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FURY MARKS HOUSE DEBATE OVER WELFARE

Stick Rush Limbaugh, F. Lee Bailey and Camille Paglia in a phone booth and turn up the decibels to an ear-splitting roar.

You'd echo the bedlam of 435 politicians arguing about welfare reform, a subject loaded with political dynamite.

There may be places in America where you could stage a civil, informed dialogue about unwed teen-age mothers and welfare cheats. The U.S. House floor isn't one of them.

It's unnerving that Republicans ramrodded a welfare bill through the noisy chaos, affecting the lives of 35 million people, one-fifth of them children.

But tempers and egos turn the debate over welfare, the most explosive issue in the "Contract With America," into a melee over class, morals, abortion and race.

Democrats are furious that Republican kings of the hill gagged them to one-minute sound bites.

The fury intensified because Republicans are touchy that they're portrayed -- rightly, I suspect -- as Scrooges punishing the poor to pay for the rich's tax cuts.

At one stage of the food fight last week, Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., a crusty septuagenarian who 51 years ago jumped with D-Day paratroopers, blew up at Republicans muzzling his side.

"Will you get these highly paid members to sit down and shut up," boomed Gibbons. "Y'all sit down and shut up!"

"Is petulance a proper form for a member of Congress?" injected Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.

"I'll be petulant as I want to!" roared Gibbons, cheeks flaming. "Boo if you want to, make asses out of yourselves! Let 'em boo, Mr. Speaker."

Amid the high-volume emotion, Democrats resorted to the doomsday weapon: The Hitler Analogy.

Comparing Republicans' welfare scheme to the World War II Holocaust, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., chanted, "They're coming for the children, they're coming for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled. . . . "

"An absolute outrage to compare Republicans with Nazi Germany," bellowed Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla.

Later, though, Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., slurred Republicans again: "Hitler had a propaganda minister who said tell a big lie often enough, it becomes the truth. They're lying that they're going to help poor children and mothers. What's next -- castration, sterilization?"

"The hysteria of the dying welfare state," Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, said.

Race mixes into the volatile equation. Out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed to 68 percent among blacks. But African-American Congressmen Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and Melvin Watt, D-N.C., savaged GOP welfare shifts as punishing poor children. "A mean, mean bill, a hoax," said Watt.

Then there's abortion, a hot-button issue splitting off Catholic and pro-life support on grounds that stripping away payments for mothers under 18 could increase desperate abortions.

What's behind this welfare free-for-all?

Sure, Newt Gingrich rants, "Civilization can't survive when 12-year-olds are having babies, 15-year-olds shooting each other, 17-year-olds with AIDS, 18-year-olds unable to read their diplomas, conditions all created by welfare."

Newt left out floods, famine and pestilence. But Newt & Co., playing to white, middle-class constituents who provided their 1994 conquest, don't have the total answer in their Tough Cop approach.

Republicans kicked welfare back to states, leading to the disparities of the 1950s. They want to break the dependency cycle by cutting off cash aid to teen-age mothers and women who have additional children while on welfare.

Everyone from Clinton to Gingrich to 50 governors agree that work is the answer to welfare. That's the Republicans' flaw. They seem mean-spirited when they punish without remedies -- training, day care and jobs.

"You throw women off welfare," said North Carolina's Watt, "but will anybody show me where this bill provides jobs?"

Nobody did.

Yes, the welfare brawl was noisy.

Only the voices of children born into bleakness are silent.

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