Tuesday, September 2, 2003

One of the first items on the House agenda this month is a scaled-down version of President Bush’s faith-based plan, consisting largely of tax incentives to encourage donations to religious charities.

The House Ways and Means Committee is set to consider the charitable-giving bill Thursday and the full House likely will pass it this month, said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and bill sponsor.

“This is a bill designed to help the charitable community … have more access to resources than they have had in the past,” Mr. Blunt said.

The Senate passed a very similar bill in April.

Both bills focus on encouraging charitable donations by private groups and individuals, and leave out the more contentious pieces of the president’s original plan — expanding “charitable choice provisions” that let religious groups get federal funds without secularizing their services.

Last Congress, the House passed a broad faith-based bill that would have expanded charitable choice and let groups hire only those of the same religion while receiving federal funds. Critics said it amounted to government-funded discrimination, and the bill stalled in the Senate.

So the White House worked with Senate Republicans and Democrats to craft the scaled-down charitable giving bill, which passed in April by a vote of 95-5. House Republican leaders agreed to pass a similar scaled-down bill as well.

“My view is and was that we’re better off to deal with this bill … and do what we can to encourage people to give to the charitable and faith-based community,” Mr. Blunt said.

Bill supporters say the measure is needed because small community charities have suffered declining donations in recent years.

Mr. Blunt said expanding charitable choice is important but can be done more effectively in individual bills, like the welfare bill the House plans to consider. He said Republicans may be able to get stronger charitable-choice language by doing it piecemeal, rather than in one large bill.

Both the House and Senate charitable giving bills would allow Americans who do not itemize their tax returns to deduct a portion of their charitable giving, and would let people donate their individual retirement accounts to charity, tax-free.

They also would provide tax incentives for farms and restaurants to donate extra food to the needy, as well as tax incentives for corporations to donate computers to charity.

There are a few differences between the two bills: The House bill would increase the amount corporations can deduct for their charitable contributions, while the Senate bill would not. And the Senate bill would provide tax incentives for organizations to donate books, artwork and music to charity, while the House bill does not.

Perhaps most noteworthy, the Senate bill would increase social-services block grants to states by more than $1.3 billion — something the White House opposes and House Republican leaders do not include in their bill.

One House Republican aide said the extra social-services grant money was “sweetener” to get Senate Democrats on board.

“Liberals love [the grants] and conservatives have never been big fans,” the aide said.

The Senate bill also has an environmental provision some Republicans dislike. It would provide a discount in capital-gains tax when land is sold for conservation purposes. Some Republicans, including Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, say that this is unfair, and that the tax should be reduced for everyone, not just some.

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