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Leonard Leo (Getty Images/AFP)

Sudden death?

Religion | The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom may fold under a Senate Democrat's opposition

WASHINGTON-The U.S. government's resources for monitoring international religious freedom are already small and they may get smaller.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government watchdog for abuses of religious freedom abroad, may cease to exist if the Senate doesn't act over the weekend to reauthorize it. Congress leaves soon for a weeklong recess, depending on when the House and Senate resolve a spending bill to keep the government functioning, and the commission will shut down Sept. 30 without Senate reauthorization. One Democratic senator is apparently holding up the reauthorization, according to several sources.

If the 13-year-old commission does shut down next Friday, Congress could still reauthorize it at any point, but all the commissioners would have to be reappointed and staff rehired-a process that could stall the commission's work for a year or more.

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The House reauthorized the commission last week in a bill that dramatically reforms the group. The bill cuts the number of commissioners from nine to five and slashes the budget from $4 million to $3 million. The bill also stipulates that the General Accountability Office issue a report next year on not only the commission, but also the State Department office of international religious freedom and the ambassador for international religious freedom.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced a bill in the House to reauthorize the commission earlier this year, but he told me the bill's supporters struggled to find enough votes for a straight reauthorization-lawmakers wanted to cut the budget to $3 million.

"If that's the condition, we said we'll go down to that," said Wolf, who introduced a revised version earlier this month. "We had the votes to pass it with [the] $3 million [budget]. This way it would roll right through."

The revised bill, which Wolf describes as "noncontroversial" in both chambers, passed the House with only a handful of "no" votes. But the bill's backers didn't count on a Senate Democrat opposing the authorization. A single senator can place an anonymous hold to prevent legislation from coming to the floor for a vote, a block that the Senate majority leader can heed at his discretion.

The commission's budget supports staff salaries, travel to countries all over the world for commissioner and staff research on abuses of religious freedom, and other projects. The other arm of the U.S. government that monitors this issue, aside from Congress, is the State Department's office of international religious freedom, which also has a pint-sized budget.

"Other countries are creating bodies like ours," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the commission. "At the same time we're jeopardizing the existence of our own?" Commissions monitoring religious freedom are beginning in Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Philippines, he said.

"If somebody does have a hold on it-here we have growing Christian persecution and anti-Semitism . . . I would hope they would surface and say, 'This is the reason,' and let it go," Wolf said. "I would hope this would not be a political thing."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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