- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

The Senate this week is beginning to consider part of President Bush's faith-based initiative that would increase the tax benefits for donating to religious or community charities.
"It needs to be done because it encourages charitable giving to a sector of our economy that has been struggling," said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, who sponsored the bill last session and reintroduced it last week. It is set for a Senate Finance Committee markup Wednesday.
Mr. Santorum cited statistics that show between January and October 2002 nearly half of 2,725 individuals from public charities and private foundations reported a drop in contributions.
"We think this is the right medicine at the right time a little past the right time," he said.
During his State of the Union address last week, the president urged Congress to pass his faith-based initiative.
Mr. Santorum's bill which has bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman is the remaining piece of the president's faith-based plan.
The House passed the comprehensive version of Mr. Bush's plan last session, but it ran into problems because it contained the hotly debated "charitable choice" component, which would allow religious organizations to compete for government grants and hire people only of one faith or religion.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Lieberman, along with the White House, crafted the narrower version without the charitable choice or hiring provisions. It passed committee last session but was never brought up on the Senate floor.
The reintroduced bill could hit the floor as soon as next week, said Mr. Santorum, who heads the Senate Republican Conference. "[Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist is on this bill as a co-sponsor and is committed to moving it forward," Mr. Santorum said.
The Senate bill has nothing to do with the hiring issue, or with expanding charitable choice, Mr. Santorum said. He said the bill's sponsors avoided the stickiest part of the president's original faith-based plan and stuck to what could be passed.
The measure which is estimated to cost $11 billion over 10 years would allow the 86 million Americans who do not itemize on their taxes to deduct a portion of their charitable giving. It also would provide tax incentives for farmers and restaurants to donate extra food to the needy and would provide 300,000 low-income Americans with government-matched savings accounts to purchase a home, further their education or start a small business.
The bill would provide $150 million each year for technical assistance to small community and faith-based charities, and would add $1.2 billion to the Social Services Block Grant.
Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said it would "do inestimable good to those people in need."
But the House may still opt for a broader version of the bill again this year, a House Republican aide said.
"I think there'll be a real resistance to a piecemeal approach," the aide said.
The Senate bill does contain language clarifying that faith-based groups cannot be denied funding simply because they display religious icons or use religious criteria for membership on governing boards. But the aide said that will not be enough to satisfy House Republicans.
"A lot of the members in the House will insist that we deal with all of the issues regarding equal treatment, not just the easy ones," the aide said.
Mr. Santorum said the House "may want to put some changes" in the bill forcing the two chambers to go to conference. "But I think it's incumbent upon [the Senate] to show that we can get this done," he said. "We're the body that didn't get it done last time."
House Republican leadership is supportive of moving a faith-based plan forward.
"We agree with the president that a faith-based initiative stands to benefit those in need, and we're going to work with the Republican leadership in the Senate and with the president to craft the kind of legislation that will make a difference," said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

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