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Jews expect little change in working with new Congress

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 (JTA) — In a normal year, the political discourse following a midterm election would be dominated by debate of the key issues facing lawmakers as they look ahead to a new legislative session. But these are not normal times. After a brief hiatus that saw most congressional candidates engaging voters on an array of pressing and topical “non-Monica” issues, Congress is set to return to the business foremost in the minds of most in the Washington establishment — presidential impeachment proceedings. At this early stage, few are venturing to guess how that spectacle will play out and affect the work of lawmakers in the last Congress of the 20th century. But for now, with election results showing no significant change in the power balance in Washington, most political observers anticipate that the 106th Congress will, by and large, hold the status quo. Which is to say it will probably be a Congress that will confound Jewish activists more often than not. Indeed, since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, most Jewish activists working in the domestic arena on Capitol Hill have been devoting most of their energies to damage control, trying to block or mitigate various policy initiatives. In the wake of Tuesday’s election, in which Republicans saw their majority trimmed by a projected five seats in the House while holding even in the Senate, there is little to suggest that will change. The 105th Congress concluded its work under the dome with more unfinished business than any Congress in recent memory — and late in the session the Republican leadership shelved much of its agenda until next year, hoping to seize new momentum to push it forward. The unfinished business of particular interest to Jewish activists includes banning so-called partial-birth abortion procedures, various school voucher initiatives and tax breaks to support private or parochial education. It also includes a continued reassessment of immigration policy and immigrant benefits, as well as a restructuring of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. For most Jewish activists, that portends another round dominated by defensive and reactive lobbying, rather than pushing forward an affirmative agenda. “There are always proactive issues, but it certainly has been the case” over the last few years “that we have had to run to put out fires, whether it’s on church-state issues, or the education agenda or civil rights,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee. Most activists anticipate a return to many of the same battlefields, particularly on the church-state front, where they say countering the agenda of the Christian Coalition and other religious conservatives will continue to be a top priority. But “there’s still room, if we pick our fights carefully, to make some positive advances,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Although Jewish activists often disagree about which issues should concern the community most — and occasionally take opposing sides on the issues themselves — some of the anticipated fights on domestic policy include: * crafting a new law to restore the broadest possible protections for religious liberty; * giving low-income students vouchers to pay tuition costs at private or religious schools; * saving Social Security; * passing a patient’s bill of rights; * strengthening hate crime laws; * protecting abortion rights; * providing additional education and social-service block grant funding to the states; * expanding tax-free savings accounts for public and private-school expenses; * revamping the way the nation’s campaigns are financed; and * protecting the rights of religious minorities in the workplace. In the international arena, the Middle East peace process is expected to pose new challenges, particularly as the May 4, 1999, deadline for completing final-status talks approaches. Funding for U.S.-Israel cooperation in ballistic missiles defense and for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will likely come up for debate. But first lawmakers are expected to determine how much aid to allocate to the Palestinians for economic support and to Israel for troop redeployment in the West Bank as part of the interim peace accord signed in Washington last month. Efforts to contain Iran as it seeks weapons of mass destruction will continue to be a focal point, as will the State Department’s newly established function of monitoring religious persecution abroad. All of this will play out against a backdrop of presidential electioneering as both parties jockey for position for the 2000 campaign. “There’s going to be a very small window of time to actually get things done,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “Once the presidential cycle kicks in, everything that goes on the Hill is just going to be a function of presidential politics, which probably makes it likely that compromise will not be the word of choice.” Religious conservatives are expected to figure prominently into that equation, particularly with the Christian Coalition once again likely to play a crucial role in determining the Republican nominee for president. A poor showing by candidates aligned with the religious right in this election, however, came as welcome news to the movement’s ideological opponents in the Jewish community. Activists said they were also heartened by the fact that few, if any, lawmakers who were targeted for defeat because of their opposition to a school prayer amendment to the Constitution appeared to have been unseated, despite vigorous efforts by the Christian Coalition. “This was an election in which the intimidation tactics of the far-right conservative religious forces did not seem to pay off,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. Still, most expect the conservative Christian lobby to continue wielding considerable clout. “A Congress leading up to a presidential election that — if not beholden to these constituencies — is greatly influenced by these constituencies certainly makes it tough” for us to advance our agenda, said Sammie Moshenberg, director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington office. And of course, all of this must be viewed through the prism of impeachment proceedings — a dynamic that will likely go a long way in setting the tone and tenor of the next Congress. If the impeachment process goes forward at full throttle, “you’re going to once again see a Congress that’s distracted from its business,” the AJCommittee’s Foltin said. “That can be good or bad depending on whether one likes what Congress is doing or not.”