WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday proposed an overhaul of the nation's poverty programs, the first of several policy plans intended to unite the fractured Republican Party, but his agenda was immediately overshadowed by questions about Donald Trump.
The proposal, unveiled at the House of Help City of Hope, an alcohol and drug treatment program in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, would make changes to welfare, food and housing aid, among other programs, to increase work requirements, make the aid more efficient and allow states to make more decisions about how it is distributed.
As Ryan announced the plan with participants in the program by his side, he faced repeated questions about the presumptive Republican nominee's latest controversial comments. In response, Ryan said Trump made the "textbook definition of a racist comment" in saying an American-born judge isn't qualified to preside over a case because of his Mexican heritage.
Ryan stood by his endorsement of Trump, saying he would be a better president to enact his agenda than Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump has said U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel can't be impartial in lawsuits against Trump University because his parents were born in Mexico and Trump wants to build a wall along the border. Trump's legal team has not sought a recusal of the jurist.
Ryan endorsed Trump last week after a lengthy delay, making clear that his support is largely due to the fact that a Republican president could help him enact his longtime policy goals.
Overhauling the nation's welfare and nutrition programs has long been a priority for Ryan, who also plans to release a national security plan on Thursday. Policy plans on regulations, the Constitution, health care and taxes will roll out in the coming weeks.
The Wisconsin Republican said he has discussed his agenda with Trump, who has similarly argued that Democrats have failed the poor. Trump has given few specifics on how he would deal with poverty issues, though, beyond creating new jobs and leaving Social Security intact.
Along with several House committee chairmen, Ryan met with House of Help City of Hope's founder, Shirley Holloway, and later praised her for working with addicted individuals and helping lift them out of poverty. Ryan contrasted that approach with treating the symptoms of poverty through welfare programs.
"They are not isolating the poor, they are elevating the poor," Ryan said of Holloway's organization.
Republicans won't immediately translate most of these proposals into legislation. But the idea is to set the stage for the future if a Republican should become president. Ryan says Republicans need to better define what they are for, not just what they are against.
Ryan says major change is needed because he believes current programs haven't made much difference in poverty levels and Washington is measuring success by how much it spends, not how much it helps.
The idea is to create incentives for states to improve programs, for more beneficiaries to work and for employers to provide more work. Among the policy suggestions is to consolidate some federal food aid and housing aid programs, though the plan does not lay out exactly how that would be done or which programs would be consolidated.
Some of the proposals, such as scaling back the Obama administration's stricter nutrition rules for school meals, are already in motion. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation along party lines last month that would allow more flexibility to schools in serving meals and reduce the number of free and reduced price meals served in some schools.
Democrats immediately dismissed Ryan's proposal.
"Sadly, beneath the sugary rhetoric of the poverty proposal unveiled today, Republicans are advancing the same callous, trickle down policies they've been pushing for years," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The story has been corrected to show the name of the facility is House of Help City of Hope.
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