Jewish Groups Draw Battle Lines Amid Talk of School Prayer Reform

Less than a week after the Republican takeover of Congress, battle lines are being drawn between Jewish groups and GOP leaders, who have pledged swift legislative action on school-prayer and balanced-budget amendments are well as draconian cuts to the welfare system.

Republican victors have already initiated plans to introduce a constitutional school-prayer amendment before July 4.

Further GOP plans to eliminate all welfare programs for legal immigrants threaten not only tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union living in America but thousands more seeking to come to the United States.

While some Jewish activists here hope the Republicans will tame their rhetoric once the results of their sweeping victory settle in, the vast majority have already begun to plan strategies to combat GOP initiatives that strike at the heart of their agenda.

“We are likely to spend much of the next two years playing defense,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

The uphill battles that lie ahead for many Jewish groups come at a particularly uncertain time for the community’s influence on Capitol Hill. As Republicans assume the leadership posts, they will do so knowing they did not receive Jewish electoral support.

According to a poll published in The New York Times, Jewish voters continued a tradition of overwhelming support for Democratic candidates. In last week’s midterm elections, 78 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballot for Democratic candidates, compared with 22 percent for Republicans, according to exit polls.

While these figures prove consistent with past election cycles – atleast 68 percent of Jews have voted Democratic in every election since 1980 – the difference this time around is that the Republicans have obtained control of the Congress.

Nonetheless, Jewish activists stress that only one aspect of their traditional influence on Capitol Hill results from electoral support.

Equally important, they say, is their lobbying ability. They stress that their effectiveness at lobbying of their causes will be tested early on in the new Congress.

One cause troubling many Jewish activists revolves around school prayer.

Within days of the Republican sweep of the House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), launched a campaign vowing to pass a school-prayer amendment that would require voluntary prayer in the public schools.

Gingrich has tapped Ernest Istook (R.Okla.) to spearhead the school-prayer debate and bring an amendment to a vote by July 4.

Groups like AJCongress and the Anti-Defamation League have already begun to mobilize for the expected legislative fight.

Although AJCongress’ Pelavin said he is “not particularly optimistic” the community will succeed in staving off a constitutional amendment, the group is going to give it its best shot.

Beginning this week, the group began mobilizing its members, building coalitions with other religious groups and planning strategies to work with allies on Capitol Hill.

Phil Baum, AJCongress executive director, has already sent a letter to Gingrich, pledging to oppose this “ill-conceived notion.”

“We recognize that demagogues from both the political and religious worlds offer up school prayer as a panacea for the ills of the public schools,” Baum wrote. “There is no gainsaying those ills, but school-sanctioned prayer is neither in whole nor in part the solution to them.”

Baum noted that nearly a decade ago, a Republican-led Senate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment on school prayer.

But the political climate today is much more conservative, observers note.

One of the greatest unknowns in the debate is what role the White House will take.

Strong opposition by the president could scuttle the measure in the Senate, activists say. Although in the minority, Democrats could in effect snarl GOP plans for a vote in the first half of 1995 by blocking debate as well as procedural votes.

Gingrich has also outlined plans to overhaul the welfare system that has Jewish leaders preparing for a no-holds-barred battle over the future of the welfare system.

The speaker-to-be not only seeks to eliminate aid to legal immigrants but also wants the government to allow states to end aid to children with mothers under 21 years of age. The states could use the money to build orphanages for the children dropped from the welfare rolls.

Jewish groups had already begun to plan for a fight to stave off cuts in aid to legal immigrants in response to the Clinton administration’s welfare reform plan.

That plan would reduce government support for immigrants and extend the time that sponsors are financially responsible for their relatives one they come to America.

Gingrich, however, seems ready to take these cuts much further. He is pledging to propose a total elimination of all aid including Medicare, social security, food stamps and disability insurance for legal immigrants.

Gingrish and his “Contract with America,” signed by more than 300 Republicans during the campaign, has emerged as another chief target of opposition by Jewish groups.

The contract promises to bring 10 legislative proposals – including a balanced budget amendment – up for a vote in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

While Jewish groups favor fiscal responsibility as a general rule, a balanced budged amendment would lead to across-the-board reductions that would cut into the heart of virtually every social welfare program, as well as foreign aid.

The Republican contract does not include a school-prayer initiative. Gingrich has said he did not include the amendment to avoid criticism by opponents that the contract and GOP are beholden to the religious right.

Not all Jewish activists share the dire predictions for Jewish concerns in the new Congress.

Jason Isaacson, director of the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee, said he favors working with the new Congress before passing judgment on its ills.

“We are not without allies at all levels in the Republican Party,” he said. The level of activism “will depend to a large degree on how the `Contract with America’ is reflected in their legislative proposals.”

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