Wednesday, March 2, 2005

President Bush yesterday called for the expansion of his multibillion-dollar faith-based initiative, urging Congress to increase funding and pass “one of the tests of character for America.”

Mr. Bush addressed hundreds of people attending the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel amid growing concern that his long-held vision for the program has not been matched by the results.

“It is said that faith can move mountains,” Mr. Bush said. “Here in Washington, D.C., those helping the poor and needy often run up against a big mountain called bureaucracy. I’m here to talk about how to move that mountain so that we can reach out and partner with programs which reach out to people who hurt.”

Mr. Bush, an evangelical Methodist, has struggled since early in his first term to get enthusiastic congressional support for his faith-based initiative — which amounts to allowing organizations such as the Salvation Army to more easily compete for federal grants to provide social services to the public, regardless of religious affiliation.

Organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State oppose the president, arguing that the program violates the Constitution, and some religious leaders are wary of allowing the government to get too close to their religious missions.

Mr. Bush, however, insists that he only wants to allow the government to encourage “the helping hand offered by the armies of compassion.”

“It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand that the efforts that I’ve spoken about today do not involve the government establishing religion,” he said. “The state should never be the church and the church should never be the state, and everybody in America understands that.”

Mr. Bush assured faith-based organizations that “interfacing with the government will not cause [one] to lose their mission.”

“We’ve got to rid people of that fear,” he said.

Religious groups, if they take government money, also cannot administer only to people of their faith nor can they overtly promote their faith.

“What that means is if you’re a Methodist church and you sponsor an alcohol treatment center, they can’t say, ‘Only Methodists who drink too much can come to our program,’ ” Mr. Bush said to the laughter of the crowd. “‘All drunks are welcome,’ is what the sign ought to say. Welcome to be saved, so they become sober.”

One attendee of the conference, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was encouraged by the president’s words, but was disappointed in the progress of the program.

“You can hear the passion in his voice, but you wonder why that isn’t backed up more strongly in action,” he said.

The attendee said he understands that the president has been “busy fighting the war on terror,” but noted that Mr. Bush has spent political capital for other domestic agenda items, such as tax cuts, the new Medicare prescription-drug program and now Social Security reform.

“This program always seems to be on the back burner,” he said.

Mr. Bush told The Washington Times in an Oval Office interview in January that he would be “rigorous” in trying to expand the faith-based programs.

“I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Gosh, the Bush administration, after eight years, recognized it and invigorated this important aspect of our society in helping people who feel like, perhaps, maybe society has gone beyond them and that they’re lost and empty and lonely,’” he said.

Congress, however, has been less enthusiastic about the idea. Mr. Bush asked for $8 billion a year for faith-based programs when he proposed the idea in 2001, but received about $600 million in 2002, $1.17 billion in 2003 and $2 billion last year.

David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, resigned in December 2003 over “promises unfulfilled in spirit and in fact.”

“Unfortunately, sometimes even the grandly announced ‘new’ programs aren’t what they appear,” Mr. Kuo wrote last month on the Web site in an essay that complained about a lack of funding.

Jim Towey, director of the faith-based office, said, “David is entitled to his opinion,” but the former official’s real beef is with Congress and not the White House.

“From my standpoint in the three years that I’ve been director of this initiative, President Bush has made the faith-based and community initiative a top priority,” Mr. Towey said. “Each year of the president’s first term, the president proposed a budget that had a package of incentives for charitable giving well in excess of $8 billion. That’s a matter of record.

“In December of 2002, it was blocked by the Senate minority leader,” he said. “And then the legislation was reintroduced in 2003 again, well in excess of $8 billion. The legislation passed the House and Senate by large margins — and the Senate minority leader continued to block its consideration.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, was defeated in November, in part because of Republican charges of obstructionism

The lack of congressional action has forced Mr. Bush to write and sign executive orders to put the program in motion because the Senate was reluctant to put it on its agenda.

“Charitable choice is something I’ve supported every year, and every year it’s got stuck,” Mr. Bush said. “That executive order still stands, but I believe that executive order ought to be codified into federal law, and Congress needs to act this year to do so. I think it’s important.”

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