"THE MOST BRUTAL ACT of social policy since Reconstruction" is how Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, characterizes the welfare legislation that will soon land on Bill Clinton's desk. Could the president dream of signing such a bill into law?

Not a chance, if he listens to a loosely affliated group of cabinet officials and welfare analysts inside and outside the administration. They want Clinton to veto or at least dramatically modify the bill. But their effort is running into a brick wall at the White House. There's near unanimity among the president's top advisers that he should not veto welfare reform for the third time.

Last year, during a similar internal struggle between political and policy aides, liberals leaked a Health and Human Services study purporting to show that Republican welfare legislation would push 1.2 million children into poverty. That proved so embarrassing that Clinton went back on his earlier support and vetoed two separate welfare bills.

This time, the White House instructed HHS not to prepare projections of the bill's effects. On three occasions, Moynihan has asked the White House to assess the legislation and been rebuffed. But the liberals scored a minor coup when the Urban Institute, a respected Washington think tank, released an analysis of the House legislation on July 26 claiming it would increase the number of poor children by 1.1 million.

Clinton strategist Dick Morris and vice presidential chief of staff Ron Klain urge signing whatever Congress sends the White House. And while chief of staff Leon Panetta and senior aide George Stephanopoulos privately question some provisions of the legislation, the only top aide to recommend a veto is Harold Ickes. Labor secretary Robert Reich has worked to restore funding for work programs and legal immigrants, with little success. A more strident opponent of the legislation is Donna Shalala, HHS secretary. She and Moynihan are in regular contact, but both have been cut out of the White House debate. Moynihan still talks with White House officials and traveled with Clinton to New York on July 25, but after a July 11 session with Panetta, he told the New York Times, "There's nothing in prospect that [Clinton] wouldn't sign."

Outside the administration, opponents of the legislation have been quiet in public but active behind the scenes. Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (and Clinton's choice for the numbertwo job at the White House budget office in 1994) has worked with moderate Senate Republicans and House Democrats to soften the GOP legislation. The lingering question is whether the Clintons' friend Marian Wright Edelman will publicly campaign against the bill. Last year, her open letter to Clinton in the Washington Post had a huge impact. She still talks to Shalala -- Edelman's husband is a top Shalala deputy -- but hasn't gone further thus far. White House officials fear she may lead a last-minute, full-scale liberal insurrection, wielding the Urban Institute study to intimidate Clinton.

The consensus among the opponents is that Clinton will sign the Republican bill, but no one can be sure. The president's pronouncements of the past three and a half years offer little clue as to his true instincts. Having failed to introduce his own legislation until 18 months into his term, then having resisted Republican efforts to toughen his bill, he changed his posture once Congress switched hands. He embraced a GOP bill far to the right of what his administration had proposed, only to veto two successive versions of the legislation after liberals revolted.

Republicans have made it easier for Clinton to sign the new bill. Spending on child care has been increased, block grants for child nutrition and foster care have been eliminated, and cuts in Supplemental Security Income have been modified. Congressional Republicans say these changes were intended to prevent the Democrats from portraying the GOP as extremist and insensitive. Whether the strategy will work remains to be seen, but one influential analyst, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, charges Republicans have moved too far left. He complains that their bill has extremely weak work requirements, fails to promote sexual abstinence, and continues to subsidize single parenthood. Rector's patron in the Senate, Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, cited these reasons for voting against the welfare bill. He was the only Republican to do so.

Republicans are acting smug. "We win no matter what happens," said House speaker Newt Gingrich on July 24. If Clinton vetoes the legislation, they will paint him as the chief obstacle to welfare reform, someone who talks conservative but governs liberal. If he signs the bill, they will take all the credit while he faces the liberals' wrath.

There are two problems with the latter scenario. First, a mid-July Gallup poll shows Clinton with a 49-31 lead over Dole on who would better handle welfare reform. Thus if he signs the bill, the president is likely to get much of the credit. Second, it's not clear the Left will make things ugly for Clinton if he signs. David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League in Washington and an ardent opponent of the legislation, concedes, " The political consequences of signing the bill are nil." Indeed, the president already has the support of most labor unions and black advocacy groups like the NAACP And what remains of the Left fears Dole and Gingrich more than a second Clinton administration, during which it could presumably extract its pound of flesh for staying mum. Besides, asks Isabel Sawhill, a former Clinton administration welfare analyst, "Where is the Left going to go?"

The next step is for House and Senate Republicans to reconcile their minor differences and pass a single bill. Clinton has 10 days, minus Sundays, to act on the legislation once he receives it, and Republicans mean to manage the timing so that he won't act during their convention. Administration welfare analysts guess that if the Republicans don't toughen the bill in the conference committee, Clinton will sign it. But in a July 24 letter to the president, Gingrich and Senate majority leader Trent Lott wrote that they would not support any further weakening. Indeed, it's expected the Senate bill will move slightly rightward, and the final result will be somewhere between the House and Senate versions.

What will it mean if the bill becomes law? In breaking with the majority of congressional Democrats (only 30 House Democrats voted with the Republicans), Clinton would affirm his moderate credentials and help cement an already promising reelection bid. Dole would lose a powerful argument in his effort to portray the president as a hopeless liberal. And congressional Republicans would signal that they can be trusted to govern, boosting their quest to keep control of the House and Senate.

But the signing of the welfare bill would mean the end of the New Deal, Moynihan says. Indeed, the complaints of Rector and Faircloth notwithstanding, if the Republican welfare legislation becomes law it will rank as the greatest legislative achievement of this Congress. Ideas like limiting welfare benefits to five years and abolishing the federal guarantee of cash payments to single mothers were not even contemplated by congressional Republicans as recently as three years ago. Today, they win the support of much of the Democratic party. That exasperates liberals like Moynihan, but it's the latest reminder that, while the legislative accomplishments of the Republican Congress may have been slim, the GOP has been stunningly successful at setting the domestic agenda.

by Matthew Rees

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