Bush endorses Senate plan to increase aid to charities

Compromise bill drops much of president's `faith-based' initiative

February 08, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush endorsed compromise legislation yesterday that would encourage more charitable giving while sharply scaling back his plan to increase federal funding to religious groups that provide social services.

The bill contains elements of the "faith-based" initiative that Bush promoted last year as one of his top priorities. For example, it would provide more than $8 billion in tax breaks over the next two years to individuals and businesses who give money to charities.

But the bill jettisoned a core element of his proposal that would have offered more government contracts to religious groups whose hiring practices discriminate against people who do not share their beliefs. Many Democrats complained that such a provision would allow publicly funded organizations to discriminate against minorities.

The president praised the bipartisan agreement yesterday as "an opportunity to capture the compassion of the country" and "focus it in the right direction."

"The government should not discriminate against faith-based programs," Bush said after meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office. "It should encourage them to flourish."

But stumbling blocks remain before the legislation reaches his desk. The House version - approved on a party-line vote last year - would allow groups that discriminate in hiring to tap into federal programs, such as for drug treatment, from which they are currently excluded.

Members in both parties who fought over the House bill last year expressed displeasure with the Senate compromise.

House Republicans said they would fight to have the hiring provision included when the final legislation is hammered out.

"A little more faith will be required to pass this bill," warned Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Republican conference committee. "But I have the utmost confidence that once the Senate finally passes a bill we can work out our differences."

Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat, said he was concerned that the Senate bill left the door open for the government to fund groups that discriminate.

"The language in the bill is a little slick," Scott said. "If the intent of the legislation is that groups cannot discriminate, let's put that language in there."

The Senate measure permits the estimated 70 percent of tax filers who do not itemize deductions to claim up to $400 per individual and $800 for couples in charitable giving for the next two years.

The bill also would forbid denying federal funding to faith-based groups offering social services because of their religious name, religious symbols in facilities or religious language in their charters.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and a chief sponsor of the legislation, called the bill a "constitutionally appropriate way" to help religious charities.

The language in the Senate bill still went too far for some critics.

"It is simply wrong for a publicly funded job-training facility to post a banner that reads, `Only Jesus Saves,'" said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, also calls for increasing social services block grants by more than $1 billion over the next two years, from $1.7 billion this year to $2 billion next year and $2.8 billion the year after. Boosting funding for those grants was a major demand of Democrats.

The total package carries an $11 billion price over two years, a potential sticking point because lawmakers have not figured out how to pay for it.

Supporters of the bill, including Bush, want it to be dealt with as an emergency measure, saying that donations to charities not related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have dropped sharply. The "emergency" designation would permit funding the initiative without cutting money from other programs.

The president proposed his "faith-based" initiative shortly after taking office, saying that religious charities often are better at performing social services than secular or public organizations.

Bush called for tax breaks as well as an extension of the "charitable choice" provision of a 1996 law that made religious organizations eligible to receive funding from certain welfare programs.

Bush's plan would have opened scores of other government programs to faith-based groups. In addition, his plan would have made religious groups eligible for funds from state and local governments that currently deny them such monies because of their hiring practices. The House bill included both provisions.

Administration officials said Bush would likely sign the Senate bill if enacted. But they said he was committed to fighting for possible future legislation that contained the elements in the House bill.

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