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Bush urges passage of scaled-back faith-based plan

By The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON — President Bush urged the Democratic-controlled Senate anew yesterday to take up his legislative agenda and set a Memorial Day target for passage of a plan to create a new tax break for charitable donations.

In an East Room address, Bush exhorted religious leaders and grassroots activists to "unleash your talents and energy on the Hill" in lobbying for the tax break idea. The plan is a scaled-back compromise to Bush's proposal to allow federal funding for religious charities.

"It's an urgent time for you to act, and I think it's going to help America," Bush said. "This really isn't about any political party, I want to assure you. It's a way to make sure America is as hopeful as we possibly can be."

Yesterday's plea was the latest in a series of presidential appeals to Congress on behalf of the Bush agenda. Over the past week, Bush has also sought action on energy, trade and anti-terrorism legislation, and a ban on human cloning.

He specifically asked supporters to contact the Senate Finance Committee about the Charity Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act. The proposal would allow individual taxpayers who do not itemize to deduct up to $400 a year in charitable donations. For couples, the maximum deduction would be $800.

Allowing non-itemizers to have the deduction could go a long way toward helping charities that have seen a decline in donations since Sept. 11. Bush estimated that up to 84 million tax filers take only the standard deduction and do not itemize deductions.

"Listen, charitable giving is important for all the people in our country, not just the wealthy. Everybody ought to be encouraged to give," Bush said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he and Bush discussed the tax break and its prospects for Senate consideration during a breakfast meeting yesterday.

"A lot of work has been done to make it a better bill, and I think a good number of Republicans and Democrats will likely support it when the legislation comes up," Daschle said. "I think it's a bill that merits support, and we'll find the time to do it."

Bush said he wants the bill passed by Memorial Day, May 27. He said the issue has taken on renewed urgency because some charities have seen a substantial falloff in contributions. For example, he said, donations to the United Way in northern California were 14% lower than in the previous year.

America's Second Harvest, which distributes food to shelters and food banks, has seen demand go up in 80% of its affiliates, while donations and funding went down at 40% of them, Bush said.

"Many people whose sole purpose is to help an American in need are confronting greater needs with fewer resources," Bush said. "Our government must recognize the problem and deal with it in a constructive way."

The legislation pending in the Senate is a scaled-back version of what Bush originally proposed and what the House approved. While the House saw a divisive partisan debate, the Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who plan a series of their own events promoting the bill.

The most contested provision in the House bill would have opened new government programs to churches and other religious groups. It would have allowed the groups to maintain exemptions from civil rights laws and make hiring and firing decisions based on religion, even for projects spending government money.

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

House opponents of charitable choice were buoyed by testimony this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. He suggested that he agrees with them on the issue of whether government-funded charities should be able to consider religion in hiring.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., asked Thompson whether he supports using government money to discriminate. Thompson responded: "I'm opposed to discrimination, period. If you are using federal money to discriminate, that is wrong, period."

In place of charitable choice, the Senate bill makes clear that religious groups cannot be denied government contracts simply because they have religious names or because they display religious art, icons, scripture or symbols.

The bill also gives tax breaks for corporate donations, allows tax-free donations from Individual Retirement Accounts and encourages banks to offer Individual Development Accounts, which match the savings of low-income people.


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