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Obama campaign: No policy that 'waters down' work will be considered

The Obama campaign said no state "that waters down work requirements will be considered" for a waiver under the administration's policy, announced last month, intended to give more flexibility to states on how they implement welfare programs.

But it did not answer why it implemented the policy through the Department of Health and Human Services rather than go through Congress.

The issue today became a flashpoint in the presidential campaign with the Romney campaign pushing the issue in a television ad, a subsequent conference call, and an event with the candidate himself.

The announcement was made July 12th in an HHS memo. Republicans on Capitol Hill charged the Obama administration was trying to weaken welfare reform.

The Romney campaign picked up on that today, accusing Obama of wanting to "gut" the 1990s welfare policy. They used it as a political weapon, accusing the president of being to the left of Bill Clinton, the former Democratic president and husband of one-time Obama rival Hillary Clinton, currently serving as Obama's Secretary of State.

Here's a portion of an Obama campaign conference call this afternoon with John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff, and James Kvaal, the Obama campaign's policy director: 

NBC: Hey guys, the waiver memo does though open up the possibility that states could loosen restrictions on work, if approved. Doesn’t that violate the heart of the welfare reform law? And isn’t this going around Congress? Shouldn’t this have been something done through Congress if he [the president] felt this program was really broken?

PODESTA: Let me start and let James, you know, speak for the campaign: as I noted in the beginning, the idea of giving states waivers in order to implement the underlying tenants of policy is something that has been very crucial in designing a successful welfare to work program.  In that context, the secretary is definitely keeping with that tradition.  While there’s flexibility given, it’s been pointed out in this call, the most critical criteria that you actually have to increase work -- you have to put 20 percent more people in work in order to get, in order to get the waiver.  So while there’s administrative relief, the end result is that more people will be working and less collecting a check without work.

KVAAL: I agree with John’s comments, what we’re doing is we’re giving state’s the flexibility to strengthen the program, but in order to do that they have to increase the number of people moving from welfare to work. And more over, Sec. Sibelius has been totally clear in her July 18th letter that no policy that waters down work requirements will be considered.

NBC's Jordan Frasier contributed to this report.