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Compromise reached on bill to encourage charitable giving; effort to get more money to religious charities

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House is supporting legislation giving new tax breaks to encourage charitable giving, while abandoning the most disputed elements of its effort to steer more government money to religious charities.

President Bush planned to unveil the legislation at the White House Thursday, however a last-minute dispute over how much money the legislation should add to a social service program threatened to put the effort on hold.

As drafted, the compromise reached by key senators includes new money for a social services grant program that states use for child care, adoption and other social programs. The Senate bill also gives people who do not itemize their taxes a new break for giving to charity. It would expire after two years, as would new tax breaks for corporations.

That was included to hold down the upfront cost of the package, though sponsors know that politically popular tax breaks often are extended when they expire. The tax breaks will cost about $10 billion.

Still unresolved was how much of an increase the Social Services Block Grant would see. The draft of the bill provides about $10 billion over ten years, which Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., insisted on in order to attract Democratic support.

The White House has not signed off on the idea and the key Republican senator, Rick Santorum, also was not on board, aides said. As of late Tuesday, Republicans were only committing to two years of increases for social services money.

Negotiators have yet to figure out how to pay for the plan. A similar compromise was on the table late last year, but did not advance because supporters could not find a way to pay for it.

The bill is sponsored by Lieberman and Santorum, R-Pa., who began writing the scaled-back legislation after a partisan fight in the House last summer.

"This is a critical step forward," Santorum said in a statement.

Lieberman's spokesman, Dan Gerstein, predicted swift passage of the bill once the cost issue is resolved. "We're very optimistic the provisions of this bill will be appealing to a broad range of Democrats and Republicans," he said.

The most contested provision in the House bill would have opened new government programs to churches and other religious groups. It would have allowed these groups to maintain their exemption from civil rights laws and make hiring and firing decisions based on religion, even if they got government money. It also would have let them continue to skirt local laws guaranteeing rights for gays and lesbians.

The Senate bill eliminates this provision, known as charitable choice.

In its place, the bill makes it clear that a religious group cannot be denied a government contract simply because it has a religious name or because it has religious art, icons, scripture or symbols on display.

The compromise probably will anger people on both sides of this issue.

Supporters of the House bill believe religious groups often are the most effective in providing social services, and want legislation that allows such groups to incorporate religious teachings into their programming for willing participants.

They say churches often want to hire people of their faith, and that should not disqualify them from getting a government contract.

The president was easing the way for the compromise among evangelical Christians on Wednesday. He stopped by a meeting with about 100 people involved with college groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ to talk about the initiative.

On the other side, opponents worry the legislation does not make it clear that religious groups that discriminate in hiring will not be eligible. Rather, it will be up to the Bush administration to interpret the law, said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.

"Anything that passes anywhere close will give the administration moral authority to go ahead and start discriminating," he said.

Congressional aides described details of the package Wednesday on condition of anonymity. Among the provisions:

  • A new tax break for the 70 percent of tax filers who claim the standard deduction, rather than itemizing their deductions individually. Individuals could deduct up to $400 and couples could deduct up to $800 per year from their income for purpose of calculating how much they owe in taxes. The tax break is scheduled to disappear in 2004.

    Donations to groups that help the poor - as well as to other charitable organizations such as schools or symphonies - would qualify.

  • A substantial increase for the Social Services Block Grant, which states use to provide a variety of services for vulnerable people. Cut deeply a few years ago, it gets $1.7 billion this year. That would rise to $1.975 billion next year, and to $2.8 billion per year after that. This program is funded automatically, meaning it does not have to compete with others during the budget process.

  • A larger tax break for corporate charitable donations, also expiring in 2004.

  • Tax breaks to encourage banks to offer individual development accounts, which match the savings of low-income people to help them save for education, a home or business. This program would be authorized for a full 10 years, at a cost of $1.7 billion.

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