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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Returning to Campaign Trail, Romney Presses Welfare Attack


ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. - Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail on Tuesday to press a theme that his campaign had hit earlier in the day with a new advertisement, accusing President Obama of gutting the work requirement at the heart of the federal welfare program, a message designed to peel away middle-class votes from the president.

“I hope you understand,'' Mr. Romney said at a factory here, “President Obama in this last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare. That is wrong. If I'm president I'll put work back in welfare.''

Mr. Romney seized on a previously little-noticed memorandum issued by the Obama administration last month, which Republicans say does an end run around a bipartisan welfare overhaul passed under President Bill Clinton in 1996 that was widely credited with reducing dependency.

The Obama campaign and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the directive, said Republicans were engaging in distortions. The administration order allows states to seek waivers from parts of the work requirements for “experimental, pilot or demonstration projects.” The department said a number of states, including two with Republican governors, Utah and Nevada, had requested the waivers.

The obscure issue - a rare venture by Mr. Romney into social policies other than health care - shows how he and the president are in a tough fight for middle- and working-class voters, with whom this issue may resonate. Mr. Obama has said that Mr. Romney's tax proposals would unfairly burden the middle class, and at a fund-raiser on Monday, he called the proposals “Romneyhood,” suggesting that they took from the poor and gave to the rich.

The new line of attack comes as Mr. Romney prepares for a bus tour of swing states beginning Saturday i n which he will highlight “the Romney plan for a stronger middle class.''

In seizing on welfare, a theme that aides said Mr. Romney would continue to amplify in the coming days, the candidate invoked Mr. Clinton as a bipartisan figure in an implicit contrast with Mr. Obama, whom Republicans portray as overly liberal.

Mr. Romney also seemed to aim at white blue-collar voters by criticizing welfare without work as an invitation to government dependency and irresponsibility.

“There is nothing better than a good job to help lift a family, help people to provide for themselves and to end this incredible culture of dependency,'' Mr. Romney said here. “We must include more work in welfare.''

The federal welfare program created in 1996, known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, put a limit on how long families could receive benefits and required recipients to work or prepare for work. The money is distributed by states, whose feet were held to the fire by Washington in order to receive the financing.

An outcry about the administration directive, issued on July 13, was first raised by conservatives, including Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who wrote that the changes would “bludgeon the letter and intent” of the law.

But in a letter last month to Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, Ms. Sebelius denied that the directive would water down work requirements. To qualify for a waiver, a state's governor must guarantee to “move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state's past performance,'' she wrote.

Mr. Romney referred to his experience as Massachusetts governor here, saying he fought “time and time again” against the Democratic legislature, which sought to weaken work requirements for welfare recipients.

But Mr. Romney also was among 29 Republican governors who sought in 2005 to receive waivers for their welfare programs. Ms. Sebelius wr ote that some of their requests were “very far-reaching and would not be approved under the department's proposed waivers” issued last month.