WASHINGTON (AP) - Renewing a political fight from last year's presidential campaign, House Republicans passed a bill Wednesday that would prevent the Obama administration from waiving work requirements in the landmark 1996 welfare reform law.
Republicans say President Barack Obama is trying to weaken work requirements in the law - a claim that is disputed by administration officials and Democrats in Congress. The bill passed on a mostly party-line vote of 246-181.
The bill also authorizes funding for cash welfare benefits through the end of the year at current levels. Without an extension, federal funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would run out March 27.
Senate Democrats are expected to oppose the waiver provision. The House passed a similar provision last year and it died in the Senate. Instead, the Senate has included funding for TANF in a larger bipartisan bill that would finance the federal government through September.
Last summer, the Obama administration announced it would be willing to grant states waivers of some of the law's requirements but only if governors can show they can accomplish the same welfare-to-work goals using different methods.
No state applied for a waiver. The White House said they were "deterred in part by inaccurate claims about what the policy involves."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seized on the issue during the campaign, accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform. The issue became the subject of many campaign ads.
"Clearly the best way out of poverty is a job and it is critical that our laws both foster job creation as well as ensure welfare is always a pathway to work," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "That's what this legislation is about, ensuring that work and other productive activities remain a central part of the TANF cash welfare program."
Democrats claim that Republicans are distorting the goal of the waivers. The administration said the waiver program was a response to concerns from state officials that the law's work requirements created bureaucratic hurdles to placing welfare recipients in jobs.
"Flexibility was requested by governors on both sides of the aisle to allow states to test new, more effective ways to place more people on a path to self-sufficiency," the White House said in a statement. "The administration is disappointed that the bill includes this unnecessary bar to innovative welfare-to-work strategies."
The 1996 welfare act created the TANF program, provided states with block grants to carry out welfare reform, limited how long families may receive cash benefits and required that 50 percent of families receiving benefits be participating in work activities.
Welfare caseloads declined after the law was enacted. In 2012, an average of 4 million people received benefits each month.
In a July letter to congressional leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that to qualify for a waiver, governors must show how they will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. States must also show clear progress toward that goal within a year.
"What HHS proposed was allowing states in demonstration projects to see if they could undertake further innovations to help people move to work," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. "I just think it's a mistake to take the campaign of last year and project it onto the floor of the Congress."
Republicans contend that the Health and Human Services Department was acting illegally in offering the waivers, saying the welfare law bars the administration from waiving the work requirement.
"Some have said that this is a waste of time because no state has even asked for a waiver," Camp said. "Preserving the work requirement in welfare is never a waste of time. It was good bipartisan policy when President Bill Clinton signed it into law and it is good sound policy today."