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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Have Eye on Congress As Lawmakers Rush to Complete Work

Lawmakers have returned from their Labor Day recess raring to tackle a heavy legislative agenda before the 101st Congress adjourns less than a month from now in early October.

Jewish groups are eyeing developments on Capitol Hill cautiously as legislators rush to complete business so they can campaign full-time for re-election in November.

The biggest single issue facing Congress is how to bridge an $85 billion shortfall in the government’s projected 1991 deficit to avoid massive across-the-board budget cuts that will take effect Oct. 1 if a solution is not found.

While a number of other pieces of major legislation are pending, there appears to be little time for issues not germane to the 13 appropriations bills that must still be approved before the start of the new fiscal year.

That means such major legislation as a landmark child-care bill and one reforming campaign financing are safe bets for the back burner, barring a rare “lame-duck” session in December, which has not occurred since 1982.

The Senate also will be preoccupied, beginning Thursday, with confirmation hearings for New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who has been nominated to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created when Justice William Brennan Jr. suddenly resigned in July.

The American Jewish Congress has submitted 10 sample questions for the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask Souter, covering a number of issues, including church-state concerns and reproductive freedom, otherwise known as abortion rights.

FLOOR FIGHTS ON ABORTION

Abortion battles are also expected to erupt on the floors of the respective chambers, when three separate bills are debated:

The District of Columbia spending bill. Congress will consider allowing locally, as well as federally, raised funds to pay for poor women’s abortions in cases of incest, rape or certain health reasons. Current law allows both types of funds to be used only for abortions in instances where the mother’s life is imperiled. President Bush successfully vetoed the bill last year after Congress tried to enact the broader language.

The labor, health and human services, and education spending bill. Most Jewish groups favor a proposal to allow Medicaid to be used to finance abortions in cases of incest or rape, as was the case between 1973 and 1981. Under current law, Medicaid can be used to pay for abortions only when the mother’s life is endangered.

The foreign operations spending bill, also known as the foreign aid bill. The House of Representatives voted earlier this summer to bar Planned Parenthood and the U.N. Population Fund from distributing $3 million in Romania for family planning. The Senate may also vote on the matter.

An estimated $220 million in U.S. funds were spent last year by the State Department’s Agency for International Development for family planning, but those funds are used to educate foreigners only about natural forms of childbirth, such as the “rhythm method.”

Sammie Moshenberg, Washington representative of the National Council of Jewish Women, said Third World countries are in dire need of assistance for more “viable” means of birth control.

CHILD-CARE BILL STALLED

Both chambers of Congress have already adopted a landmark civil rights bill, which would overturn a string of recent Supreme Court rulings by making it easier for victims of employment discrimination to win legal relief.

President Bush will likely veto the bill, which has the support of most Jewish groups, because he contends it will lead employers to resort to quotas to avoid litigation.

The multibillion-dollar child-care bill, though, may not reach the president’s desk, as it has been stalled for months in a House-Senate conference committee.

The bill has been opposed by several Jewish groups, because it would provide federal funds to sectarian child-care programs and allow them to use religious preferences in hiring workers and enrolling children.

The campaign-finance overhaul bill may also die in conference committee. The Senate version would eliminate all political action committees, including pro-Israel PACs, while the House would cap the PAC contributions a lawmaker could receive at $275,000.

* Two bills of particular interest to the Jewish community may never get to the floor for debate:

* The Public Disclosure of Religious Dietary Certification Act would require forms to be filed with the Food and Drug Administration for products labeled as kosher that are shipped through interstate commerce.

* The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would reverse the Supreme Court’s newly enunciated test of deferring to state statutes that collide with religious liberties. Its supporters may have to be content with a Sept. 27 hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights.

Complicating the budget picture is the enormous cost of the Persian Gulf crisis. Aside from the billions of dollars it is costing the armed forces to send troops and military equipment to the Gulf, there is President Bush’s recommendation that Congress forgive Egypt’s $7 billion debt for military aid. And Israel has hinted it wants equal treatment of its $4.5 billion debt.

REFUGEE AID ON THE AGENDA

Other major budget items to be tackled during the coming weeks include the $3 billion in foreign aid for Israel and funding for the 40,000 Soviet Jewish refugees expected to gain entry to the United States next year.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) may amend the foreign aid bill to include language directing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to grant Soviet Jews and others a presumption of eligibility for refugee status, on the basis that they have historically faced a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

The budget summit has Jewish groups concerned, because one option on the table is capping at $50,000 the deductions that can be taken on federal income tax returns, including deductions for charitable contributions.

Without a budget summit agreement or a waiver of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act, across-the-board cuts could exceed 30 percent for most domestic programs.

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