The Race for Congress (part 1): Control of the Next Congress Will Affect Jews’ Capitol Agenda

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) promises to reform welfare reform in the 105th Congress.

Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) wants to stave off cuts in Israel’s foreign aid.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pledges to preserve benefits for legal immigrants.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) vows to turn up the heat on Syria for sponsoring terrorism.

These lawmakers all have one thing in common: They have to get re-elected first.

As the race toward Election Day enters the homestretch, many Jewish voters are turning their attention to their local congressional races.

Across the country, candidates and incumbents are battling for their political lives. When the winners come to Capitol Hill, the way they govern will have a dramatic impact on the American Jewish community.

The 105th Congress will tackle many of the domestic issues nearest and dearest to American Jewish lives. Indeed, it is the domestic agenda that is surpassing Israel and other foreign policy issues on the radar screen of most Jewish voters this election season.

Among the key issues likely to be addressed:

The future of federal spending and a balanced budget;

Changes to welfare reform, Medicare and Medicaid — all issues that have a direct impact on Jewish social services across the country;

Social issues such as school prayer and school vouchers as well as abortion and gay rights;

Immigration, campaign finance and tax reform;

The probable confirmation by the Senate of at least one new Supreme Court justice.

In addition, with the president’s new authority to use the line-item veto, the next Congress will have a dramatically changed role in shaping the government’s spending priorities.

The volatility of this election has left many veteran observers with no idea which political party will control the next House and Senate.

Indeed, the fight to attain majority status has, in many ways, become the main battle of these congressional races. The Republicans, who gained control of both houses in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, are waging an all-out war to retain that control.

And the Democrats, having lost the sweet taste of power, are thirsting for its return.

Regardless of who achieves control, there will once again be a record number of new faces in the next Congress. And that turnover will challenge the Jewish community’s ability to influence policy decisions.

Assuming that all the incumbents running for re-election in the Senate win, there will still be a record number of freshmen. That is because in 14 Senate races, there is no incumbent running for re-election.

In the House, there are 35 open seats with members not returning and at least another 25 incumbents running behind in their race for re-election.

While no election cycle would be complete without activists and political junkies using superlatives to measure the import of the national elections, this time they say they mean it.

“We have a big stake in the debates of the next Congress,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

“The potential for challenges to our most basic priorities can not be underestimated.”

With President Clinton riding a commanding lead in the polls, even some Bob Dole supporters acknowledge that the next Congress will likely be working with a Democratic White House. That makes the congressional races all the more critical.

“We’re talking about who sets the agenda for at least the next two years,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish group.

“The American people spoke very loudly and very clearly in the 1994 elections,” Brooks said. “They do not want the return to the days of the liberal, Democratic government. The American people historically want the checks and balances of different parties controlling Congress and the White House.”

Democrats say they learned their lesson from the 1994 rout and are ready to once again control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The Jewish community has a lot to fear from this type of Republican Congress,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, citing concerns about Republican positions on school prayer and restrictions on abortion.

“The country is not looking for revolutionary changes.”

The success or failure of the Jewish community’s agenda not only rests on who controls the Congress and the veto pen in the White House. It also largely depends on Jewish relationships with lawmakers and their staffs.

As was the case in 1994, a large number of retiring members will mean that activists from all sides will face a changed playing field.

“We’re losing longtime friends,” Aviv said. “The new members may support our issues, but they do not have seniority on their committees, and we do not have the benefit of years of experience working together.”

By the time the next session gets under way, more than half of the members of Congress will have been elected in the 1990s and activists will have their work cut out for them on the Hill.

“It’s education, education, education,” said Mike Bloomfield, political affairs director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

By the time the new Congress is sworn in, AIPAC officials will have met with every new member as well as most of the challengers they defeated.

But the best relationships with new members cannot replace long-standing friendships with retiring members, Bloomfield said.

“From the pro-Israel perspective, new members with solid support of the U.S.- Israel relationship is of course important and welcome. But that does not replace a Bill Cohen or a Sam Nunn,” he said, referring to retiring Sens. William Cohen (R-Maine) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who crafted many of the defense bills that aided Israel’s missile development.

The 105th also will open its doors without Sens. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Paul Simon (D-III.), who the Jewish community frequently turned to for support of its domestic agenda.

Activists privately are quick to point out that not all the departures engender feelings of sadness.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who spearheaded efforts to limit legal immigration, found himself at loggerheads during the past two years with the Jewish community’s lobbyists in Washington.

Jewish activists will also be dealing with a host of new committee chairpeople if Democrats retake either the House or Senate. These gatekeepers of the legislative process wield tremendous power, determining the congressional schedule for virtually all policy and spending decisions.

For example, Gilman, the New York lawmaker, can only seek a tougher approach with Syria if he is able to continue his position as chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

While Gilman’s re-election seems fairly certain, his chairmanship, like that of so many of his colleagues, is not.

NEXT STORY