WASHINGTON — White House-backed legislation to expand the role of religious charities in federal social service programs is headed for the Senate, where supporters want a swift vote but majority Democrats show no sign of haste.
"The ball is now on our court. I think we can build on the momentum," GOP Sen. Rick Santorum said Thursday moments after the 223-198 House vote on a key part of President Bush's agenda.
Santorum said he hoped for a vote this fall. In England, a traveling president urged swift action in the Senate.
"It's an initiative that puts our federal government squarely on the side of faith-based and community-based programs, all of which exist to help a neighbor in need," President Bush said today before heading to Italy and a meeting with world leaders. "It's a positive step to ensure that the American dream extends its reach to all of our communities."
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has refused to set a date for debate on the measure this year. In comments to reporters Thursday, Daschle underscored objections raised by critics in the House that the bill would pre-empt state and local laws barring discrimination in hiring.
"I can't imagine that we could pass any bill that would tolerate slipping back into a level of tolerance that would be unacceptable in today's society," he said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the leading Democratic advocate of so-called faith-based efforts, also expressed dissatisfaction with the House-passed bill.
Spokesman Dan Gerstein said Lieberman has "serious concerns about the weakness of the civil rights protections and constitutional safeguards" and believes the possibility of pre-empting state and local laws is a "serious vulnerability."
The bill cleared the House largely along party lines, despite the prodding of fellow Democrats by the most prominent Democratic supporter, Rep. Tony Hall, to be more open to people of faith. "Sometimes, we almost put out a sign that says, 'You're not welcome in our party,' " the Ohio Democrat said.
The 233-198 vote represented a down payment on Bush's campaign pledge to "rally the armies of compassion" to combat the nation's social ills. Religious charities are permitted to receive grants in a small number of federal programs under current law. The legislation would expand the list significantly to areas such as housing, domestic violence and hunger relief.
Organizations would not be allowed to require aid recipients to attend worship services or religious instruction, and individuals would be offered access to assistance from nonreligious organizations if they wished. The organizations would be permitted to retain religious names, charters and symbols on building walls.
In addition, the bill includes tax breaks worth $13 billion over the next decade to encourage charitable giving by individuals and corporations.
Taxpayers who do not itemize would be permitted to deduct $25 in donations annually, rising to $100 by the end of the decade.
"Faith heals, faith renews, faith gives the hope that this country needs," said Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss. "Our president has called on us to remove the hindrances ... to the faith-based approach."
But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her Roman Catholic education "has taught me to oppose discrimination in every form. ... The problem is that today this House will vote to legalize discrimination as we minister to the needs of the poor."
In the waning moments of debate, the bill's supporters turned back a final attempt by Democrats to ban employment discrimination under federal, state or local laws for any organization receiving government funds under the law. The vote was 234-195. "This bill would allow them (churches) to discriminate with federal funds," protested Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
That issue led the conservative Family Research Council to claim that the bill was "in danger of being hijacked by homosexual groups." The council said it would abandon its support for the bill if it were changed to defer to state and local laws.
Lawmakers in both parties vied to declare their support for religious charitable work.
But some Democrats said the bill breached the separation of church and state. Many said pre-empting state and local laws would roll back hard-won protections.
Supporters said religious organizations need to retain their essential character and should be permitted to take religious views into account in hiring. They noted that Congress exempted them from anti-discrimination provisions in a landmark 1964 civil rights law.
The House leadership postponed the vote by one day to ease the objections of a pivotal group of Republicans citing the anti-discrimination issue. In the end, only four GOP lawmakers voted against the bill, while 15 Democrats crossed party lines to support it.