Key House and Senate Republicans yesterday pushed to revive legislation to encourage contributions to charitable groups and thereby salvage the remains of President Bush's once ambitious faith-based legislative initiative.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) urged that the charity measure be piggybacked onto a corporate tax-cut bill now awaiting final negotiations if, as appears likely, it cannot be passed as a separate bill.
But they conceded that their chance of passing the charity measure this year is not great. "I would say it's probably not very high," Santorum told reporters.
As passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate last year, the legislation would provide nearly $13 billion in tax breaks and other incentives over the next 10 years, including a provision allowing deductions for charitable contributions by taxpayers who do not itemize deductions. People could also roll over their individual retirement accounts directly to charities without paying a penalty. New incentives would be provided for donations to food banks and for banks to help low-income people set up savings accounts.
Republicans contend that the legislation has been stripped of more controversial provisions that would have made it easier for religious groups to receive federal grants and contracts, including language approved earlier by the House that critics said could lead to government-funded religious proselytizing and job discrimination.
There is "nothing controversial" left in the bill, Santorum told the Senate yesterday as he urged Senate backing for a conference with the House on the measure.
But Democrats blocked the proposal, as they have done on several other occasions. Democratic leaders have raised several concerns, including the fear that some of the contentious provisions could be added back in Republican-led negotiations between the House and Senate on a final version of the measure.
"There is a reluctance to go to conference because Democrats, for the last two years, have been locked out of conferences" on major bills, said Todd Webster, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). If Democrats are locked out of a conference on the charities bill, Republicans "can load it up with whatever ideological schemes they can think of," he added.
Instead of holding a conference, Webster said Daschle wants the House to consider the Senate version of the legislation. Santorum and Blunt rejected that argument, saying that such a strategy would not work.
It was unclear whether the charity bill might be added to the corporate tax measure, which faces problems of its own in winning passage before Congress adjourns.