President Bush yesterday lobbied wavering Democrats at the White House as the House prepared to vote today on his plan to allow religious groups to care for the needy with federal grants.
“The time to fish or cut bait is here,” said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans and sponsor of the bill.
House Republican leaders said they have enough votes to approve narrowly Mr. Bush’s faith-based proposal, one of the president’s most coveted goals on domestic policy.
But supporters want to win over as many Democrats as possible to give the plan some bipartisan momentum in the Democrat-led Senate.
“A good strong vote out of the House will be a great impetus for us to look at that this fall,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican. “A good bipartisan vote out of the House will build some momentum here.”
Only three House Democrats have signed onto the bill, and Mr. Watts said he expects support from as many as six members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat and member of the CBC, met with Mr. Bush yesterday and said afterward he will support the bill.
Republican leaders turned up the heat on the CBC yesterday, distributing to reporters the voting records of 133 House Democrats who have supported at least two of the four “charitable choice” measures to come up in the chamber since 1996. Supporters also noted that civil rights legend Rosa Parks supports the legislation, which would allow religious groups to compete for government funding to administer a variety of social services.
“We are particularly asking members of the Congressional Black Caucus to stand with us in support of this legislation and black churches,” said Isaac Randolph of Indianapolis, a member of the Community Solutions Alliance that is lobbying for passage of the bill. “Black churches, especially in our low-income communities, will be the greatest beneficiaries of [the bill] and the president’s plan.”
But Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and chairman of the CBC, said most black lawmakers oppose the Community Solutions Act because it would allow religious groups to consider religion as a factor in hiring employees for government-funded community-service programs.
“The charitable-choice provision in its current form threatens to undermine nearly 80 years of federal civil rights protections against discrimination,” she said. “We cannot afford to roll back the strides made in the civil rights movement.”
Rep. Tony P. Hall, Ohio Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said religious groups have been allowed to consider religion in hiring practices since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“There’s nothing new here,” Mr. Hall said. “They can hire who they want to hire. For [opponents] to call that discrimination … is not right.”
But one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, yesterday asked the General Accounting Office to investigate reports that the Salvation Army asked the White House to exempt the group from state and local anti-bias employment laws in exchange for supporting the president’s proposal.
White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales told Mr. Nadler in a letter late last week that it is “entirely appropriate” for White House officials to meet with groups concerned about pending legislation.
“The administration did not agree to issue such a regulation, as both the White House and the Salvation Army stated publicly,” Mr. Gonzales wrote. “This flatly refutes any suggestion of a quid pro quo.”