House Republican leaders, facing the defection of a dozen GOP moderates and an embarrassing defeat for the White House, abruptly canceled a vote Wednesday on President Bush's faith-based initiative and delayed debate on the bill for at least a day.
After hours of closed-door meetings, button-holing on the House floor and urgent calls from Vice President Dick Cheney _ Republican leaders insisted by the end of the day they had wooed enough wavering lawmakers to support one of the president's top priorities and approve the bill.
Late Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said, "We have made significant progress and we are very, very optimistic" about a victory today.
On Tuesday, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, a bill co-sponsor and a member of the leadership, spoke confidently of victory. But Wednesday morning, he found disarray in the GOP ranks over provisions in the bill that allow religious charities receiving federal funds to practice employment discrimination.
Several Republicans, including Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, confronted GOP leaders during a party caucus. Shays denounced them for not being forthright about the contents of Watts' bill or allowing debate on an amendment to require religious groups to abide by state and local anti-bias laws aimed at protecting homosexuals in employment.
A number of moderate Republicans, led by Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, said they were prepared to join Democrats to pass a procedural measure that would send Watts' bill back to the Judiciary Committee for revisions _ a vote GOP leaders knew could doom it.
"Federal policy should codify that the charitable arm (of a religious group) that collects government funds should not be allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices or delivery of services to those who need it most," Foley said in a statement Wednesday.
Last week, centrist Republicans defied their House leaders in an attempt to overhaul campaign finance laws. Wednesday's revolt, even if quickly quelled, was an example of the GOP leadership misreading members on an issue and a sign that the White House can't count on moderate House Republicans to support the president's agenda.
Watts said he expected to "manage" the situation, explain the legislation in detail, and answer the members' concerns. "Sometimes the propaganda sticks, and you just have to walk the members through it," he said.
Civil rights groups have been lobbying aggressively against Bush's plan to expand the access of social ministries to government programs because it would allow them to receive federal funds while being exempt from laws that bar religious discrimination in hiring. The 1964 Civil Rights Act permits privately funded religious groups to make hiring decisions based on their religious beliefs.
The issue ignited last week when the White House disclosed it had studied but rejected a request from the Salvation Army to issue a regulation that would exempt the Christian charity from state and local laws that bar discrimination against gays.