, 2003 and 2005," Levin added, quoting another Congressional Research Sertvice report that found the GOP bills "would have had the effect of allowing [welfare] work participation standards to be waived.”
Levin noted that Ryan voted for those broader waivers. Democrats opposed them, then.
The motion to disapprove of the waiver pilot programs has been proposed in the Senate, but it is expected to fail there, if it comes up for a vote.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.