News Analysis: Partisan Wrangling Threatens Jewish Legislative Strategies
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News Analysis: Partisan Wrangling Threatens Jewish Legislative Strategies

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Partisan wrangling over the re-election of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has emerged as a key threat to one of the Jewish community’s central strategies for the 105th Congress.

Concerned by the conservative legislative direction of the last Congress, Jewish activists had hoped to advance their own political agenda this time around by helping to cultivate a moderate center of House Democrats and Republicans.

Specifically, Jews had hoped to work together with other religious and ethnic groups to encourage congressional moderates to oppose some budget cuts and to resist expected legislative initiatives on certain social issues many Jews view as regressive.

But Gingrich’s ethical troubles, which triggered bitter battles as Congress opened this week, threatened the pledge of good relations between the parties that had followed the November elections.

Gingrich narrowly won re-election to his post Tuesday, but the political bickering is likely to continue as the House Ethics Committee begins consideration of what measures to take against Gingrich.

Without bipartisanship, many Jewish activists fear that the Republican majorities in Congress will face off against the White House and congressional Democrats instead of cooperating on policy issues.

“A whole slew of social-welfare and social-justice programs will face a tougher time in a more partisan atmosphere,” said Jason Isaacson, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee. “It certainly does seem to be shaping up as a mean season.”

Among the issues of most pressing concern in the organized Jewish community are restoring welfare cuts to legal immigrants and defeating a series of expected constitutional amendments, including one on requiring a balanced budget.

The last Congress, in passing major welfare-reform legislation, eliminated federal benefits to legal immigrants and abolished the federal guarantee of social services to America’s poor.

In this period of uncertainty, “the key is to forge enough of a centrist block that it will have to be reckoned with,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“There is so much tumult in the House right now, it is so unclear what tone will be struck.”

When the November votes were tallied, Republicans had maintained control of the House and extended their majority in the Senate.

Republicans won a slimmer majority — 227-207 — in the House, which now also has one Independent. In the Senate, the GOP extended its majority, now operating with a 55-45 advantage.

Although the numbers did not change that much, the personalities did, forcing “some profound strategy differences” in the Jewish community, Saperstein said.

“In the last Congress, we used the Senate as a more moderate block against the excesses of the House,” Saperstein said. “This Congress is very different. The House is slightly more moderate, but the Senate is arguably one of the most politically conservative of the century.”

With this in mind, many activists are cautioning against being “lulled into a false sense of security,” said Reva Price, associate director of the B’nai B’rith Center for Public Policy.

“Last Congress we thought: `Let the House be as crazy as they want. We’ll stop it when it gets to the Senate.’ This Senate won’t be there for us,” she said.

For months, representatives of Jewish groups have been meeting to strategize on how to cultivate a crafting a moderate core of Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate.

What emerged is a religiously diverse coalition, including virtually all Jewish groups, that came together to urge passage of one piece of legislation, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which affords greater protection against discrimination against religiously observant employees.

Activists say they hope that a cooperative and bipartisan push for this measure will lead to future victories after developing early relations with members of Congress and their senior aides. They also hope is will lead to the emergence of new leaders of a moderate center.

But increasingly, these activists fear that the partisan acrimony could derail the effort.

Equally important, some activists say, is a defense against the expected push for school prayer and other initiatives that would erode the separation between church and state.

These activists hope that passage of the workplace legislation will serve to dissuade lawmakers from pushing for other measures on religious issues.

“Many people will want to demonstrate religious bonafides and that they can deliver to religiously observant constituents,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “If we have this in our arsenal, we stand a better chance to stop other measures.”

As strategies turn into action, Jewish groups plan to increase their reliance on grassroots activism to persuade lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Over the last 20 years there has not been a single major political initiative from the Jewish community” that has not had bipartisan support, Saperstein said. He cited Soviet Jewish rescue efforts, support for Israel, the separation of church and state as well as civil and women’s rights initiatives.

At the same time, successful campaigns against legislation usually require Democrats and Republicans to work together.

Jewish activists say that after President Clinton’s inauguration and State of the Union speech scheduled for the first week in February, they will push as hard against some measures as they will for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

On the top of the short-term list will be opposition to a balanced-budget amendment.

Many Jewish groups oppose the amendment because it would further tie the federal government’s hands in spending on social programs.

While activists expect stiff challenges on the domestic front, support for Israel and the peace process runs deep in the 105th Congress, activists say.

Although aid to Israel appears secure, other foreign aid could be affected if Congress and the administration become serious about achieving a balanced budget.

“If this process continues, than foreign aid will have to be cut as well,” said an official of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But increasingly, the official said, there is a “general understanding” among members of Congress “that foreign aid has been cut to the bone.”

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