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Delay on Faith-Aid Plan Puts Time on Bush's Side

Funding: Backers can polish the contested 'charitable choice' part while a Senate bill is readied on tax incentive.

March 14, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Key senators on Tuesday put the brakes on President Bush's effort to channel more government money to religious charities, giving the White House time to fine-tune its proposal before the Senate acts on the more controversial parts of the package.

The decision to wait several months to a year to act on the "charitable choice" component of the package, which would allow government to fund religious-oriented social services, was made with the White House's agreement. It comes after vehement protests from both conservatives and liberals who feared the grants would corrupt government, churches or both.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the lead sponsor in the Senate of Bush's "faith-based initiative," said he would split the proposal in two. He said he would introduce in the coming days a bill that includes various tax incentives to encourage charitable giving, the component of the faith-based plan that attracts mostly broad, bipartisan support.

The more controversial component of Bush's plan, expanding the charitable choice law, would face an "incremental approach," Santorum said, with legislative action coming after the administration uses the current law as a "proving ground" for expansion. Charitable choice now applies to a few welfare programs; the new proposal would expand the provision to more programs in five Cabinet agencies. "My sense is we're looking within the next year for them to work out the bugs," Santorum said of the charitable-choice expansion. "The timing may be right then."

He said the White House concurred on the slower approach. "My sense is the administration will continue to work on this and work through this within the agencies," said Santorum, a strong supporter of expanding the program. "They want to build a consensus."

On the left, civil libertarians worry that the expanded program, which has been in law in a limited way since 1996, would break down the separation between church and state and permit government-funded hiring discrimination. Critics on the right charge that the program would cause churches to become dependent on government funds and that objectionable sects could be funded.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), whose support the White House has been soliciting, applauded the decision to delay legislative action on the charitable-choice expansion. "The administration, I think, is going at this in the right way, which is not to hurry it."

Lieberman, who will co-sponsor Santorum's tax-incentive package, supports the overall Bush plan in principle but objects to parts of the charitable-choice expansion. "We've got to find a comfortable way, and a constitutional way, to find a place for faith in our public life," he said.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, House Republican Conference chairman, has said he would introduce legislation combining the tax and charitable-choice provisions.

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