Monday, November 10, 2003

Nearly 30 House Republicans are threatening to vote against legislation that represents the remaining pieces of President Bush’s faith-based initiative if it contains a tax break favoring environmental groups.

The Senate-passed version of the legislation — which consists mostly of tax incentives designed to spur charitable giving — contains a provision that would grant a tax break to those who sell land or water specifically for conservation purposes. The House passed its version of the bill without such a provision, and the two bills are waiting to be reconciled in conference.

In a Nov. 10 letter to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, 27 House Republicans — many from Western states — wrote that the Senate provision “gives an unfair advantage to conservation groups over other nonprofit groups and the private sector” and creates an “alarming incentive” to transfer private land and water rights from individuals to the federal government.

Although the Republicans note in their letter that they support many provisions in the charitable-giving bill and praise Mr. Bush’s leadership on faith-based issues, they also say, “we would have to reconsider our support for the bill if this unnecessary, expensive and damaging proposal is included in the conference report.”

The lawmakers argue that the charity bill is supposed to help faith-based charities, but the Senate provision places them at a disadvantage to conservationists and the government. They support the House version of the bill.

“It defies reason that Congress would make it easier for the government and radical environmentalists to lock away even more land,” said Rep. Wally Herger, a California Republican who circulated the letter along with Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican. “I strongly support the faith-based initiative and want it to succeed. However, the Senate’s provision runs contrary to the purpose of the bill itself, namely to benefit nonprofit faith-based groups like schools and charities.”

Signers include Western Caucus Chairman Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, Utah Republican; House Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Richard W. Pombo and several of his fellow California Republicans, as well as a few lawmakers from Eastern states.

A coalition of more than 40 property rights, religious and taxpayer advocacy groups wrote a similar letter on Oct. 21.

Senate Democrats are blocking the charitable-giving bill from being sent to conference committee. But aides said decisions on how to meld the two charity bills are being made behind the scenes, before the official conference begins.

“It’s important that the possible conferees are aware of our joint resolve against this provision,” Mr. Herger said.

Both bills would, among other things, allow taxpayers who do not itemize on their returns to deduct a portion of charitable giving and allow tax-free donations to charity from individual retirement accounts.

The bills are the remaining pieces of the president’s original faith-based proposal, which passed the House last Congress but stalled in the Senate, mostly because of its proposed expansion of so-called charitable choice.

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