Senate charity bill will leave out central plank of Bush plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate supporters of a plan to boost religious groups are set to introduce legislation, but they're leaving out the core of President Bush's program — allowing religious groups to compete for government money without divorcing themselves from religion.

The decision comes amid mounting criticism from Christian conservatives, civil libertarians and religious groups that already provide social services.

Bush told reporters Wednesday that his proposal is still on track. "We're moving on a timetable that we're comfortable with. We're moving our package and I'm confident it will be passed,'' he said.

Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said Tuesday they would introduce a bill next week implementing one of the most popular aspects of the Bush plan, which is allowing tax filers who don't itemize to claim a deduction for contributions to charity. An independent analysis estimates this could produce an extra $14 billion in charitable giving each year.

The bill also would offer a tax break for banks that allow so-called individual development accounts, which match the money saved by poor people. And it would limit liability for corporations that make in-kind contributions, as Bush has proposed.

But they won't include in the bill an expansion of "charitable choice,'' which allows religious groups to qualify for government money without changing the nature of their programs and without forming secular spin-off organizations, as most groups looking for funding do now.

"Some serious questions have been raised from the left and right about the president's proposal,'' said Lieberman, who joined Bush six weeks ago at the launching of his plan and has boasted of being an original co-sponsor of charitable choice in 1996.

Charitable choice is already law for federal welfare, drug treatment and community service programs, and Bush wants to expand it to social service programs across the government.

But given the concerns that have been raised, Lieberman said, it makes sense to go slowly, "not to hurry it, not to rush to test the most difficult and complicated questions.''

Santorum said that for now, proponents should work to see that charitable choice is implemented more aggressively where it already is law.

"At this point, what you've got to focus on is the fact that these programs are underutilized,'' he said. As for expansion, he said: "I think it's less important that we fight that battle.''

The White House has never put a timetable on moving legislation on charitable choice, and John DiIulio, who heads the effort, has told Lieberman and others that, given the criticism, he's comfortable with the go-slow approach.

Publicly, DiIulio and other White House officials insist that their plan is on track, even as criticism of its central element grows.

"I think in Washington ... when someone appears to be learning and listening, people think they're equivocating and retreating,'' DiIulio said Tuesday at a conference of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

In the meantime, DiIulio said his White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would issue a guide attempting to clarify the legal issues surrounding charitable choice.

There was little criticism when Bush unveiled this plan during his presidential campaign. His opponent, Democrat Al Gore, had a similar initiative of his own. And the charitable choice legislation attracted little controversy when it was debated and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, mostly because it was part of a massive welfare overhaul that involved explosive issues of its own.

But that changed after Bush put the issue atop his domestic agenda, highlighting it in his second week in office.

Among critics' complaints about the plan:

—Charitable choice allows religious groups to make hiring decisions based on religion, an exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

—Non-mainstream religions that offend some people, such as the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology, will be eligible for funding.

—People seeking services are supposed to be given a secular alternative, but these alternatives might not actually exist.

—Religious groups that take government money will have to open their books for audit and possibly alter the nature of their programs to meet government demands.

A lesser-known aspect of the Bush plan is also coming under fire.

It would let states use their welfare money to provide a state tax credit for groups that fight poverty. Critics complain that would drain money needed for direct aid to the poor. They also worry that offering a tax credit might shift contributions away from other charitable groups — arts and education groups, for instance — that only qualify for the less-valuable tax deduction.