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Behind the Headlines; Jewish Groups Monitoring Legislation Before Congress on Panoply of Issues

Jewish groups are carefully monitoring a number of bills Congress is expected to act on before it begins its Labor Day recess in early August.

Representatives of several Jewish organizations have been intensively lobbying senators this week to back the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which is expected to come up for a vote soon.

Other pending bills deal with such issues as foreign aid to Israel, sanctions against Iraq, federal aid to sectarian child-care programs, restrictions on ritual practices that violate state laws and exemptions for religious institutions from provisions of the Disabilities Act.

Jewish groups were relieved when the House of Representatives failed Tuesday to muster enough votes to adopt a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.

The vote was 279-150, seven votes short of the required two-thirds majority. The bill also would have needed to win approval from two-thirds of the Senate and ratification by at least 38 states.

Pro-Israel groups feared that the $3 billion foreign aid package Israel receives from the United States each year would be a casualty of any across-the-board budget-cutting mechanism.

The bill also had “the potential to have a drastic impact” on a number of domestic programs that benefit Jewish groups, said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

EXEMPTION ON IMPORT QUOTAS

Israel received a direct benefit in a totally unrelated bill Tuesday, when the Senate voted to exempt Israel and Canada from protectionist legislation limiting U.S. imports of textiles, clothing and footwear.

Since those countries have signed free trade agreements with the United States, they were exempted from new quotas limiting the growth of such imports to 1 percent annually.

The House is not scheduled to consider the measure until after Labor Day.

Also Tuesday, one of Israel’s enemies, Iraq, suffered a setback when the Senate Banking Committee approved various sanctions against Baghdad, including making it ineligible for Commodity Credit Corporation credit guarantees.

Iraq was designated to receive $1 billion in the credit guarantees this year, half of which is on hold because of a Justice Department inquiry into alleged Iraqi abuses of the program.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Act advanced a step toward passage Tuesday, when the Senate voted to limit further debate on the bill to a maximum of 30 hours. Several Jewish groups had actively lobbied for approval of the “cloture” motion, which passed by a vote of 62-38.

The bill provides legislative remedies that essentially overturn several recent court rulings that have cut back on the use of affirmative action in hiring and promotion decisions.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill’s sponsor, met Tuesday with 35 groups that support the bill, including the American Jewish Committee, AJCongress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, National Council of Jewish Women and Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

But at least one Jewish group, Agudath Israel of America, opposes certain provisions of the bill, because it fears they will force some employers to resort to quotas in order to avoid litigation.

Other Jewish groups opposed to quotas disagree.

It remains unclear whether President Bush would sign such a bill if it passed the Senate and the House, where it is still locked in committee.

CHILD CARE BILL STALLED

The cloture vote was the first key vote on the measure on the Senate floor. Among the votes yet to come will be one on adoption of a substitute civil rights bill, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.).

Most Jewish groups strenuously oppose that bill, which would shift the burden of proof from the employers toward victims of racial discrimination and would not allow victims of religious or sex discrimination to sue for damages.

Jewish groups are also divided over provisions of the multibillion-dollar child care bill recently approved by the House and Senate.

The bill would allow child-care programs involved in religious instruction to receive federal funds. It also would allow sectarian child-care providers receiving federal aid to use religious preferences in hiring workers and admitting clients.

While those provisions are welcomed by Orthodox groups, whose institutions stand to benefit, a wide spectrum of other Jewish organizations have opposed aid to sectarian programs, saying it would violate the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Those groups hope President Bush will veto the bill. If he does, it will likely be for other reasons, such as budgetary concerns and his preference for distributing the aid through tax credits rather than grants.

The bill cannot go to the White House for signature until House and Senate negotiators iron out differences between the $10 billion House version of the bill and the $27 billion Senate version.

Similar language on hiring preferences is being proposed as well in the National Service Act, pending in the House Education and Labor Committee, which would provide federal aid to employers promoting voluntary service.

RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION BILLS

Meanwhile, Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) is expected to introduce a bill next week that seeks to reverse the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding an Oregon law barring American Indians from using the drug peyote in their religious rituals.

Jewish groups were upset that the Supreme Court created a new test that defers to state laws when they collide with religious liberties.

The old test, which the amendment would restore, requires statutes that infringe on religious practices to serve a “compelling interest.”

Solarz earlier this year introduced a bill that would require employers to make special accommodations to employees who do not want to work on their Sabbath or religious holidays.

AJCongress helped draft both of Solarz’s measures, which have support ranging from the liberal People for the American Way to the conservative Agudath Israel and National Association of Evangelicals.

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