WASHINGTON — The White House, seeking to salvage one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, has thrown its support behind a newly limited plan for faith-based organizations to provide some of the nation's social services.
The administration's more modest approach breathed new life into its faith-based initiative, an effort that had stalled in the Senate but that backers say has become more urgent in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
A key Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who had opposed elements of the White House faith agenda, called the shift a breakthrough and expressed hope that a less controversial approach might pass in coming weeks.
"This is a classic case of a half a loaf being better than none," Lieberman told reporters Thursday. If the long-beleaguered proposal becomes law before year's end, "it would be a great Christmas-Hanukkah gift for the country."
Unlike a more sweeping bill that passed the House in July, the administration's revised approach would not allow religious organizations that receive federal money--for example, church-run soup kitchens--to hire only members of their faith and to disregard civil rights laws. Rather, it would focus heavily on tax incentives to promote charitable donations while also seeking ways for religious charities to qualify for billions of dollars in government funding.
Such goals have become all the more urgent since Sept. 11, Bush said in a letter to Senate leaders, noting that "thousands" of U.S. charities that were not involved in disaster relief efforts now are struggling and that all charities must contend with a harsher economic climate.
"Although individual generosity is evident everywhere, thousands of our nation's charities paradoxically have been suffering," Bush said in a letter to Senate leaders earlier this week. "Donations to organizations not directly involved in disaster relief have declined dramatically. Soup kitchens are low on food. Mentoring programs for needy children are low on dollars."
Lieberman and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told reporters Thursday that they were working out the final details of a faith-based bill. It would exclude the more controversial provisions related to "charitable choice"--as the faith-based approach is known--and focus instead on charitable tax incentives and other items.
Earlier this year, lawmakers introduced a package of these tax incentives, which along with other items included a charitable deduction--projected to total $54 billion over a decade--for taxpayers who do not itemize. The new package, they said Thursday, would cost less and contain fewer or scaled-down provisions.
The House bill featured $13.3 billion in tax and other benefits for charities. In his letter to Senate leaders, Bush called for a range of financial measures, including the deduction for non-itemizers and a deduction for food contributions.
While some lawmakers were delighted at the White House decision to endorse a bill that lacked some of the more controversial measures approved by the House, critics of "charitable choice" expressed concern.
"When the president talks about 'equal treatment' for religious groups, I am concerned that he means 'special treatment,' " said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"You just divide the country," Lynn said of the approach. "You cause battles within religious groups--just the kinds of things you ought to avoid at this time."
Early in his term, Bush sought to rally what he called the nation's "armies of compassion" in a bid for faith-based charities, including small, nonbureaucratic organizations, to take on a range of services traditionally performed by government agencies. While the effort seemed to hit a wall in the Senate, it has remained a Bush priority. Proponents said Thursday that it was noteworthy that Bush was pushing for legislation even in the current climate, in which issues of war and the economy overshadow all else.
"The number of issues that the president has chosen to speak out on since Sept. 11 could be counted on one hand," Santorum said. "By sending this letter at this time, the president is clearly declaring the need to assist charities as one of his highest priorities."
In his letter, Bush also called for "equal treatment" of faith-based charities, along with the creation of a "compassion capital fund" to provide technical help for faith-based and other community charities.