Friday, November 26, 2004

With Minority Leader Tom Daschle leaving the Senate and Republican gains in both chambers of Congress, supporters of President Bush’s faith-based initiative hope to quickly pass into law next year legislation providing tax incentives for donations to faith-based and other charities.

“We plan to move it as one of the first things,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and sponsor of the measure.

Mr. Santorum’s narrow, stripped-down version of the president’s proposal passed the House and Senate this session, but the Senate was unable to move it to conference.

Mr. Bush’s broader proposal passed the House in 2001, but stalled in the Senate because it expanded so-called charitable choice to an array of government programs. Charitable choice applies to some federal grant programs and allows faith-based groups to receive federal funds while maintaining their religious nature, including hiring only people of their same faith.

Some House conservatives now want to return to the broader bill.

“We want to come back to it,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and incoming chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “We’ve got a new Senate and a conservative mandate from millions of voters who said ‘yes’ to traditional values.”

Mr. Pence sees an “untapped reservoir” of support for Mr. Bush’s original plan among House Republicans.

Mr. Santorum, however, said he is focused on getting his narrower measure into law.

House and Senate Republican aides agreed that the plan is to pass the narrow charitable-giving bill and then try to expand charitable choice, although strategy discussions in the next few months could revive momentum for a broad measure.

“We’ll have to evaluate … whether the support and votes are there,” said a House Republican aide.

Mr. Santorum’s bill and the similar House version would allow taxpayers to deduct charitable contributions even if they don’t itemize. The measures also would provide incentives for farmers, restaurants and businesses to donate food for the hungry; allow tax-free donations from individual retirement accounts to charities; and expand government-matched savings accounts for low-income workers.

Supporters will try for quick passage in the next Congress. In the 108th Congress, the Senate was unable to overcome Democratic objections and initiate the House-Senate conference to produce a final version. Republicans blamed Mr. Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who was defeated on Election Day.

Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, will be the new minority leader. He said Friday that he likes the bill and denied that Democrats have been the roadblock.

“We tried to work with the majority to get that through; there’s no reason it’s not law,” he said.

Mr. Reid said he couldn’t comment on how Democrats would react to a faith-based bill that is broader than Mr. Santorum’s. “We’ll have to look at what they give us, specifically,” he said.

But Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and other Democrats will try to limit charitable choice and make sure faith-based groups are not allowed to proselytize with federal dollars.

Mr. Bush’s initiative aims to improve the government’s attitude toward faith-based groups that want to use federal funds. Critics say it blurs the line between church and state.

Since his broad proposal stalled in Congress, Mr. Bush has established faith-based offices in 10 agencies, created a technical assistance fund for small social-service charities and issued an executive order prompting agencies to discourage discrimination against faith-based groups when distributing federal funds.

“We’ll build on the successful model of the first term by continuing to do what we can through executive order,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

He said supporters of the faith-based initiative now will try to shift the debate from church versus state to helping the needy.

“That’s what this has always been about, and that’s what this will continue to be about,” Mr. Duffy said. “The president made it very clear we don’t want to fund religion. But at the same time, you shouldn’t have to take down the Star of David or the cross to obtain federal funds to help the needy.”

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