ELK GROVE, Illinois (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened a new line of attack on President Barack Obama on Tuesday for waiving parts of a landmark welfare-to-work law, but Obama's team argued Romney had backed a similar move as Massachusetts governor.
Romney targeted Obama's plan to let states seek a waiver from the work requirements of a 1996 welfare law that was a signature bipartisan achievement of former Democratic President Bill Clinton's administration.
Romney's attack, laid out in a new television ad and a topic he addressed at a campaign event in Obama's home state, is aimed at bolstering his charge that Obama's solution to many of America's problems is to rely on government.
At the campaign event in Chicago, Romney vowed to reverse a July directive by the president's Health and Human Services Department that his campaign said was tantamount to gutting the welfare law.
"We will end a culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work," he said.
The White House, which tends to leave it to Obama's campaign team to react to Romney attacks, was quick to leap into the fray, suggesting this is a sensitive issue. White House press secretary Jay Carney called Romney's charges categorically false and "blatantly dishonest."
"This administration's policy will strengthen the program by giving states the opportunity to employ more effective ways to help people get off welfare and into a job," said Carney.
The directive from the Health and Human Services Department allows states to ask for a waiver from the work requirement of the welfare law in order to test alternative strategies that would help needy families find jobs. The aim is to give states some flexibility in how they carry out the welfare law, just as some Republican state governors have advocated, rather than sticking to a rigid formula.
But the health department's decision has generated strong opposition from many Republicans. In the House, 76 Republicans complained in a letter to Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who sought to assure them that states will have to move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.
In a bare-knuckled presidential campaign, such nuances are quickly cast aside, and Romney went after Obama on the issue.
"Obama guts welfare reform," says the video script of the Romney ad, while a voice says: "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
The attack fits in with Romney's strategy to paint Obama as a big-government liberal unable to take the steps he thinks are necessary to tackle the 8.3 percent U.S. jobless rate.
The Obama campaign fought back, arguing Romney had sought even greater flexibility from the welfare law when he was governor of Massachusetts. Obama's campaign circulated a 2005 letter Romney signed along with 28 other Republican governors in support of Senate legislation that would have permitted increased waiver authority.
"The truth is that the President is giving states additional flexibility only if they move more people from welfare to work - not fewer," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith.
But Romney's campaign team said the 2005 letter was a comment on a Senate reauthorization of the welfare program that was pending at the time, and would have increased work requirements from 50 percent participation to 70 percent and would have given states increased flexibility in administering the welfare law.
"But it did not provide a waiver of the core work requirement and the governors were not requesting a waiver of that core work requirement and Governor Romney in fact had vetoed legislation that would have weakened Massachusetts' work requirement," said Romney deputy policy director Jonathan Burks.
The Republican is trying to stay on the offensive after the wealthy former private equity executive has labored to defend his decision not to release more of his tax returns.
The welfare attack, to be played out for the rest of the week, came as the campaign toward the November 6 election intensifies. Romney goes on a four-day bus tour on Saturday that will take him through the battleground states of Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.
At the end of the trip, Romney may announce his vice presidential running mate.
Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Jackie Frank