Battles Shaping Up in New Congress


With the holidays and the congressional interregnum, Washington has been a quiet place in recent weeks. But that quiet belies feverish behind-the-scenes planning as political partisans and advocacy groups get set for a particularly contentious legislative session.

Despite high expectations among groups on the religious right, controversial church-state legislation is unlikely to be at the top of the congressional to-do list as the re-elected Bush administration focuses on economic priorities, including sweeping changes in the Social Security and tax systems. That’s likely to leave Christian conservatives fuming, but they are in line to get a huge consolation prize: a revamped and far more conservative federal judiciary.

On the church-state front, some of the hottest action will continue to take place at the White House and in the courts, not on Capitol Hill.

President Bush, unable to implement much of his faith-based initiative through legislation, has accomplished much of it through executive action. Hundreds of federal funding programs have been opened up to religious groups without the traditional church-state safeguards. In many cases, federal agencies have been instructed to seek out sectarian groups to apply for funding to provide for health and social service programs.

The Bush administration will accelerate that effort and expand it to federal money flowing through state governments. However, civil rights and church-state groups, including some in the Jewish community, are beginning the arduous process of challenging those actions in the courts.

Some Republican leaders say they hope to make permanent some of those executive actions through legislation. As it stands now, a future president could reverse them overnight.

One vehicle for doing that could be the revived Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) bill. Originally, that measure contained the “charitable-choice” component of the president’s faith-based initiative, loosening rules for giving government money to religious groups. But those provisions were removed after strong resistance from congressional Democrats. What was left at the end of the 108th Congress was a collection of tax breaks intended to spur charitable giving — and even that didn’t make it through a Congress gripped by partisan gridlock.

However, Republican leaders may revive the original CARE bill, complete with charitable choice, early in the 109th Congress. That could prove an early test of the expanded congressional clout of the religious right.

That will create a dilemma for groups like the United Jewish Communities, which wants the tax break legislation but will have problems with constituent agencies if it supports a bill with sweeping charitable choice provisions.

On school vouchers, few observers expect much federal action, now that Congress has passed a “school-choice” program for the District of Columbia schools — the one jurisdiction where Congress wields considerable clout. Instead, voucher action will center on state governments around the country.

Christian conservatives will also renew their push for a Houses of Worship Free Speech Act, which the Christian Coalition says is necessary to ensure the free speech rights of pastors, priests and rabbis. But opponents, including almost every major Jewish group, say the proposal would just lead to disruptive pressure on the clergy to take sides in the partisan wars.

Conservatives will continue pressing for “court-stripping” legislation that would bar the federal courts from jurisdiction in particularly sensitive areas like same-sex marriage and the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. This year, they may extend that effort to the issue of public displays of the Ten Commandments.

Despite expanded GOP majorities, court-stripping proposals face long odds in both Houses. But on another front, social conservatives are poised for some big victories.

Bush has promised to renew the nominations of 20 federal court appointees held up by Democratic filibusters in the Senate, because of their views on abortion, civil rights and church-state separation. Republican leaders are threatening to change the rules to bar filibusters on court nominations — the so-called nuclear option. The current nomination fight is just a dress rehearsal for the Supreme Court confirmation battles that are likely in the next few years.

“The religious right has always known that their ultimate battles would be fought in the courts,” said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst with the Democratic Leadership Council and a former Christian Coalition lobbyist.

The more Republican Senate, a determined president and an aging Supreme Court could make that dream a reality in the next few years.

“The real bonanza for the religious right will be getting a sympathetic new voice on the Supreme Court,” Wittmann said.

Legislatively, the Bush administration will focus most of its domestic efforts on its push for partial privatization of Social Security and for sweeping changes in the Tax Code — issues the president sees as critical to his legacy.

Advocates of constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage and sweeping curbs on abortion are unlikely to get much support from an administration that will be cautious about expending its political capital. But the administration will continue the faith-based revolution it ignited through executive action — and it will seek long-term change in American society through a revolution in the courts.