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Rolling the Dice

How a bill becomes a law, part one-WORLD's exclusive look at the House debate over President Bush's faith-based initiative

Some conservative congressmen sighed when the House of Representatives on July 19 passed on a 233-198 vote H.R. 7, the legislative vehicle for President Bush's faith-based initiative. The bill, in their view, had been so weakened in the process of picking up some liberal votes that it was barely worth voting for, because it was unlikely to help the religious groups that Mr. Bush himself had praised the most.

Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was among the "aye" voters who acknowledged, "I'm not coming to this with real enthusiasm. I'm scared to death of the phenomenon I've seen happen here over and over again.... A bill starts out with a certain merit, and you hope to God, literally, that you're doing the right thing.... It's amended, it comes back from the Senate very ugly, you know you had some part in passing it, and you now wish to God you hadn't.... Once the bill gets rolling, forget it, man, it takes on a life of its own. Soon you're running out the door of the Capitol asking, 'What have I done?'"

White House officials and other tacticians close to the president, though, had a different take. They rejoiced at having inserted a voucher provision that passed without attracting much attention, since debate centered on direct grants. Some verbally high-fived about including clauses that comforted secularists without, in their view, seriously weakening the bill. And they said that the bill, if it could get past the Senate, would withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, since several elements of it are a "valentine" for Sandra Day O'Connor, the Supreme Court's swing vote on church-state questions.

By interviewing numerous sources, some off the record because they could lose their jobs or places at the TeamBush table if their identities were revealed, WORLD is able to tell a story far different from what the press generally has related. It's a story different even from some items that have appeared in this magazine. Some GOP sources said they were explaining their tactics to me because they were tired of being portrayed in WORLD as having given away the store. They argued that Christians and conservatives are used to being in opposition, and need to develop a realistic understanding of how "the Washington game" is played.

This particular game began in 1999, when both George W. Bush and Al Gore agreed that faith-based poverty-fighters should be eligible for government funding. They disagreed on whether all faiths or only some should be encouraged. The Gore position was that groups featuring worship, religious teaching, or evangelism as integral parts of their program were ineligible. The Bush position was that the government should not pay for lunchtime preaching at a homeless shelter, but it could pay for the food and the electricity to heat it.

The game picked up in January of this year, when high-level Bush officials made a key decision. They knew that their boss was committed to the principles of compassionate conservatism, including equal opportunity for all faith-based groups, even those that are pervasively faith-based. But they had no confidence that he could sell those principles to the nation as a whole over the opposition of liberal secularists.

They did not think that grass-roots pressure could overcome the nervousness of some congressional secularists. They did not think that a measure based on the Bush principles would get through the Supreme Court. So they decided on a Beltway strategy rather than a populist one. As Michael Schwartz, vice president for governmental relations at Concerned Women for America put it, "Instead of entering into a dialogue with the base, they tried to make the initiative acceptable to radical secularists." Or, to put it another way-the Gore position won.

The first part of the strategy was to appoint as head of the new White House Office on Faith-based and Community Initiatives someone who would show liberals that he was not in the religious right's corner. John DiIulio, a Gore advisor during the campaign, "was perfect for the role," said one executive close to the White House: "An accident waiting to happen.... A thinker, not a doer." According to this view, it would be fine if conservative Christians became irritated at Mr. DiIulio, because liberal Republicans and Democrats would be far more likely to vote for measures and trust a man criticized by people they distrusted.

Republican triangulation worked during February and March, according to this view, and the faith-based initiative received a generally good press. But some Christian conservatives were upset until Mr. DiIulio on April 10, prompted by aides Don Eberly and Don Willett, and by White House political quarterback Karl Rove, agreed to drop his position that faith-based programs need to be devoid of preaching, teaching, or evangelism in order to be eligible for federal grants. Bob Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, brokered the agreement, and the Associated Press quoted Mr. DiIulio's assent to it on April 26.

That deal stopped the bleeding on the right but it didn't create any enthusiasm among many faith-based poverty-fighters. Some religious groups were reluctant to bite the hand that they hope will feed them; their comments to administration officials hid their concern. But only 4 percent of evangelical homeless shelter leaders surveyed by WORLD (June 23 cover story) favored Mr. DiIulio's grantmaking emphasis. Four out of five groups said they would not segment their programs into "religious" and "nonreligious" parts to become eligible for government aid, if that again became a stipulation.

Whether enthusiastic or not, many conservative and Christian organizations agreed to support H.R. 7, in part out of a desire to support the principles enunciated by President Bush. Ken Smitherman, president of the Association of Christian Schools International, emphasized the importance of "recognizing that faith-based organizations have a place at the table as entities that meet a public need." Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said that H.R. 7 has some problems, but "History will say it's more significant that we were at the table than what we got."

