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Republicans Divided on Faith-Based Bill

Even as Republicans remain publicly united in their goal to enact President Bush’s agenda, House and Senate GOP leaders are privately at odds over whether to make faith-based legislation a top priority in the coming weeks.

Senate Republicans are advocating quick passage of their faith bill, but House GOP leaders do not support the Senate version and prefer instead that lawmakers first focus their attention on approving welfare reform legislation.

House Republicans said they support passage of a faith-based bill, but oppose the Senate version because it does not protect religious organizations from making hiring decisions based upon a religious belief.

“We don’t want to pass something that is worse than current law,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “It doesn’t make sense.”

But a Senate Republican staffer said the House’s reluctance to address the issue would not stop the Senate from moving forward on the bill.

“We are proceeding without the House’s cooperation,” said a senior Senate GOP aide, who noted that the chamber is not expected to address welfare reform “in the first quarter of this year.”

The legislation, which is one of President Bush’s signature issues, is intended to increase charitable giving as well as allow religious organizations to compete for federal grants to help pay for social services.

Republican leaders are expected to address the scheduling disagreement at this week’s retreat when the House and Senate Republicans — along with White House officials — huddle at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

“We are working through it,” John Feehery, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said of the disagreement. “The fact of the matter is the House and Senate are going to be working on the president’s agenda and getting that agenda done.”

Still, the disagreement reveals the first crack in the otherwise harmonious relationship that has developed between the House and Senate Republican leadership. And it also illustrates the difficulty Republican leaders will likely face over the next two years as they try to move Bush’s agenda through Congress.

While Republicans have a strong operating majority in the House, the GOP only holds the Senate by two seats and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has purposely declined to lay out a schedule until after the retreat.

The lack of a floor schedule in the Senate has prompted Democrats to criticize Republican leaders for wasting time.

“Obviously, we have been concerned there has not been an active floor agenda for the past two weeks,” said Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.). “There certainly are many things Democrats would have liked to take up, such as raising the minimum wage.”

But a Frist spokesman said the Democratic criticisms “ring hollow” since Republicans had to spend the first few weeks of January mopping up unfinished business.

“We moved quickly in the first few weeks of the session to address the leftover business of the last session,” said Bob Stevenson, Frist’s spokesman. “We made great strides towards passing 11 appropriations bills, approved the nominations of Tom Ridge and John Snow, extended unemployment benefits, passed a continuing resolution and passed the Amber Alert bill.”

Stevenson added he expects the Senate will have a “full slate” of items to address after the Greenbrier retreat.

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