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NEWS ANALYSIS Looking past impeachment trial: How productive will Congress be?

WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (JTA) — Like everyone else with a hand in the Washington power game, the Jewish community has a clear stake in the outcome of President Clinton”s impeachment trial. The concern, however, has less to do with what happens — few anticipate he will be removed — but how the trial ends and in what kind of spirit. As Clinton”s fate hangs in the balance, so, too, do the prospects for bipartisan cooperation in the 106th Congress. Conventional wisdom holds that if the impeachment trial becomes a drawn-out process, replete with witnesses, the chances of bipartisan support for any substantive legislation will all but vanish. That would not bode well for Jewish interests, Jewish activists here say, because much of the agenda they hope to see enacted depends on compromise between Democrats and Republicans. But there is another line of thinking that paints a more optimistic picture. Some political observers, including many in the Jewish community, believe a conclusion to the trial within a reasonable time frame could generate tremendous momentum for both parties to get important legislative work done in the months ahead. “You have two major trends coming together — the president wanting to leave a legacy of significant positive change for America and the world, and a Republican leadership that knows the worst thing that can happen is to be perceived as a do-nothing Congress,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Both are powerful dynamics that mandate bipartisan cooperation to achieve the goals that each of the parties thinks are so vital.” For that reason, some political observers are predicting that the administration and Congress will be looking to work together in all areas where they can find common ground. In his State of the Union speech, Clinton highlighted several issues in which there may be room for cooperation, including saving Social Security, fixing the education system, protecting patients” rights and strengthening hate- crime laws. All of those issues have been key concerns for the Jewish community, with Social Security now topping the legislative agenda for many groups. Most have yet to formulate positions on the retirement program, but all agree it needs to be a priority issue. “We have a big interest in it because 20 percent of our population — disproportionate to any other community — is over the age of 65, and many are dependent on Social Security to meet costs of living,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations” Washington office. The Middle East peace process is another area in which the Jewish community, the administration and Congress will likely be able to work together. In the coming months, 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 in October. In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 19, Clinton asked Congress to provide resources to implement the Wye agreement, “to protect Israel”s security, stimulate the Palestinian economy and support our friends in Jordan. “We must not, we dare not, let them down,” he said. Despite the listless response on the Republican side of the aisle to those remarks, many believe that if the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Israel appeal to Congress for that funding, they”ll get it. The White House, however, has indicated that it would not deliver the aid until the peace process is back on track. In other legislative arenas, the battles are likely to shape up along more traditional lines. Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, most Jewish activists have been devoting a majority of their energies to damage control, trying to block or mitigate various policy initiatives. More of the same can be expected in the months to come. After successfully countering a school prayer amendment to the Constitution in the last Congress, for example, church-state watchdogs in the Jewish community are regrouping for round two. Lawmakers have indicated they may bring out a second incarnation of the controversial proposal, this one perhaps dealing more directly with funding for sectarian organizations. Similar debates over school voucher initiatives — an issue that has split the Jewish community — are likely as well, as Republicans again look for ways to permit families more choice in where their children attend school. In another fight with which the community has become well acquainted, activists expect to devote considerable time to protecting the rights of immigrants, particularly as Congress again takes up the issue of restructuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Clinton highlighted this issue in his State of the Union, saying, “Our new immigrants must be part of our one America. After all, they”re revitalizing our cities, they”re energizing our culture, they”re building up our economy.” That doesn”t leave much time for putting forth a proactive agenda, but Jewish activists say they are determined to make some positive advances in the areas of religious and civil liberties. At the same time that Jewish activists are countering various measures, they are determined to be proactive as well, with an emphasis on crafting a new law to restore protections for religious practice and a separate law guaranteeing religious freedom in the workplace. Strengthening the nation”s hate crime laws will also be a central focus. Securing federal funding for social services remains another major concern, with Jewish nursing homes, hospitals and local federation agencies dependent on social service block grants funding made available to the states. The funding battle is also a familiar one, but with one important difference this year: For the first time in years, Congress has come into session with a federal budget surplus, which enables lawmakers to shift away from the budget-cutting mode that had plagued previous sessions. “We”re not operating within the same constraints as we had in past,” said Aviv of CJF. Most concede that the central challenge to getting anything done will be the relatively compact legislative calendar. With Congress still focused on impeachment, only a few months remain before lawmakers must begin working on the budget for 2000, which must be completed by this October. By then, the presidential election cycle will have kicked in. As both parties begin jockeying for position for the 2000 campaign, everything risks becoming a function of presidential politicking, and compromise is almost certain to become elusive. “The window of opportunity to get anything done” this year “is diminished, and the need to ratchet up and amplify our voices is greater,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “It”s going to be harder to get legislators” attention for the progressive side of our agenda because there”s a lot of background noise from impeachment, there”s a lot of ill will and there”s a lot of people who almost immediately will begin to think about the 2000 election.””

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