KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush has called his "faith-based initiative" the cornerstone of his agenda of "compassionate conservatism." The president's idea is to encourage contributions to religious organizations and, at the same time, encourage those groups to take on a wider range of social services using funding from the federal government.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: These soldiers and the armies of compassion deserve our support. They often need our support. And by taking their side, we act in the best interests and tradition of our country.
CONGRESSMAN: May we have order.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning Republican leaders brought the president's faith based initiative to the floor of the House of Representatives. Ohio Republican Deborah Pryce.
REP. DEBORAH PRYCE (R-Ohio): This is common sense legislation that encourages charitable giving and enlists the strongest of our allies in our effort to provide desperately needed social services.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio Democrat Tony Hall signed on as a bill co-sponsor.
REP. TONY HALL (D-Ohio): Problems in our country are real and many are getting worse and none of them are going away without some response and if faith-based groups can respond effectively I think we should encourage them to do so.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican leadership's faith-based bill would allow taxpayers who don't itemize to deduct up to $25 in charitable donations annually, rising to $100 in ten years. The expected cost to the Treasury would be more than $13 billion over ten years. Texas Republican Sam Johnson.
REP. SAM JOHNSON (R-Texas): When this bill becomes law, a $100 YMCA contribution will be a $100 contribution, not $85 because the IRS is not going to take their chunk out. Charities do remarkable things for our country. They change the lives and our hearts of so many for the better. They feed the hungry, clothe the homeless and assist the needy. Now is the time to help charities care for those most in need. Let's help charities keep more of their well-deserved dollars. It's the right thing to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: However Charles Rangel, the top Democrat on the tax-writing ways and means committee, ridiculed the size of the benefits taxpayers would get.
REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D-N.Y.): Now, listen to this because if you're a charity, you're in trouble. They cap on the amount of money that a taxpayer who doesn't itemize can give is $25. Of course, if it's a married couple, it increases dramatically to $50. And if you're in the 15 percent bracket you will able to get a return up to $3.75 -- so much for a realistic incentive.
KWAME HOLMAN: The debate and vote on this bill were scheduled for yesterday. But the broad support it had started to slip, forcing Republican leaders to postpone floor action. Democrats and some Republican moderates were concerned the bill would allow participating religious organizations to evade state and local laws that prohibit hiring discrimination. Those concerns carried over into today's debate. California Democrat Barbara Lee.
REP. BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.): For example, it would allow organizations to refuse to hire Jews, or Catholics, or African-American Baptists, depending on their religious policies and practices of their denomination and it would use taxpayer funds to fund that discrimination.
KWAME HOLMAN: Florida Democrat Peter Deutsch.
REP. PETER DEUTSCH (D-Fla.): The person serving the soup, literally with the ladle, would be allowed to be only of a certain faith -- whatever that faith may be -- with federal funds and that is a very scary concept, I think, for many Americans.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Ohio Republican Rob Portman argued that opponents were misreading the bill.
REP. ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio): You've heard opponents say that this bill discriminates in employment. Not true. This legislation strictly protects the exemption for religious organizations first established in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This exemption allows religious organizations to maintain their character and mission by hiring staff that share their beliefs. That's all. That exemptions continues. Organizations must still comply with every single federal law regarding discrimination.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, in an effort to reassure wavering moderates from his own party, Oklahoma 's J.C. Watts, the bill's Republican cosponsor, agreed to clarify the language on employment discrimination when the bill is brought to a conference with the Senate.
REP. J.C. WATTS (R-Okla.): As a sponsor of the bill, Mr. Hall and I am willing to make a commitment that we will more clearly address this issue in conference and with the gentleman as this conference moves along.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Watts' scripted assurance did not persuade Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.
REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-Mass.): It's funny. When I heard this was the faith-based bill, I thought they were talking about faith in God, not faith in the Senate
KWAME HOLMAN: And other Democrats, Washington's Jim McDermott among them, argued the new rules for faith-based groups aren't needed.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT (D-Wash.): Any religious organization can accept money. In the present situation you don't need this bill. Catholic Charities gets 62 percent. That equates to $1.4 billion a year from the federal government. The Salvation Army gets $400 million a year. United Jewish Communities, their nursing homes, get 76 percent of their money from the federal government. Lutheran Services gets 30 percent of their $6.9 billion from the federal government. That's $2.6 billion. Now, you tell me that faith- based organizations need this bill to get this money. That's clearly not what we're doing here. We want to give the ability of religious organizations to break laws that are there today and mix church and state.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan claimed the purpose of the bill is to make federal funds available to a new range of charitable groups.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wisc.): You hear this comment repeated over and over. Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services getting all this government money. You know, that's true. The large high-financed, well-established churches, do get federal funding. They can afford the attorneys. They can afford the accountants. They can afford the largess to afford the complicated tax structures to get this money. That's not what this bill is about. This bill is about the little guy. This bill is about the people who have those small faith-based organizations in our inner cities, in our rural areas, who know the names, who know the faces of those who are in need.
KWAME HOLMAN: An overwhelming number of Republicans agreed with Paul Ryan on the need for more faith-based social services. Most Democrats maintained their concerns about separation church and state. And so the bill passed on a largely party-line vote.
CONGRESSMAN: The bill is passed and without objection the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president's faith-based initiative now faces a tougher challenge in the Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle has yet to commit to bringing it to a vote.