Cover Story

Rolling the Dice

"Rolling the Dice" Continued...

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

White House lobbying to keep conservative and evangelical organizations in line was intense. One lobbyist reminded hesitant groups that the National Association of Evangelicals supported H.R. 7, and then asked, "Why are you dragging your feet?" A vice president for governmental affairs at an evangelical political organization said, "I didn't like being pushed by the White House into a position on this, but we didn't want to be a fly in the ointment." Others, though, weren't complaining. "They're so thrilled to be invited to the White House," one TeamBush leader said sarcastically.

Lobbying allayed one threat shortly before Congress's July 4th recess. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), one of the most thoughtful members of Congress, has long preferred a $500 tax credit approach to helping anti-poverty groups. He considered offering that once more when two leading Democratic opponents of H.R. 7 offered to push it with him. "Bobby Scott and Chet Edwards were willing to drop [propose] the $500 tax bill with me," Mr. Souder said: "On the [House] floor it sounds like we don't like each other, but we get along fine." That idea died, though, when "John DiIulio and Don Eberly stopped me in the corridor and insisted, 'the president really needs this ... we'd really appreciate it if you hold off.' I had to let the president have his shot." Besides, Rep. Souder concluded, "the tax credit wouldn't have been able to make it through Ways and Means anyway."

The House Ways and Means Committee increased conservative angst concerning H.R. 7 on July 11 when it approved a Mini-me version of the tax reform relating to charitable deductions that President Bush had proposed. The president wanted taxpayers who do not itemize to be allowed to deduct charitable donations; Ways and Means agreed, but capped allowable deductions at $25 for single taxpayers, rising over a decade to a maximum of $100. Amounts would double for taxpayers filing jointly. Companies would be able to donate 15 percent rather than 10 percent of their profits to charity and would find it easier to donate food to poverty-fighting groups. People aged 70 or older would be able to donate money from IRAs to charities without facing tax penalties.

Democrats noted that the tax break would amount to $3.75 in annual savings for the typical nonitemizing, 15 percent-bracket taxpayer, and Rep. Souder said the $25 limit was "close to insulting. This should have been part of the first tax package.... We were interested in taking care of everyone else first, rather than this.... Why do we take it out of this area that's supposed to help the poor?" The administration, however, claimed victory, much as it had on the overall tax cut earlier this year. On that measure, however, President Bush had gained 80 percent of what he requested; this time, his $84 billion proposal (over 10 years) for nonitemizers ended up at $6 billion. The question was inevitable: Is getting 7 percent of what you want a win?

Still, this was not a deal-breaker for conservatives, especially since on the same day as the Ways and Means vote President Bush made his first lobbying trip to the Capitol in order to ask wavering Republicans to vote for H.R. 7. Speaking in a basement conference room, the president did not deal with the question of whether H.R. 7 would help the groups about which he spoke most highly. Instead, he stressed the general effectiveness of a faith-based approach: "I saw it work its magic in places where hope had been lost." He stressed, according to Rep. Tiahrt, that H.R. 7 "is so important to me that I want you to overlook some of the details and get it done."

Rep. Pitts recalled several days later, "He was very passionate, obviously committed to this. He said, 'This [religious approach] might not work for everybody, but it worked for me.' You could see he was tearing up. He was saying, 'give us a chance,' and when he was ready to leave, I hope everybody was willing to say, 'give him a chance.'" Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), the National Football League hall-of-famer who in past years had stood up to Newt Gingrich, was also moved: "He was incredible. He had no notes, he wasn't being handled at all, he was speaking from his heart."

On the day that the House Ways and Means Committee voted and President Bush emoted, The Washington Post quoted from a purported Salvation Army memo and almost blew apart the deal. The Salvation Army (which already enters into many government contracts) has been concerned about whether it will be able to maintain its policy that single officers, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are to be celibate. Gay lobbyists view that as discrimination against homosexuals, and some 200 American communities now ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; some 160 require domestic partner benefits. The Salvation Army, according to Major George Hood, asked a consultant to propose a plan to defend its religious liberty. When the Post publicized the document as having come from the Army as part of a White House/Army cabal, suddenly the issue of discrimination against gays was wagging H.R. 7.

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