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House's tough choice - a costly bill or a sparse one. WELFARE REFORM DILEMMA

It's coming down to a hard choice on welfare reform in Congress. House members, who will start five hours of debate on the subject Thursday, are stuck between a package that many think is too generous (costing $6 billion) and one that just as many think is too sparse (costing only $1 billion).

The key segment of the debate will focus not on issues of poverty, money, or welfare dependence. Rather it will revolve around a parliamentary ruling, namely, that the only change the House can make in the $6 billion Democrat proposal is the complete substitution for it of a $1 billion Republican plan.

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A growing number of representatives are dissatisfied with both bills. Not only is the $6 billion proposal too expensive, they say, but it does not require able welfare recipients to work. On the other hand, the other provides too little money to finance the training and child-care services that would give welfare mothers the ability to leave the welfare rolls.

If House Democrats can make the parliamentary rule stick, they might then be able to pass their more costly bill, although it is sure to be replaced by a more modest measure when the Senate takes up the matter, no earlier than next year.

But if the parliamentary rule is overturned, most sources foresee such a proliferation of amendments that welfare reform will likely die in the House.

What a middle band of House members seeks is a compromise that would require recipients ultimately to take a job, and meanwhile provide them with training and child-care services necessary to become employable. Chances of getting House approval this week for such a measure, and one exists, are slim.

Several states are beginning to institute such compromise welfare projects. They are receiving increasing attention from welfare specialists, who see them as containing at least the seeds of ideas that Congress eventually should adopt.

One such program, under way for two years, is in Illinois. People receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children there who have no children under age six are required to participate, as are recipients of money from a state-funded program in Chicago.

The thrust of the Illinois program is long term: ``The main purpose is to make sure the rolls of the future are reduced,'' says Edward T. Duffy, director of the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

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Yet the program, called Project Chance, appears to be registering short-run success. Program officials say that in the past two years they have placed 80,000 people in jobs; an 18-month check of some graduates showed only a third had returned to program rolls.

These officials say that between 35 and 40 percent of welfare recipients who found jobs were the hardest to place, with no work experience and little education, and thus were likely to be on welfare for years. Nationally, at any one time half the money spent on welfare is used for long-term recipients. They are ``a very difficult population'' to achieve success with, Mr. Duffy says. But ``if you're going to be successful at all, that's where your resources have to go.''

To ease the financial transition from welfare to what usually are low-paying jobs, most mothers in the Illinois program are eligible for day care for up to six months after leaving the welfare rolls, and eligible for subsidies for up to 18 months through medicaid.

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