WASHINGTON (AP) _ The states have amassed approximately $3 billion in unspent federal welfare money, but say they need to save the money in case of an economic downturn and to provide special services to people who need it most.

Under the overhaul approved in 1996, the federal government gives the states a set amount each year to take care of its poor rather than pay for each person who needs public assistance _ no matter the cost _ as it did for 61 years.

The House Ways and Means Committee said Monday in a statement that states have a total of $6.2 billion in unspent welfare money, but that counts funds states have already obligated for specific payments. Counting only unobligated money, the total is just over $3 billion.

``The next phase of welfare reform is the key to permanently lifting more families from poverty and giving them opportunities for brighter futures,'' Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., chairwoman of the committee's welfare panel, said in a statement.

Johnson released a report by the Congressional Research Service detailing the unspent money.

Republicans argue that states have enough money without new spending proposed by President Clinton. In his budget, Clinton seeks billions of dollars to provide more child care and to offer job training for those hardest to remove from the welfare rolls, which have been cut by nearly a third since 1996.

``We'd like to understand the president's reasoning, especially in light of the fact that they'll get another $16.5 billion next year,'' said Ways and Means spokesman Trent Duffy.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, has said he will propose cutting welfare money because caseloads have dropped so fast _ an idea states have vigorously protested.

State welfare balances vary widely. New York has the most unspent money _ $689 million, and Pennsylvania is No. 2 with $245 million. But many states have nothing left over, including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Oregon, Virginia and Wyoming.