What’s next for Congress?

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (JTA) – With the November elections just around the corner, Jewish observers and activists are predicting that no matter who wins control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Jewish communal agenda will encounter some of the same legislative hurdles it faced in the 106th session.

Many feel that even if the Democrats win back either the House or the Senate, the margin for the majority will be too slim to see significant movement.

“Margins will determine the degree of work that gets done,” said Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for United Jewish Communities, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service agency. Much would also depend on who wins the White House.

In the House, a net gain of six seats would give the Democrats a majority, while a net gain of five seats would change the leadership in the Senate.

Democrats are thought to have a good chance at winning the House and a more distant chance at winning the Senate.

A Democratic-controlled Congress would be different in style and approach, but there would be few major differences in the actual policies enacted, according to Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Neither side will have the troops to do what they want,” he said.

As a result, Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, expects the same kinds of logjams that occurred this past year on controversial domestic issues such as gun control and hate crimes.

“It will still be difficult to make things happen,” she said.

The 106th Congress passed only a few pieces of legislation that had been pushed hard by Jewish groups. Among them:

• a compromise religious liberty bill, which gives religious liberty protections to prisoners and patients, and eases restrictive zoning laws that block religious institutions from building;

• a bill that allows victims of terrorism and their families to collect damages against countries that sponsor terrorism; and

the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding for domestic violence programs.

• a U.S. aid package for Israel that includes $1.98 billion in military and $840 million in economic funds.

Though Congress was supposed to have adjourned earlier this month, budget negotiations continued this week and there is now the possibility of a lame-duck session following the elections.

Legislation whose status remained unclear as Congress worked to conclude its session this week includes:

• national hate crimes legislation, which would expand federal protection to victims of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability;

• exempting from income tax restitution payments to Holocaust survivors;

• restoring immigrant benefits that were cut by welfare reform legislation; and

• cutting off aid to the Palestinians if they unilaterally declare a state.

While there is division in the Jewish community over a number of issues, many Jewish groups band together on a range of issues. Jewish organizations feel they were successful in quashing school voucher initiatives a resolution that would have blamed Turkey for its early 20th-century genocide against Armenians and a bill that would have outlawed “partial-birth” abortions.

But other issues not supported by most Jewish groups, such as charitable choice measures, were included in mental health and substance abuse legislation.

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

Some controversial issues would likely be treated differently with a change in congressional leadership, where the leaders play a key role in determining the agenda.

It would likely be more difficult in a Democratic-controlled Congress, for example, to push through more charitable choice measures.

Many Jewish groups are concerned that charitable choice programs could violate the separation of church and state as well as the religious liberties and civil rights of program beneficiaries and employees of service providers. Both presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, support charitable choice measures.

“Anyone can hold up legislation,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “There will be a lot of power in the hands of individuals.”

Similarly, important committee leadership positions would change hands if Democrats gained control of Congress, though it’s not always certain who would take charge of a committee.

If the Republicans lose control in the House, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) would lose his chairmanship of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee.

Callahan has been a thorn in the side of Jewish activists, and this year he tried to cut part of the foreign aid package to Israel to express his disagreement with a planned Israeli sale of advanced weaponry to China.

On the Senate side, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), also unsuccessfully attempted to place some restrictions on aid to send a message to Israel because of the China deal. Israel ultimately ceded to U.S. pressure to cancel the deal.

If the Democrats should gain control of the Senate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who is seen as more of a friend to the Jewish community than Helms, is the likely choice for committee chairman.

The House International Relations Committee, long presided over by the lone Jewish Republican, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), would likely be turned over to Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), who is also Jewish. Both men are supportive of Israel issues.

The agenda for the next year is also set in large part by the president, and the race between Gore and Bush remains close.

Certainly whoever wins the presidency will have the leading role in deciding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

With the region very volatile right now, either Gore or Bush will need congressional support for his plans there. Likewise, either Gore or Bush could be pushed to take certain actions.

For example if the Palestinians decide to unilaterally declare a state, Congress is likely to push to end economic aid to the Palestinians.

Though the chances of reviving the peace process now appear remote, a dramatic shift could mean the quest for more U.S. funds to bolster a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

With foreign aid in general always a battle on Capitol Hill, securing additional funding could be a problem, say analysts.

Pushing a financial package from the United States will be “problematic” no matter who is in control of Congress, Ornstein said.

Last year Jewish organizations had to fight hard for $1.8 billion in special funding that was promised to Israel and the Palestinians when they reached an agreement at the 1998 Wye agreement.

NEXT STORY