Give Sen. Rick Santorum credit for persistence: The Pennsylvania Republican soldiers on with President Bush's "compassion" agenda even when Bush himself retreats.
In his speech Tuesday about his efforts to help the poor, Bush made no mention of what was once the cornerstone of his "compassionate conservatism" -- an $85 billion tax break to spur charitable giving. This was no oversight: Bush's new budget drops the whole idea.
But there yesterday morning in the Mansfield Room off the Senate floor was the No. 3 Senate Republican, politely disagreeing with his president. "We're going to work on the charitable giving package and try to do the best we can," said Santorum, who aides say would spend about $25 billion on the program Bush has dropped.
Likewise, Santorum disagreed with Bush's plan for a $2 billion, 35 percent cut in Community Development Block Grants. "I don't support the dramatic reduction of the program," the senator said, surrounded by leaders of religious charities assembled in front of a "Fighting Poverty" backdrop.
Santorum's courage won him the immediate and predictable ridicule of Democrats. At a news conference two hours later by Senate opposition leaders, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) huffed that "Republicans got moxie" to claim they care about the poor. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) tried to one-up Santorum by calling for a vote Thursday on raising the minimum wage.
The Pennsylvanian may have a political motive for outdoing Bush on poverty. He's a deeply conservative figure who is up for reelection next year in a blue state. But he has championed programs to aid the poor by boosting charitable efforts, working with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) on an often lonely legislative battle. And Santorum wouldn't be the first to direct friendly fire at the White House's compassion efforts. Two former officials from Bush's "faith-based" office, John J. DiIulio Jr. and David Kuo, have complained that the White House "never really wanted the 'poor people stuff,' " as Kuo put it recently.
During his first presidential campaign and when he came to power in 2001, Bush made it one of his top priorities to expand the charitable tax deduction to the 70 percent of tax filers who do not itemize their deductions. Nonprofits claimed the plan would boost charitable giving by $15 billion a year. "This is a win-win outcome," the White House asserted in 2001. A congressional estimate put the 10-year cost at nearly $85 billion.
But while Bush shepherded most of his tax cuts through Congress, the White House struck an agreement with the House to cut charitable giving incentives to $6 billion, and the Senate and House never agreed on a figure. Bush, meanwhile, cut his budget request for the non-itemizer deduction and then eliminated it this year (he left in some smaller incentives).
At a briefing Tuesday, Jim Towey, the current director of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, boasted that religious charities have been receiving a larger percentage of government grants. But he acknowledged that there had been "quite a reduction" in overall grants to charities. Towey said Bush dropped the charitable-deduction idea because "Congress is not going to budge."
Santorum aides dispute that, pointing out that both chambers have passed some version of what Santorum's spokeswoman calls the "enormously popular" proposal. Santorum put charitable giving at the top of what he called the "Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda."
But the other GOP senators at Santorum's event had different ideas in mind. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) made a pitch for extending tax breaks for married couples. Sam Brownback (Kan.), reading from a speech with the message "Love Jesus" hand-written at the top, spoke about prison recidivism. James M. Talent (Mo.) promoted welfare revisions.
The Democrats, meantime, are making a minimum wage increase their top anti-poverty idea. In the Democratic response to Santorum, Kennedy decried the "same old tired rhetoric" on poverty while others criticized Bush for deep cuts to anti-poverty programs and an increase in the poverty roll on his watch.
Santorum accidentally gave the Democratic side a boost when one of those he invited to speak, Luis A. Cortes Jr. of the community group Nueva Esperanza, endorsed a minimum wage increase. "We are for more money for poor folks," Cortes said. Santorum was cautious on the minimum wage, saying he would support an increase only if it came with tax breaks for small businesses.
Santorum acknowledged that his proposals were modest. "We're helping out, let me be honest, a little bit, not a lot," he said at one point. And even that "little bit" is in some jeopardy without more help from Bush.
Will there be any support from the White House on the charitable tax deduction? "You should ask the administration that," a Santorum aide said, pointedly.
The reply from Noam Neusner, spokesman for the White House budget office: "I don't really have much more to add."