WASHINGTON - The Senate, overriding protests that overhauling welfare would run roughshod over the poor, completed congressional action Thursday on a Republican bill to end six decades of guaranteed cash assistance.
By a vote of 78-21, the Senate sent the bill to President Clinton, who said Wednesday he will sign it after wavering for weeks and having vetoed two previous welfare bills.
"This legislation is the best chance we have today to provide hope for a future for those families and children in our society who are otherwise without hope," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
The vote followed hours of debate in which outraged Senate opponents - knowing in advance that their effort was futile - waged a furious and sometimes sarcastic battle targeting the White House as well as the Republican-designed legislation itself.
As the vote began, 10 protesters shouting "Shame! Shame!" and blowing whistles from the visitors' gallery shocked senators into silence. About two dozen U.S. Capitol Police officers - prepared for the outburst in advance.
The demonstrators did not identify themselves in the chamber. Earlier, a New York City-based homeless advocacy group called Housing Works had told reporters that protesters would disrupt the Senate vote. Dan Nichols of the Capitol police said the 10 were charged with disrupting Congress.
The bill ends the six-decades-old federal guarantee of open-ended assistance to the poor while saving taxpayers an estimated $54 billion over six years.
It sets a lifetime limit of five years of welfare per family, require an able-bodied adult to work after two years but allow hardship exemptions for up to 20 percent. States would get block grants to run the programs and as well as the authority to set most of the rules.
On the Senate floor, the attacks against the bill and Clinton's embrace of it were led by Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.
"The current batch in the White House now busily assuring us that they were against this legislation all along are simply lying, albeit they probably don't know when they are lying," Moynihan said. "They have only the flimsiest grasp of social reality, thinking anything doable and equally undoable. As, for example, the horror of this legislation."
Rather than reform welfare, the former Harvard professor said, the bill "terminates the basic federal commitment to support dependent children in hopes of altering the behavior of their mothers ... with absolutely no evidence that this radical idea has even the slightest chance of success."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., said the package will "reorder our confused and confounding system of welfare."
"A world spinning out of control will be brought back onto its proper course," he said. "It will return to order not through the power of Washington but through the power of personal responsibility and work opportunity."