News Analysis: As Congress Winds Up Session, Critical Measures Could Still Pass
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News Analysis: As Congress Winds Up Session, Critical Measures Could Still Pass

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As Congress enters the final 30 working days of its session, pre-election partisanship and political wrangling are certain to take center stage.

With Democrats and Republicans jockeying for electoral advantages and seeking to give their respective presidential candidates the upper hand, Jewish activists are preparing for an onslaught of legislative initiatives that they believe undercut their core principles.

Among the key issues on the agenda: * Welfare reform * Immigration policy * Federal budget * Prayer in the public schools

Whether such legislation becomes law will depend largely on the race against the clock.

Many activists are quietly rooting for time to run out on the 104th Congress before it can act on some of the most significant reforms.

Often at odds with the Republican-controlled Congress over domestic issues, Jewish groups fear that fast action may lead to what they see as bad policy.

“It would not be an overstatement to say that this is a very dangerous time,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Even as Congress winds down, leadership changes have brought new energy to Republican aspirations.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has taken over as majority leader for Bob Dole, who has retired from the Senate to devote all his time to run for president.

Lott, a Southern conservative, has vowed to continue Dole’s legacy while simultaneously putting his own stamp on the Senate.

Lott is known equally in the Jewish community for his staunch pro-Israel views and his support for school prayer and sharp budget cuts.

The new majority leader’s politics symbolizes much of the what the organized Jewish community faced during the 104th Congress: how to deal with staunchly pro-Israel lawmakers who are often at odds with Jewish views on school prayer and allocation of financial resources.

Although Lott is taking over a deeply divided and sharply partisan Senate, Israel is expected to continue to garner bipartisan support.

The foreign aid bill, which provides more than $3 billion to the Jewish state and $75 million for the Palestinians, is on the fast track to approval.

A measure that would impose sanctions on overseas firms trading with Iran also has won significant support and is expected to pass under Lott’s stewardship.

But it is the domestic front that has many Jewish activists counting the days until Congress goes home to run for re-election.

Hidden in many of the legislative initiatives are provisions that assault the separation of church and state and radically alter the relationship between the federal government and America’s poor. * Welfare reform:

Republicans are hoping to pass another welfare reform bill. The last measure drew a veto from President Clinton for a number of reasons, including its provision ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance programs.

Although Jewish groups publicly support welfare reform in principle, they oppose ending the federal guarantee of welfare. Their opposition to the measure now being considered stems from three specific concerns: its impact on immigrants, its ties to Medicare and its potential violation of church-state separation.

The measure now making its way through Congress in effect bans all legal immigrants from receiving federal benefits.

The Council of Jewish Federations is working to convince Congress to change the provisions dealing with legal immigrants.

Unlike legal immigrants, refugees, including Jews from the former Soviet Union, would continue to be able to have access to benefits for their first five years in the country. They would again become eligible after receiving their citizenship.

GOP lawmakers also hope to fold Medicare and Medicaid reforms into the welfare bill, a move that is sure to draw a veto from the White House. Jewish groups continue to oppose an end of the federal guarantee of health care for the elderly and poor.

Other activists are focused on the bill’s provisions that would allow religious institutions to administer benefits.

Jewish activists fear that the measure would allow, for example, a church to force non-believers to worship in order to receive benefit checks. A similar provision recently was added to the Older Americans Act, which provides grants for local communities to run programs for elderly citizens. * Immigration Reform:

House and Senate negotiators are hammering out differences between bills that aim to stop illegal immigration. Both measures, however, also include new limits on benefits for legal immigrants. While not as restrictive as the measures in the proposed welfare reform legislation, the bill does include sharp restrictions on aid to legal immigrants.

If it became law, it would cut off about 95 percent of newcomers from benefits, said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations’ Washington Action Office.

Jewish groups have traditionally backed liberal immigration policies.

The bill would also have an impact on legal immigrants, who would be denied access to government-sponsored English classes, college loans and Medicaid.

Measures restricting legal immigration were struck down on the House and Senate floor. * Federal budget:

This year’s budget debate will continue last year’s efforts to cut many federal programs.

Although Congress is set once again to provide full funding for programs that assist the resettlement of refugees from the former Soviet Union, many other social service programs administered by federations across the country are on the chopping block.

As early as next week, for example, Congress will begin considering a measure that cuts more that 25 percent from current elderly and low-income housing programs.

B’nai B’rith and Jewish federations nationwide receive tens of millions of dollars through the programs and rely on these federal subsidies to run elderly, low-income and disabled housing facilities.

But many of the funds slated to be cut are expected to be restored. * Religious Equality Amendment:

Introduced with much fanfare at the beginning of this Congress, supporters of a constitutional amendment that would, among other things, bring prayer into America’s schools have been unable to agree on a measure.

“With each passing day it appears less likely that we will see a serious push” for such legislation, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Nonetheless, there could a “showy floor vote” to allow members to go on the record on the issue, Pelavin said.

In addition, supporters could push for legislation that calls for a moment of silence which opponents say could gain a majority of members of Congress and perhaps Clinton’s support.

Any bill that is not agreed to by both the House and Senate and signed by the president effectively dies and starts from scratch in the next Congress.

Congressional Republicans will not want to go down in history as “the do- nothing Congress,” as White House officials have charged.

This tension will affect nearly everything coming out of Washington in the next several weeks.

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