WASHINGTON – As President Bush fights to get his education and tax bills through a divided Congress, some members are looking to boost a plan that has lost steam — a faith-based initiative that would allow religious groups an even-playing field with secular groups that seek government funding for social programs they provide to their communities.
To that end, more than 400 representatives of faith-based groups attended the House-Senate Faith-Based Leadership Summit Wednesday hosted by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, and Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., chairman of the House Republican Conference.
The two-day summit crescendoed Wednesday in the main hall of the Library of Congress' magnificent Jefferson Building during a crowded luncheon. More than 40 religious institutions across the country viewed the event via satellite.
Featuring prepackaged video segments and live entertainment by trumpeter and gospel singer Phil Driscoll, the event brought literal meaning to the phrase "preaching to the converted" as politicians and ministers rallied around the microphones to declare support for government-funded faith-based social programs.
"Godly people who serve their fellow citizens as volunteers through faith-based organizations must be welcomed in the public square," said John DiIulio, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the White House.
But while the president and his new flock, which was more than 50 percent African-American, look for ways to infuse faith-based social programs with government capital, supporters recognize that getting any faith-based initiative through Congress may be easier said than done.
To inch along the president's initiative, Santorum last month sponsored the Charitable Giving Act, which would allow deductions for charitable donations made even by those taxpayers who do night itemize deductions on their tax returns. It would also eliminate penalties for charitable contributions withdrawn from individual retirement accounts.
Despite the contentious debate dominating Capitol Hill over the size of the Bush tax cut, Santorum denied that his charitable giving bill will fall by the wayside.
"I don't know whether we will get it in on this tax bill. I am sure we will make a run at it, we'll see if we can do something in this tax bill. But if not, there will be other tax bills coming down the pike and whether it is on a minimum wage bill or whether it is on a variety of other things, we'll have a shot at trying to put some sort of ... increase [in] money going to charities," Santorum told Foxnews.com.
Santorum also said that he doesn't think that the focus by the president on his other bills spells any kind of doom for the faith-based initiative.
"The president is focused, as he should be, on getting his tax bill done, on getting his education bill done. Is he focused on this right now? No. You can only do so many things here and expend capital on it and he is doing the right thing," Santorum said. "But, education and taxes I think will be behind us by August, maybe before then, and then there are other issues to come to the fore.
"Having said that, the president is doing this initiative because much of what he is doing is on the executive side that he doesn't need congressional approval for. So, this is one of the initiatives that he can actually move forward and they are."
Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who sponsored the latest bill to increase the minimum wage, said the chances that Kennedy would support attaching the charitable choice bill to a minimum wage bill are "probably slim."
"Sen. Kennedy would fight for a straight up or down vote on a $1.50 raise," Manley said of the proposed wage increase. "The concern is that minimum wage will get bogged down with too many amendments."
Support for the faith-based initiative slowed because of the absence of support from Democrats overall. While Republican congressional leaders showed up in full force to throw their support behind the president's proposal, lone Democratic Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois represented the other side of the aisle.
"The problems we face are so serious, so diverse, so ingrained, we need every approach that we can generate. We need every grain of mustard seed that we can come up with," Davis said.