WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is pushing House Republicans to scale back legislation opening government programs to religious charities in an effort win broader support for the measure. Specifically, the Bush administration wants to return to language that Congress has already voted for several times, according to officials in Congress and the administration and lobbyists who are tracking the issue, who all spoke on condition of anonymity. This would remove one particularly dicey element of the bill now pending and would allow supporters to campaign for the bill by telling members of Congress that this is nothing new. John DiIulio, who directs the White House Office on Community and Faith-Based Initiatives, said Wednesday he was optimistic that changes would help win support for the legislation, which has been criticized by civil libertarians and some religious conservatives. ``A number of really excellent modifications have been suggested,'' he said. ``I expect to see changes. I think they will be generally pleasing to everyone.'' DiIulio has been pushing the administration to support a compromise that could win support from key Democrats, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who attended Bush's event introducing the initiative but has declined to put his name on legislation. ``Charitable choice,'' which opens government programs to churches, synagogues and other religious groups, is already law for welfare, drug treatment and community service programs. Each time, it passed with bipartisan support and President Clinton's signature, although Clinton suggested it would be unconstitutional to give money to the most religious programs.
Now Republicans hope to move legislation to the House floor by next week that would expand charitable choice to 10 new social service programs, including juvenile justice, housing, domestic violence and hunger relief. In past years, there was only minimal opposition, but Bush put it among his top domestic priorities, and the issue is getting much closer scrutiny this year. The House bill, co-sponsored by Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and Tony Hall, D-Ohio, goes further than versions now in law in a few ways. Most controversially, it allows religious groups to require its employees to adhere to its religious practices, a provision that opponents say could lead to discrimination against gays, women and other groups. It also says that government ``shall'' consider religious groups for funding, whereas current law simply says they are eligible. And if religious groups are denied funding, they can sue the government for damages; under current law they can just get a court order. ``They (the administration) want to make the bill as clean as possible and as close as resemblance to charitable choice provisions that have already passed (Congress) with strong bipartisan support,'' said a congressional staff member who is working on the issue. So far, the bill has attracted very little support from Democrats, who are concerned about funding programs that try to convert people. They also object to allowing religious groups that get tax dollars to discriminate based on religion in hiring staff. Going back to the original language won't allay opponents' concern, said Dan Katz, lobbyist for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The bill still allows groups to consider religion in hiring and still allows for funding programs that include proselytizing, although the religious aspects of these programs would have to be paid for with private dollars.
``It still contains the core problems that everyone's concerned about,'' he said.