Faced with a fierce backlash by moderate Republicans and Democrats, House GOP leaders postponed a major vote Wednesday on President Bush's plan to expand the role of faith-based charities in providing social services to the nation's poor.
The decision by the bill's advocates underscored the heated emotions surrounding the proposal, which is a domestic priority of the White House. The faith-based initiative would make it easier for religious charities to get a broad range of federal contracts and would provide $13.3 billion in tax breaks to encourage charitable giving.
But a smoldering flap over the issue of employment discrimination by faith-based charities blew up into a full-fledged controversy Wednesday, catching Republican leaders off guard and raising new questions about the future of the initiative.
While the bill would preserve an exemption from employment discrimination laws granted to religious organizations in 1964, critics argue that the social service arms of charities receiving federal dollars should not be allowed to discriminate in their hiring policies.
Skeptical lawmakers complained that the proposed law would effectively wipe out state and local measures that prohibit job discrimination against homosexuals.
"Now that the truth about this bill has been exposed, even members of the president's own party cannot support it in good faith," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
Despite the last-minute decision to avoid a showdown, House GOP leaders insisted they would win a vote that could come as early as today.
"We feel like we do have the votes to prevail," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, leader of the House Republican Conference, blaming Wednesday's difficulties on "misinformation and propaganda."
The bill would strengthen the ability of religious charities to compete for government grants in a growing list of programs, including housing, domestic violence and hunger relief, building on a strategy that was approved as part of the 1996 welfare reform bill. It would allow groups receiving such aid to maintain much of their religious flavor but would prohibit them from including proselytization or worship in their publicly funded programs.
There has been a bipartisan schism over the issue for months, with Democrats much more wary about some of the bill's provisions than are Republicans. But adding new headaches for the plan's supporters, some GOP moderates lined up with Democratic opponents of the measure.
Throughout the day, Republican leaders huddled with Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who was at the center of efforts to resolve the matter.
Foley said in a statement that the dispute was not over the use of religious considerations in hiring for religious jobs. Rather, he said, federal policy should make clear that "the charitable arm which collects government funds should not be allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices or the delivery of services to those who need it most."
Republican officials later said the White House, GOP leaders and lawmakers who raised the discrimination issue were attempting to draft a scripted exchange of views to be read on the House floor today, saying that the controversy would be addressed in a final House-Senate compromise.
As the battle lines formed, advocates on both sides of the issue became more pointed in their complaints.
The Family Research Council, a conservative group, declared the bill was "in danger of being hijacked by homosexual groups." The council said it would abandon its support for the measure if it were changed to defer to state and local laws.
Such comments prompted Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a critic of the bill, to retort: "It's always a good sign when your opponent lies."
Throughout the hectic day, the actual vote count also seemed uncertain. Asked if Democrats had enough votes to prevail in a key procedural motion--one that ultimately did not take place--Frank said: "We don't know, but they [Republicans] don't appear" to have the votes either.
Democrats are "worried about this bill," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, adding that he was "not quite sure" why Congress should allow faith-based organizations to be immune from state and local anti-discrimination laws.
Yet it was the doubts of a small group of Republican moderates that tossed the GOP leadership strategy into disarray.
"This bill is a political nightmare for the White House," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It has already alienated religious leaders, civil rights advocates and social service providers. Now members of the president's own party are jumping ship."
Civil libertarians were stunned last week by disclosures that the Bush administration was considering a request from the Salvation Army to exempt it from local laws banning job discrimination against homosexuals. After media reports prompted a storm of protest, White House officials dropped the idea.
Yet some critics of the faith-based initiative fear the House legislation will allow the same result.
"Whether through regulation or legislation, our government should not fund discrimination through taxpayer funds," declared Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group.
Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a member of the House leadership who is close to the president, downplayed the political significance of Wednesday's postponement.
"It's a difficult area," Portman said. "It's an area fraught with sensitive issues. No one said this was going to be easy."
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.