President Bush's more ambitious effort to open new government programs to religious groups is off the table, at least for now, derailed by questions about its constitutionality and eclipsed by the terror attacks. It passed the House but has been stalled in the Senate since summer.
White House domestic policy adviser John Bridgeland said Bush still supports the broader plan but is willing to push the scaled-backed version with elements that enjoy widespread support in Congress. ``This is where the consensus is with the Senate,'' he said.
Among other things, the revised package would give taxpayers who do not itemize deductions a new break for giving money to either religious or secular charitable organizations.
The tax breaks are popular, but they will have to compete with other tax cuts, bioterrorism preparation, military spending and other priorities.
``It can be done. It's just a matter of agreeing on a number,'' said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who has been working with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to revive the initiative.
``This is one very important step in an extremely comprehensive and important compassion agenda,'' Bridgeland said.
The package won't include the most ambitious, and the most controversial, aspect of the president's plan. Known as ``charitable choice,'' it would allow churches, synagogues and other religious groups to compete for government contracts to run nearly a dozen new federal programs.
The legislation narrowly passed the House in July. Many Democrats were disturbed that churches would be allowed to accept government money while keeping an exemption from civil rights laws that allows them to consider religion in hiring and firing employees.
Then the Sept. 11 terror attacks hit, and virtually every issue unrelated to them fell off the government's radar screen.
Now the White House and its Senate supporters are putting together a package they hope can pass Congress without contention.
Some conservatives say it's not nearly enough, and they fear it will kill momentum for the broader effort.
``The White House has to send a pretty clear message that this doesn't mean we're walking away from charitable choice,'' said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the chief House sponsor. ``If you take out the faith-based piece, then it's not faith anything anymore.''
The White House wants to include modest language that clarifies the rights of religious groups already eligible for government money. For instance, Bridgeland said, it would specify that groups cannot be kept out of government programs simply because they have religious symbols on the wall or because of the wording of their charter.
This would address problems identified in an audit of federal agencies released this summer, he said.
Still unresolved is how much money will be dedicated to the package. Santorum and Lieberman initially hoped to spend $28 billion over 10 years, but neither expects full funding.
The most expensive element, at $18 billion, is the new tax break for taxpayers who take the standard deduction. The House passed a cheaper version, at $6 billion over 10 years, which amounts to just a few dollars per taxpayer.
Santorum said he and Lieberman would rather scrap that provision than pass such a meager version.