Few in Congress Backing Bush Request for 4-month Delay on Loan Guarantees

President Bush is winning little backing on Capitol Hill for his request that Congress delay action for four months on granting Israel guarantees for $10 billion in loans it is seeking for immigrant resettlement.

Members of Congress appear committed to supporting prompt action on the loan guarantees, despite an intensive campaign by President Bush to convince the congressional leadership to back his request for a 120-day delay.

But no action on the loan guarantees is expected until after Secretary of State James Baker returns from a visit next week to Israel and other Middle East nations.

In the meantime, the Bush administration and the American Jewish community will be intensively lobbying members of Congress on the issue in what many have called the biggest battle between Jews and the administration since Ronald Reagan’s 1981 sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday, more than 500 Jewish leaders from across the country were to converge on Capitol Hill to urge individual senators and representatives to support immediate approval of the loan guarantees.

The National Leadership Action Day was being co-sponsored by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in consultation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

BUSH IS ‘GOING TO FIGHT FOR IT’

“I think we will have strong support on the Hill,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. “I don’t think that the president has found any significant support.”

But Bush reiterated to reporters Wednesday that he will put the full prestige of his office behind his request.

“I’m going to fight for it, and I think the American people will back me when we take the case to the American people,” he said.

Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Robert Kasten (R-Wis.) plan to introduce a bill authorizing the guarantees soon, according to an aide to Kasten.

She said the two senators inserted the language of the bill into the Congressional Record on Tuesday so that senators could have a chance to read it.

Inouye, Kasten and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, met with Bush on Tuesday.

In an attempt to persuade them to back the four-month delay, the president reportedly promised the senators he would seek no further postponement, no matter what the status of the Middle East peace process after the 120 days are up in January.

He also promised to provide the necessary legislative vehicle to get the loan guarantees approved and said he would ask other countries to help Israel obtain loans for immigrant resettlement.

After the session, Kasten said, “Clearly, compromise on this situation is possible.”

As a first step, he said the foreign operations subcommittee will not consider loan guarantees legislation until after Baker’s return from the Middle East, during which he is expected to discuss the issue with Israeli leaders.

Leahy and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, have accepted Bush’s argument that the delay is needed to protect the peace process.

So have Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.).

SHAMIR REJECTS LINKAGE

But most House and Senate members who have spoken on the issue so far have rejected a postponement or linkage with the peace process. They have warned that such a delay would appear to give in to pressure from the Arabs.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir again rejected linkage of the guarantees “to any political issues whatsoever.”

Such linkage “might well create an atmosphere that prejudices the peace process,” Shamir told reporters Wednesday before leaving for a trip to Paris.

But the prime minister stressed that he was not threatening to back away from Israel’s commitment to attend the Middle East peace conference that the United States and Soviet Union hope to convene next month.

In Washington, Bush told reporters Wednesday that “a simple delay here, in my view and in the view of all of us in the administration, is the best way to set the proper tone for these talks to start.”

In a letter this week to congressional leaders, Bush said he was “deeply concerned that if we address Israeli absorption guarantees now — on the eve of the (peace) conference — we could divert attention from our efforts to get the parties together for these historic negotiations.”

He also warned that moving on the guarantees now could mean “losing the participation of either our Arab or Israeli negotiating partner.”

‘NOT COMMITTED TO ANY NUMBERS’

The president also argued that a “postponement will afford us an opportunity to study Israel’s needs in greater details and to craft a program which has the greatest likelihood of promoting successful absorption at minimal taxpayer cost while contributing to the prospects for peace.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that Bush has never committed himself to supporting guarantees for $10 billion in loans, although he has said he wants to help Israel absorb its new Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants.

The president confirmed this Wednesday. “I’m not committed to any numbers and never have been,” he said.

But Bush told senators Tuesday that Washington would help Israel with interim financial aid until the loans could be taken out.

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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