Religious-persecution bill suffers setback in Senate

Lawmakers pulled the bill from the panel's docket after both Republicans and Democrats on the committee argued that the measure would alienate valuable diplomatic friends and economic partners.

The move, which comes with little time left in this session of Congress, greatly complicates efforts led by religious conservatives — and joined by a broad coalition of Jewish and other religious groups — to push such legislation through the 105th Congress.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a separate version of the bill in May, but it remains unclear whether enough time is left to work out differences between the House and Senate bills.

The House-approved legislation, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), requires the president to impose automatic economic sanctions against countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities. Those countries would be barred from most forms of aid. They would also face trade restrictions and American opposition to loans from international financial institutions.

The Senate bill, offered by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), takes a less stringent approach. It compels the United States to publish a list of offending countries and allows the president a range of responses, ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanctions.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said failure by the Senate to take action to fight religious persecution would be a "significant disappointment."

"I think that in a lot of ways the time is ripe for this legislation," Pelavin said, but added that "quite often important legislation takes a couple of congresses" to pass.

Stacy Burdett, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington office, said she sees a need to quickly move the legislation through Congress.

"Failure to pass the bill this year would send a dangerous signal to those regimes that oppress worshippers," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has promised to bring religious persecution legislation to the Senate floor for a vote before Congress adjourns in early October. If a compromise is not found, the Senate may simply vote on the bill that the House already approved.

The Clinton administration strongly opposes both measures. The White House and the State Department, along with Senate Democrats and some Republicans, argue that the legislation could backfire against religious minorities, hamstring U.S. foreign policy and highlight certain human rights abuses at the expense of others.

A handful of Jewish groups endorsed the Wolf-Specter bill earlier this year, but most now favor the Senate version, which they see as more flexible and potentially effective.

"[The Senate bill] really does have a lot of potential for providing the kind of response to religious persecution that's appropriate and that is going to make a clear statement, and at the same time, not interfere with the responsibilities of the president," said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.