By mid-June H.R. 7's political problem was not conservative dismay but the failure of the Beltway strategy of appeasing liberals by weakening the faith-based initiative. H.R. 7's stipulation that the federal government would not pay for worship, religious teaching, or proselytizing was not enough for those on the left, because-as George W. Bush had suggested-Washington could still pay for food, utilities, or other material costs of a program engaged in those activities. Meanwhile, James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, remained standoffish, contending that H.R. 7 as constituted would not pass muster in the Supreme Court.

House and White House leaders considered an embarrassing legislative defeat likely, unless they agreed to further weakening of the bill. Under such pressure, the administration tossed overboard the April agreement, and the Gore-DiIulio segmenting approach became officially part of H.R. 7, along with a "secondary opt-out." H.R. 7 already protected religious liberty by stating that if a recipient of services from a faith-based group objected to the program on religious grounds, the government would make sure that an alternative was available. But a new clause was born in June: If a person comes to a faith-based group and doesn't like the religious flavor, that group has to provide a secular alternative.

Heather Humphries of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise is one of many experts working with faith-based groups who considers that revision to H.R. 7 "a complete loser," one that "would destroy our programs." Students at a university are free to take or not take elective courses, but if they had the right, once they enrolled in a course, to refuse to come to class, write papers, or take exams, most courses would be destroyed. Mrs. Humphries noted, "Once the Administration agreed to the opt out, fighting for direct grants seemed untenable to us."

Some Christian conservative activists also were furious about the amendment. Star Parker, president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (a group of 500 independent, inner-city churches and charity organizations), fought the requirement to segment religious activities from others: "You can't gut proselytizing from religious-run programs and expect them to work.... The most successful of these programs are those that incorporate their religion throughout the curriculum of the program."

William Murray of the Religious Freedom Coalition said his group "cannot support the President's Faith-Based Initiative if recipients are allowed to dictate to the provider which parts of the program they will accept. People should be able to choose from a variety of programs, but once a person chooses a Christian program there should not be an 'opt out' provision that allows the recipient to dictate a custom program to the provider." Mr. Murray, the Christian son of the late atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair, concluded, "'Opt out' is just a plain stupid giveaway to Barry Lynn [Americans United for Separation of Church and State] and the far left."

But wait, say TeamBush sources: Carl Esbeck, senior counsel in the Department of Justice, drafted that "giveaway" and many other provisions of H.R. 7, and Mr. Esbeck does not give away anything lightly. The Traditional Values Coalition's Mr. Sheldon argues that H.R. 7's provisions will work: "All it takes is a little bit of creativity." One executive close to the White House said, "Esbeck is a master at writing vague language that he knows how to get around. Working with Carl is like having a good tax lawyer. What he sets up doesn't always work, but you know there's a plan there."

The executive said that a homeless shelter that had, say, a short sermon after dinner could still have it by offering those who came a choice between writing a paper after dinner or listening to the message. "They'll come to the sermon but it's been voluntary, because you've given them an option," he said. Asked about H.R. 7's mandate to separate the "religious" and "nonreligious" parts of programs, a TeamBush insider said that biblical and secular teaching could be interwoven, "as long as you do it right and keep separate books."

Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post that the revised H.R. 7 impressed him: "They did write it in very strong language that says you cannot use this money to do anything religious." But that's not so, according to one TeamBush member, who says the Esbeck language allows many opportunities for religious groups. For example, say a church sets up a government-funded program, "Fight Poverty, Inc.," that teaches biblical principles using secular language. Someone from the church may pass out free Bibles before class, "and if someone asks a question about a principle, the instructor can go to the Bible," because he's responding to participant interest. The instructor can also announce that the church will offer personal counseling or individual help after class.

That administration apologetic for H.R. 7's restrictive language "has the ring of truth," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, who has been in many discussions with White House officials. Mr. Connor added, however, that his view of how legislation should be developed is different: "Let's deal with this on a straight-up basis. Public policy ought not to be accomplished through the art of the dodge and the feint."

The biggest feint of all, according to one executive close to the White House, has been the entire debate over separating "religious" and "nonreligious" content. "Let people fight over that. It's all a show," he said. "We kick and scream. We don't roll over too easy on language, or else they'll think it's what you wanted." What's truly important in the legislation, he said, is a "stealth provision" about vouchers: "Let people argue over grants, but get the vouchers passed."

