WASHINGTON—While combating terrorism remains the most important political responsibility in Washington, Congressional leaders have continued work on President Bush's faith-based initiative.
The White House has said that the recent attacks have highlighted the positive role that faith-based charities have played in the recovery efforts. The Bush administration has also told the Senate that passage of the faith-based initiative this year is a top priority. The House has already passed the president's bill.
“We are continuing to work with members of the Senate, especially Senators Santorum and Lieberman, to reach consensus and pass a bill that embodies the president's compassionate conservative agenda,” White House spokeswoman Mercy Viana said.
But activists from Americans United for Separation of Church and State continue to lead the battle against a portion of the bill, called Charitable Choice, that would allow religious organizations to compete with secular organizations for government charity aid.
“We don't always want to be naysayers,” said Robert Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based group. “The tax cuts and the tax incentives [other components of the faith-based plan]—they can be advanced with little disagreement.”
But he said that if the president insists on keeping Charitable Choice in the final faith-based bill, his organization would lobby hard to defeat the bill.
Nevertheless, Boston said that it is a possibility that Bush will embrace a pilot program to test the constitutionality of the Charitable Choice.
“The administration is still interested in promoting Charitable Choice. They might limit it to children of prisoners or some program like that,” Boston said. “They want some kind of victory.”
Princeton professor Robert George said that Bush would be foolish to accept so little of one of the key elements of the faith-based bill.
“I think it would be a mistake for the president to accept that analysis,” George told the Register.
He thinks that the president should insist on the full faith-based bill, especially in light of the need to strengthen charitable organizations in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The president's hand is always strengthened in times of international crisis. I would take advantage of a strengthened hand,” said George.
He noted that supporting a faith bill looks less “political” than cutting corporate taxes.
“It looks like a bipartisanship issue to begin with,” he said. “Congress will be blamed [for grid-lock] and the president should know that. They only way for the president to lose this is to not play his hand.”
The White House refused to say if the president would sign a bill that didn't contain Charitable Choice. Spokeswoman Viana siad the administration remains optimistic that the objections can be answered.
“We are pleased with the progress that we are making,” Viana said, “and we look forward to seeing a bill as soon as possible.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.