Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Shift to Offense in Final Weeks of 105th Congress
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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Shift to Offense in Final Weeks of 105th Congress

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Most Jewish activists on Capitol Hill have been devoting their energies to damage control since the 105th Congress opened nearly two years ago.

The defeat of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed for prayer in schools and the restoration of some welfare benefits to legal immigrants stand as some of the Jewish community’s achievements on the domestic agenda in a legislative session that, by and large, has had the community on the defensive.

Now, in the final weeks before Congress adjourns, Jewish activists are hoping that their advocacy efforts will score positive achievements on:

enhancing protections for religious practice in this country;

punishing foreign countries for religious persecution; and,

strengthening the federal hate crimes statute.

Some in the Jewish community also would like to see the Senate follow the House’s lead on campaign finance reform.

But with a tight legislative calendar, it is unclear whether lawmakers will have time to take up those measures, especially if independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report to Congress prompts presidential impeachment proceedings.

Campaign finance reform efforts have shifted to the Senate since the House approved a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in August.

The bill would end the unlimited and unregulated donations to the political parties, known as soft money, which have been used as a way around limits on contributions to individual candidates.

It would also tighten the regulations on ads taken out by independent groups that attack or support a candidate.

The issue strikes at the core of the American Jewish community’s influence on Capitol Hill. Campaign contributions have played a key role in acquiring and maintaining the access that is necessary to being effective in Congress.

No one disputes that the Jewish community has long benefitted from the current system, wielding influence that is disproportionate to its numbers.

But most Jewish organizations have not taken a position on the bill because the issue is so divisive in the community.

Some Jewish activists point to what they see as a critical need to clean up the system and restore faith in government.

“I think it’s short-sighted at best to focus on today’s questions of political influence rather than worrying about how this system is really eroding and undermining our democracy,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, one of the few Jewish organizations that has endorsed campaign finance reform legislation.

On the other side of the debate, however, are political action committees and some lobbyists for pro-Israel interests who argue against changing the rules of a game in which the Jewish community is doing well.

For any group “that involves itself disproportionately like the Jewish community,” campaign finance reform “is a negative, it affects their clout,” said Morris Amitay, a longtime Jewish activist who heads the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

The Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition has vigorously opposed the reform, saying it would make it illegal for the coalition to communicate lawmakers’ voting records to the Jewish community and restrict the organization from criticizing Democratic candidates on their voting records or positions.

In the area of religious liberty, Americans’ ability to practice their religion free from government intrusion took a big hit last year when the Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as unconstitutional.

Since then, a coalition of groups from across the political and ideological spectrums, including all major Jewish organizations and the Christian Coalition, has been working with lawmakers to meticulously craft new legislation to restore the broadest possible protections for religious liberty.

“The difficulty for religious practice today is sort of thoughtless government regulation, not intentional persecution,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, who helped draft the bill.

The Religious Liberty Protection Act relies on three technical powers of Congress — its ability to regulate spending, interstate commerce and the 14th Amendment’s protection of citizenship rights — to extend new protections to religious freedoms.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill last month, but — in a move that caught the coalition supporting the act by surprise — lawmakers removed one of the three prongs, the commerce clause.

Activists consider that element key to protecting certain freedoms, such as the ability of a Jewish or Muslim woman to obtain a driver’s license if a state attempts to deny her one because she refuses to uncover her head for a photograph. Because denial of a driver’s license could affect interstate commerce, the government would be forced to make accommodations under the commerce clause of the proposed bill.

Lawmakers, however, struck the clause after several right-wing groups outside the coalition argued that the commerce clause should not be used to expand the federal government’s power. They also said it was inappropriate to link religion and commerce.

“We were blind-sided and we were rolled,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Activists are now looking to the Senate to pass a stronger bill.

Looking overseas, the House overwhelmingly approved in May the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which seeks to impose sanctions on countries that persecute religious minorities. The Senate later took up a different bill that most proponents, including Jewish groups, now see as a better, more flexible, approach.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, dealt a setback to the effort during the summer when it decided not to consider the bill because, Republican and Democratic committee members argued, the measure would alienate diplomatic friends and economic partners.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has promised a vote on religious persecution before Congress goes home, but it remains to be seen if enough time remains to work out differences between the two versions.

Meanwhile, Jewish activists involved in the fight against racism, bigotry and prejudice have been urging lawmakers to pass a tougher hate crimes statute.

A measure pending in Congress would give federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act also seeks to extend the Justice Department’s jurisdiction to investigate hate crimes that occur outside of federally protected activities, such as voting or going to school.

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