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In a Monday appearance on Cable News Network, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton slammed the "extremist" Republican majority in Congress for shredding school lunch programs.

"I don't think that rich people need the money as much as kids need the lunch and our students need the education," Mrs. Clinton said.

She was echoing a charge made by her husband at a photo opportunity with school children having lunch at an Alexandria, Va., school two weeks earlier.

The trouble is that the Republican welfare reform bill actually authorizes more spending on school lunch and infant nutrition programs than President Clinton's current budget would.

"We are growing school lunch 4.5 percent over the next five years," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa. "In 1995 the Clinton administration grew school lunch just 3.1 percent. And in 1996, they project growth of only 3.6 percent."

"That (Democratic) school lunch barrage has hit us square in the middle," said Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. "The Democrats are doing a better job selling their position than we are. They're working the big lie."

The day after Mrs. Clinton's show, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said his research shows the GOP bill will deny 477,000 children in New York State benefits in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

True; and not true.

Gephardt is correct when he says the children won't get any money under AFDC. The Republicans want to abolish this 60-year-old entitlement program. But that's the only fact of Gephardt's projection that is accurate.

The Republicans would replace AFDC with a Family Support Block Grant to the states. Spending for this block grant would not match increases that would be paid through the year 2000 under current law.

Yet, according to a new Congressional Budget Office study, total spending for the proposed block grant would increase from $16.382 billion in 1996 to $16.708 billion in the year 2000, nationally, under the Republican plan.

Even though the Republicans expect the welfare rolls to diminish, New York State would be guaranteed its 1994-level share through the year 2000.

Taken together, all welfare-related spending would go from $168.4 billion a year this year to $238.8 billion in 2000, under the Republican bill.

The largest share of this growth would be Medicaid, the 1963 program providing doctors' and hospital care for the poor. Medicaid spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will grow 150 percent in the next five years.

The Democrats have also been implying that the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program and foster care would be shut down.

The fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is that projected spending growth is being reduced.

Under current law, spending on all welfare-related items would increase by about $90 billion a year if nothing is done. The Republican bill cuts that growth to $69 billion a year.

The GOP House welfare reform bill does not actually cut spending for child support, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and foster care, as a parade of Democrats have charged.

But the story is not getting across.

"People don't take the time to listen to the drawn-out explanations the Republicans are offering for what they're doing," said political scientist Jim Gimple of the University of Maryland.

Gimple, an outside adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said the GOP suffers because of its own rhetoric. Republicans have been saying they want to cut spending, Gimple said. So when the Democrats charge the programs are being reduced, he said, that resonates.

"We're trying to make such dramatic changes in the system that it becomes difficult to explain," Nussle said. "They're saying we're being mean-spirited. What they're really saying is that (the Democrats) don't trust real people to do the job. They don't trust states, they don't trust their neighbors, they don't trust school districts; we don't trust you to manage your own money."

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