The paragraph slipped into H.R. 7 gives the Secretaries of HUD, HHS, or other departments the authority to "direct the disbursement of some or all of the funds" in the form of vouchers given to the needy. The voucher option has received little attention because of John DiIulio's emphasis on grant-making, but one source involved in recent White House discussions said that "DiIulio has almost entirely been bypassed. He's a figurehead," a useful lobbyist "in a show palace ... and we're doing behind the scenes for him."

Just as the June inclusion of a secondary opt-out made liberals happy, so the inclusion of vouchers pleased conservatives. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "Voucherization is almost like a magic wand that deals with almost all the thorny church-state problems." Rep. Tancredo finally decided to vote for H.R. 7 because of the voucher provision: "If you take a voucher, you don't have to change your program." He hopes President Bush will promote vouchers and hopes that "if we have three years at least of a program in which hundreds of thousands of people are voucher recipients, it will become harder to change that."

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) also was pleased with the voucher provision: He "had initial concern that there would be restrictions, that people would not be able to speak about life-changing experiences," but the addition of nonrestrictive vouchers to the package eased that concern. One bump in the road almost sent conservatives over the edge: Some cautious TeamBush hands, worried about Democratic reaction, wanted the opt-out provision to apply to voucherized programs. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and other conservatives, however, stressed that "if they did that we would be gone"-abandoning H.R. 7.

As it turned out, the administration was ready to proceed with an unrestricted voucher plan. Earlier this year, in memos sent to WORLD, Carl Esbeck had emphasized the importance of differentiating "between indirect and direct funding. Indirect funding, via vouchers, tax credits, and the like, permits aid to [religiously] integrated faith-based organizations." Mr. Esbeck emphasized the importance of not doing anything that would "result in the Federal charitable choice law being declared unconstitutional," but once he gave a green light to vouchers without an opt-out the deal was done.

With some liberals assuaged by the religion-restricting language and conservatives jazzed by the voucher position, the rejiggered H.R. 7 made its debut on June 28 in 2141 Rayburn, the venue for its House Judiciary committee mark-up. The process of discussing and voting on amendments was long (10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) but, from the GOP perspective, flawless, as party-line voting inserted the Sensenbrenner-Esbeck changes and kept out Democratic proposals. A brief debate did break out on how to pronounce the word proselytization.

White House lobbying to keep conservative and evangelical organizations in line was intense. One lobbyist reminded hesitant groups that the National Association of Evangelicals supported H.R. 7, and then asked, "Why are you dragging your feet?" A vice president for governmental affairs at an evangelical political organization said, "I didn't like being pushed by the White House into a position on this, but we didn't want to be a fly in the ointment." Others, though, weren't complaining. "They're so thrilled to be invited to the White House," one TeamBush leader said sarcastically.

Lobbying allayed one threat shortly before Congress's July 4th recess. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), one of the most thoughtful members of Congress, has long preferred a $500 tax credit approach to helping anti-poverty groups. He considered offering that once more when two leading Democratic opponents of H.R. 7 offered to push it with him. "Bobby Scott and Chet Edwards were willing to drop [propose] the $500 tax bill with me," Mr. Souder said: "On the [House] floor it sounds like we don't like each other, but we get along fine." That idea died, though, when "John DiIulio and Don Eberly stopped me in the corridor and insisted, 'the president really needs this ... we'd really appreciate it if you hold off.' I had to let the president have his shot." Besides, Rep. Souder concluded, "the tax credit wouldn't have been able to make it through Ways and Means anyway."

The House Ways and Means Committee increased conservative angst concerning H.R. 7 on July 11 when it approved a Mini-me version of the tax reform relating to charitable deductions that President Bush had proposed. The president wanted taxpayers who do not itemize to be allowed to deduct charitable donations; Ways and Means agreed, but capped allowable deductions at $25 for single taxpayers, rising over a decade to a maximum of $100. Amounts would double for taxpayers filing jointly. Companies would be able to donate 15 percent rather than 10 percent of their profits to charity and would find it easier to donate food to poverty-fighting groups. People aged 70 or older would be able to donate money from IRAs to charities without facing tax penalties.

Democrats noted that the tax break would amount to $3.75 in annual savings for the typical nonitemizing, 15 percent-bracket taxpayer, and Rep. Souder said the $25 limit was "close to insulting. This should have been part of the first tax package.... We were interested in taking care of everyone else first, rather than this.... Why do we take it out of this area that's supposed to help the poor?" The administration, however, claimed victory, much as it had on the overall tax cut earlier this year. On that measure, however, President Bush had gained 80 percent of what he requested; this time, his $84 billion proposal (over 10 years) for nonitemizers ended up at $6 billion. The question was inevitable: Is getting 7 percent of what you want a win?

