"If Washington were different and ... people could sit down and reason together, it's not impossible to think that Republicans and Democrats would come to an agreement on waivers similar to what the administration is proposing," said Ron Haskins, codirector of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. As a senior House GOP aide in the 1990s, Haskins helped write the original welfare-to-work legislation.
The Obama administration says it does not want to waive work requirements, but instead primarily federal administrative rules, including some that tie up state caseworkers who could be serving clients.
The 1996 welfare-overhaul law replaced a federal entitlement with grants to the states, while putting a time limit on how long families can get aid and requiring recipients to eventually go to work.
Caseloads fell for years before the recession; only about two million families are on what is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It is dwarfed by the Earned Income Tax Credit, the main antipoverty program, which supplements the earnings of low-income families through the tax system and helps nearly 27 million households.
Former GOP aide Haskins said the Obama administration was wrong to roll out its waiver plan without first getting the advice and consent of congressional Republicans. But he added, "There is merit to what the administration is proposing, and I don't see how you can get to the conclusion that the waiver provision undermines welfare reform and it eliminates the work requirement."
It's not a blanket waiver, because states would have to apply one at a time for exemptions from certain requirements of the welfare-to-work law. And states must show their plans would move at least 20 percent more people to work.
Moreover, with or without waivers, there's a cap on the amount of federal money available to states for welfare - about $17 billion - so it would not make much financial sense for a state to waste any of those dollars.
Such details seemed to have no place on the campaign trail.
A Romney ad Tuesday that accused Obama of quietly unraveling the work requirements was quickly slammed by the White House as dishonest. The debate took a further spin when former President Bill Clinton, the Democrat who signed the bipartisan welfare changes into law, came to Obama's defense.
Then Wednesday came the counterpunch from the Republican National Committee, which put former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a conference call with reporters. As Clinton's GOP counterpart during the 1990s welfare debate, Gingrich had high praise for the former president while heaping disdain on Obama, whom he dubbed "the anti-Clinton."