Jumping into the fray of another Capitol Hill battle, Jewish activists met with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton last week in a call-to-arms session about Congress’ plan to ax billions of dollars from the current budget.
The so-called rescission bill now being considered by Congress would cancel previously authorized budget appropriations for fiscal year 1995.
Several Jewish groups have been battling to protect a wide range of public assistance programs from future budget axes. The latest effort is an attempt to save programs in last year’s budget, programs believed to be safe from the chopping block.
But the legislation on the table would have sweeping repercussions for domestic programs, activists say.
It would slice $7.3 billion from the Housing and Urban Development Agency, targeting public and subsidized housing, including developments for low-income elderly Americans.
The bill would also eliminate heating aid for the poor; summer youth training programs; and funding for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act.
The legislation would also reach the foreign aid sphere in one area of particular concern to Jewish proponents of the Middle East peace process: The bill would slash Jordan’s promised debt forgiveness from $275 million to $50 million.
The bill, already approved by the House Appropriations Committee, could come to the floor as early as March 10, observers say.
The gathering at the White House on March 2 focused specifically on the legislation’s effects on the poor.
At the first lady’s invitation, officials from the American Jewish Congress, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, B’nai B’rith Women and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism met at the White House.
Leaders from the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church and the Presbyterian Church also attended.
“It was certainly informative and sort of a wake-up call to remind us of what we should be doing.” said David Harris, legislative aide for AJCongress.
Clinton focused on the religious groups’ moral obligation to remember the poor, Harris said. She also encouraged the organizations to get involved and “make our voices known,” he said.
According to Martin Raffel, NJCRAC’s associate executive vice chairman, the underlying message presented by Clinton was that Jewish and Christian organizations should “go out and express our concern about the bill.”
“There’s a concern about the implications of these drastic cuts,” about the holes being put in the safety net of public assistance and about the ramifications for society, he said.
The activists at the meeting said they expressed concern over the assumption that the private sector and charitable organizations would be able to fill in the financial gaps left by Congress’ budget ax.
“The consensus is that the religious community can step up its efforts, but it can not fill in the gaps,” Raffel said.
“The general feeling is they’re already overwhelmed,” he said, adding that depending strictly on charitable organizations “is not a viable solution.”
As a follow-up to the meeting , NJCRAC officials sent letters to their members, urging them to contact their representative about the bill.
Even before the meeting with Clinton, AJCongress officials had urged their members to act. President David Kahn last week sent a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) expressing concern about the bill.
These groups also plan to push Congress to restore full debt relief for Jordan.
Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton have condemned the move, saying it could jeopardize the peace process.
“There are those who would back away from our commitments abroad,” the president said in a speech Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Even some would put our efforts to make peace in the Middle East on the chopping block.”
“The last time isolationism held sway,” he said, “Europe and Asia slid into catastrophe and we had to fight a second World War because we walked away from the world at the end of World War I.”
Jewish organizations have joined efforts to restore the full debt relief for Jordan. Officials from the American Jewish Committee sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Gingrich, urging both chambers to consider restoring Jordan’s debt relief.
“To undermine America’s role as coordinator of the Arab-Israeli peace process would be a serious and costly mistake, far outweighing any short-term savings that would be realized by a cut in debt relief,” wrote Robert Rifkind, AJCommittee president, and David Harris, the group’s executive director, wrote.
The Anti-Defamation League voiced similar concerns in a letter to members of Congress last week.