Cover Story

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

Issue: "Rolling the dice," Aug. 4, 2001

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.

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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.

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