The crux is whether legal immigrants are eligible for disability payments under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Under the budget deal, so long as an immigrant arrived here before August 23, 1996, a future disability can qualify him or her for disability checks.
But the Ways and Means plan would allow disability payments only to those who were already getting them last August. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that, between last August and next year, more than 100,000 legal immigrants will have become disabled. If the Ways and Means plan prevails, they will lose cash benefits.
The National Immigration Law Center stresses this cutoff would hammer older immigrants as they struggle with afflictions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Admittedly, the first line of assistance for immigrants should be the relatives and others who sponsored their immigration requests. But for disabled immigrants who came here under the old rules, and whose sponsors hit hard times themselves, the safety net ought to remain.
Defenders of the new plan stress a kinder, gentler part of it. Under the 1996 welfare law, immigrants who were already getting SSI checks last August will have to go through an eligibility review that would look at their level of disability. The new plan would drop that review.
But that's not much of a concession because experts believe the vast majority of elderly immigrants on SSI will retain the benefits upon review.
This GOP retreat on immigrants has been rejected by the American Association of Retired Persons and other groups of older Americans.
Congress must reject it as well, or else President Clinton must use his veto. It's not that every jot and tittle of the budget deal need be sacrosanct. It's that the bipartisan plan was right on this point, and the Ways and Means Committee is wrong.