President Bush signaled the start of a new battle over faith-based health and social service programs in a State of the Union address that included a firm defense of his war in Iraq, a call to make his controversial tax cuts permanent and not a single mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the stalled "road map" for bringing it to an end.
But Bush could face the same problems in selling his new faith-based plans to Congress that led to the gutting of a major initiative last year.
In a speech long on broad principals, short on specifics -- especially specifics that would result in new spending -- Bush asked Congress to write into law orders he issued opening government contracts to religious service providers.
The president resorted to those orders when Congress removed most of the "charitable choice" provisions from major faith-based legislation, leaving just a collection of tax breaks intended to make it easier for charities to raise money.
Bush said that he has "opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities," and asked lawmakers to "codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again."
That call was praised by the Orthodox Union (OU), which has supported the administration's push for faith-based programs.
Nathan Diament, the OU's Washington director, said that faith-based efforts "must be supported, wherever appropriate and possible, by partnerships with the government. And no agency should be excluded from such productive partnerships merely because its members coalesce around a set of religiously inspired principles."
But Jewish church-state groups expressed doubts that Congress will be any more receptive this time around.
"It will be a hard sell," said Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
He said, provisions of the faith-based executive orders that allow grantees to discriminate on the basis of religion have generated resistance in Congress. And "some of the executive orders set in place a system by which a group can involve participants in worship, in proselytizing, in religious instruction."
The ADL will continue to oppose such proposals, Lieberman said. So will other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Bush also offered conditional support for a "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment -- a top priority for Christian conservative groups. But several of those groups, including the Family Research Council, complained that Bush did not go far enough.
Despite early rumors that he would use the address to announce new Middle East initiatives, the president only referred to the Middle East conflict indirectly, citing Jerusalem in his list of places affected by the terror threat.
But Bush defended his call for democracy in the region, calling it a "realistic goal."
Jewish peace process supporters were unhappy with the lack of new Mideast initiatives. "Combined with a series of other things, this speech signals the administration's withdrawal from the peace process playing field," said Lewis Roth, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.
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