By Robert Costa
Monday, March 3, 2014

As a direct counter to President Obama’s recent emphasis on the gap between rich and poor, the upcoming House Republican budget will focus on welfare reform and recommend a sweeping overhaul of social programs, including Head Start and Medicaid.

The push, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, returns the GOP’s attention to a policy front that animated the party in the 1990s and signals Republicans’ desire to expand their pitch to voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections. This new effort comes after the party spent months fixated on combating the federal health-care law and engaged in intraparty squabbles over fiscal strategy.

On Monday, Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, published an often stinging 204-page critique of the federal government’s anti-poverty policies, questioning the efficacy of dozens of initiatives and underscoring where Republicans say consolidation or spending reductions are needed.

“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” Ryan said in an interview. “There is no coordination with these programs, and new ones are frequently being added without much consideration to how they affect other programs. We’ve got to fix the situation, and this report is a first step toward significant reform.”

Ryan said the report is a ­prelude to the House GOP’s budget, which will be unveiled later this month, and a preemptive rebuttal to the president’s budget, which will be released Tuesday.

The report, titled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” features analysis of eight areas of federal policy: cash aid, education and job training, energy, food aid, health care, housing, social services, and veterans affairs. Most sections begin with a glance at the state of federal anti-poverty ­programs 50 years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a “war on poverty,” and chart their evolution and expansion.

“This document is a precursor not only of our budget but of our larger project to introduce poverty reforms over the course of this year,” Ryan said. “The president may focus on inequality because he can’t talk about growth. We’re focused on upward mobility, speaking directly to people who have fallen through the cracks.”

Food stamps, low-income hous­ing, and a flurry of other social service programs and tax credits are also targeted in the report. Ryan said Republicans will soon offer specific prescriptions to the problems he outlines. Putting a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda alongside efforts to devise an alternative to the federal health-care law is a GOP priority, he said.

“Let’s have the debate, let’s show where we stand, and then let’s solve the problems,” Ryan said. “It’s time for an adult conversation as well as time to try to pass good, conservative legislation that can make a real difference.”

Ryan’s staff has kept his welfare reform plan quiet — spending weeks polishing the report in the committee’s office in the Cannon Building — as other issues including tax reform, immigration and foreign policy have dominated political talk at the Capitol.

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