Still, this was not a deal-breaker for conservatives, especially since on the same day as the Ways and Means vote President Bush made his first lobbying trip to the Capitol in order to ask wavering Republicans to vote for H.R. 7. Speaking in a basement conference room, the president did not deal with the question of whether H.R. 7 would help the groups about which he spoke most highly. Instead, he stressed the general effectiveness of a faith-based approach: "I saw it work its magic in places where hope had been lost." He stressed, according to Rep. Tiahrt, that H.R. 7 "is so important to me that I want you to overlook some of the details and get it done."

Rep. Pitts recalled several days later, "He was very passionate, obviously committed to this. He said, 'This [religious approach] might not work for everybody, but it worked for me.' You could see he was tearing up. He was saying, 'give us a chance,' and when he was ready to leave, I hope everybody was willing to say, 'give him a chance.'" Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), the National Football League hall-of-famer who in past years had stood up to Newt Gingrich, was also moved: "He was incredible. He had no notes, he wasn't being handled at all, he was speaking from his heart."

On the day that the House Ways and Means Committee voted and President Bush emoted, The Washington Post quoted from a purported Salvation Army memo and almost blew apart the deal. The Salvation Army (which already enters into many government contracts) has been concerned about whether it will be able to maintain its policy that single officers, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are to be celibate. Gay lobbyists view that as discrimination against homosexuals, and some 200 American communities now ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; some 160 require domestic partner benefits. The Salvation Army, according to Major George Hood, asked a consultant to propose a plan to defend its religious liberty. When the Post publicized the document as having come from the Army as part of a White House/Army cabal, suddenly the issue of discrimination against gays was wagging H.R. 7.

What looked like a deal-breaker arose July 17 at the hands of Mark Foley, a Florida Republican whose district includes part of liberal Palm Beach County. He proposed an amendment that would force religious organizations receiving federal dollars to comply with state and local civil-rights ordinances from which, under Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Law, they would otherwise be exempt. On July 18 the Family Research Council sent out an e-mail "Emergency Alert-Call Congress Now!" under the heading, "Homosexuals to Hijack Faith-Based Bill."

Shannon Royce, direction of government relations and legislative counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention, rapid-fire called legislators about the "killer amendment" and said, "If that amendment passes we will oppose the bill. We're not going to support a broadly expanded civil-rights measure to the benefit of homosexuals."

Even groups that had been on the fence concerning H.R. 7, such as Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition, weighed in as opponents of the "gay amendment." Reps. Largent, Tiahrt, and Tancredo were among those WORLD spoke with on July 19 who said they would definitely oppose the bill if the amendment passed. But in the end, that dispute ended with a promise by Speaker Denny Hastert and other House Republican leaders to try to work out a compromise involving such matters later on. Their supposition is that if a U.S. Senate controlled by Democrats passes a faith-based initiative bill, it will most likely incorporate gay concerns.

Debate on the House floor on July 19 brought no surprises. Rep. Tancredo, both principled and realistic, said that morning, "I hope the big battle occurs around the discrimination issue. I think we can win on that"-and he was right. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was one of the few members of Congress to mention vouchers that day, but he ran out of time. The Republican message was consistent, and voiced most simply by Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.): "Let's give the president a chance on this." In the end, only four Republicans voted against H.R. 7, while 15 Democrats voted for it.

Forecasts for the Senate were not optimistic. William Murray said, "We have given up 50 percent to the other side without a shot being fired.... How much more do we give up in the Senate?" Under Senate and press scrutiny the voucher section will certainly not remain a "stealth provision." Rep. Souder praised the voucher section as "a breakthrough" but said "it's not like it will pass the Senate." Regarding the pittance for nonitemizers that emerged from the House meatgrinder, Mr. Souder predicted that "We'll be lucky to hold our $25." Ken Connor of the Family Research Council recalled recent experience with the Bush education bill: "By the time it mutated through its various iterations, it was something we could not support." He sorrowfully expected similar faith-based mutation: "I suspect that by the time the Senate gets through with it, conservatives will have the same revulsion for the bill that they had for the education bill."

Rep. Tiahrt predicted that the Senate would add more restrictions on faith-based groups and would require grant recipients to hire people who do not agree with its religious values. The measure would be "difficult to vote for at that point," but he said there's not much choice: "I like to buy groceries because I get what I want," yet the legislative process often leaves him with lots of Tang in his coffee. Rep. Tancredo zeroed in on the White House's Beltway strategy: "There's a terrible problem with that strategy. It gives liberals far more power than they would otherwise have.... Shut off outside discussion, you end up with an ugly product."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.