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Bush Backs Religious Charity and a Shaky Incumbent

ELISABETH BUMILLER New York Times 7/2/2002

MILWAUKEE, July 2 — President Bush promoted a bill today to give federal money to religious charities as he campaigned for Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican who White House officials think has a "strong chance" of losing to a Democrat in November.

It was Mr. Bush's sixth visit in 18 months to Wisconsin, a state he lost to Al Gore by fewer than 6,000 votes. The trip was designed to shore up the struggling Mr. McCallum as well as Mr. Bush's chances here in his 2004 re-election campaign.

"It's great to be here in the midst of so many social entrepreneurs," Mr. Bush told several hundred people this morning at the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal religious organization that provides an array of social services, including a school for 600 students.

Mr. Bush once again called upon the Senate to pass a bill central to his "compassionate conservative" agenda that would make it easier for religious groups other than giant institutions like Catholic Charities to apply for federal money.

The legislation also clarifies laws that say organizations cannot be disqualified from receiving federal money simply because of their religious nature. Groups with religious names often complain that they are turned down for federal grants by people who erroneously believe that giving government money to such groups is illegal.

As an example, Mr. Bush cited the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, which he said had been wrongly discouraged by federal officials in applying for government money.

"The federal government should not ask, `Does your organization believe in God?' " Mr. Bush said. "That's not the question they ought to ask. They ought to ask: `Does your program work? Are you saving lives? Are you making a difference in people's lives?' "

He added that "organizations that have a religious name or religious icons on the wall like a cross or star of David should be welcomed partners in providing for the poor."

The legislation, a watered-down version of a bill the president wanted, has passed the House and last month made it through the Senate Finance Committee. Today White House officials called on Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

The version of the legislation approved by the Finance Committee shrunk the president's favorite part of the bill, a proposal to give an $800 charitable deduction to couples who do not itemize on their federal income tax. Non-itemizers are generally moderate-income taxpayers. Senators of both parties had objected to the $800 deduction because the government already allows a substantial total standard deduction for non-itemizers of $4,550 for singles and $7,600 for married couples.

The new version would not allow couples to deduct the first $500 that they give to a charity, but it would let them deduct the next $500 out of a total $1,000 charitable contribution.

The bill would also provide technical assistance to smaller community charitable groups that are not necessarily religious ones and offer more money to Meals on Wheels and other relief programs for the poor. The cost of the bill is estimated at $10 billion over 10 years.

"We've got supporters all over Washington on this bill, and that's good," Mr. Bush said. "Both Republicans and Democrats. See, I don't view faith as a partisan issue. I view it as a universal issue, much bigger than party politics."

But aides to Mr. Daschle said today that the majority leader was in no hurry to bring the bill to a vote, despite the president's call for the Senate to act quickly.

"Last I checked he wasn't the majority leader of the Senate," Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Mr. Daschle, said of Mr. Bush.

Ms. Schmelzer said Mr. Daschle was likely to bring the bill to a vote "sometime this year."

James Towey, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, acknowledged that "this is not going to be easy, every step of the way."

Mr. Bush was joined at the event by Tommy G. Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin who is now the health and human services secretary, as well as Mr. McCallum. A confidential White House analysis that fell into the hands of Democrats last month revealed that the White House was concerned about Mr. McCallum's political future.

The analysis listed Wisconsin Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee as states where there was a "strong chance" of a Democrat winning the governorship.


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