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Jewish Groups Try to Keep Agenda out Front in Election-year Congress

Now that summer is over, let the positioning and politicking begin. As members of Congress set out to complete its work for the year in a tight schedule of several weeks before they go out on the campaign trail, Jewish groups will try to keep their issues at the center of the agenda.

While some issues have been mostly settled for the moment, such as foreign aid to Israel, other issues, such as hate crimes and social service funding, are still waiting to be resolved.

The anticipated intense period might not materialize since the priority will be on spending bills and not on particular pieces of legislation. That spells out something along the lines of “wait until next year” for issues like gun control.

But the call for a national hate crimes law, which has become an issue in the presidential campaign, probably has its best chance right now. The proposed law has the support of the administration and this year being an election year could work out well for supporters of the bill.

Lawmakers want to have something to show the voters, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“This is the kind of issue that could break through,” Pelavin said.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand the federal hate crimes statute to protect anyone who is the victim of serious violent crimes based on gender, disability or sexual orientation. The current law protects victims of crimes based on race, color, religion and ethnicity.

The Senate already passed a version of the bill June 20, but it must now pass the House of Representatives, where support is not as strong. It is possible that the current Senate hate crimes amendment to the defense authorization bill, which is now being worked on by the House and Senate, could become law if the whole bill is passed.

But that scenario is unlikely – and the challenge for Jewish groups will be to get the support of the House leadership and pass the legislation as a free- standing bill or as part of an omnibus spending bill.

“We have to show that this is a must-pass piece of legislation,” said Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Some Jewish groups have been working over the recess with the grass-roots movement that sponsored the Web site unitedagainsthate.org, as well as lobbying members on Capitol Hill. Many organizations signed a letter to lawmakers who have not yet supported the bill.

Still, most of the legislative schedule will be taken up with spending bills. The Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill is of concern to some Jewish organizations.

The United Jewish Communities is watching the bill, where millions have been cut in negotiations, to see if funding levels for senior housing, nursing homes and other social services are adequate.

“We want to make sure promises are kept,” said Diana Aviv, the group’s vice president for public policy.

Aviv also hopes $128 million in additional funding will be granted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for improved processing of immigrants and refugees.

Another issue for Jewish organizations is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Unless there is enough support for continuing funding for those organizations that provide victims’ services, said Sammie Moshenberg, National Council of Jewish Women director of Washington operations, such programs will cease to function on Oct. 1, the end of the government’s fiscal year.

One issue that doesn’t need to be fought over any more is the annual foreign aid package to Israel, which is part of a bill that is being worked out by both legislative houses.

The bill includes the full Israel aid package – $1.98 billion in military and $840 million in economic funds – with the aid to be distributed as a lump sum when the U.S. fiscal year starts.

Earlier in the year there had been threats in Congress about placing some restrictions on the aid and sending a message to Israel because of a planned Israeli sale of an airborne early warning system to China, but the sale was eventually canceled.

Congressional lawmakers also have introduced legislation that would block aid to the Palestinians should they follow through on their oft-repeated threat to unilaterally declare statehood on Sept. 13.

While there may not be a major issue to fight against this session, there are a number of bills that include language on charitable choice, which concerns some Jewish groups.

Charitable choice, passed in 1996 as part of welfare reform, allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts.

One such bill is the Community Renewal and New Markets Act, which provides funding to low-income communities and money for substance abuse prevention and counseling programs.

The bill, which passed the House easily, allows for religious organizations to participate in such programs without “impairing the religious character of such organizations and without diminishing the religious freedom of program beneficiaries.” It also makes a point of saying funding cannot be used for sectarian worship, instruction or proselytization.

Nevertheless, the ADL’s Lieberman is concerned about potential religious discrimination. He says the bill does not have constitutional safeguards or civil rights protections.

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