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106th Congress had mixed record on Jewish issues

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (JTA) – In the middle of the night, it seems, Congress slipped away and left many issues undone, including appropriating millions of dollars in special aid for Israel.

After the all-consuming controversy over the presidential election, few seemed to notice that Congress adjourned and left a number of contentious issues for the next legislative session, when the Senate and House will be even more closely divided.

Jewish organizations enjoyed a few successes during the 106th Congress, but endured many disappointments and face uncertain prospects on some of the more difficult issues.

Israel’s annual foreign aid package can be counted as one of last year’s appropriations successes, as the entire request of nearly $3 billion was approved despite diplomatic fallout over Israel’s proposed sale of an early- warning radar system to China.

The White House also sent Capitol Hill a last-minute request for an additional $450 million in military aid, primarily to help defray the cost of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May. Under different circumstances the request might have been somewhat routine, but the package came under greater scrutiny because of political instability in Israel and the continuing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, a combination of poor timing and a cut in the American defense budget resulted in the package’s defeat, a Jewish official familiar with the aid request said.

Jewish groups also had hoped to see passage of an immigration bill, one of the issues that held up the budget. The bill would have restored certain benefits to immigrants – such as Medicaid and eligibility for food stamps – taken away by 1996 welfare reform laws. In the end, the effort failed.

In addition, a large-scale amnesty for undocumented immigrants failed to make the final version of the omnibus spending bill. Organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that had hoped for a dramatic shift will have to settle for modest changes in the processing of undocumented immigrants who have resided in the United States for at least 15 years. A more sweeping change would have been of greater help to Jews from the former Soviet Union, among other immigrants.

Compromise language in the omnibus bill did give undocumented immigrants on the verge of getting a green card a four-month window to obtain the work permit in the United States, rather than having to get it in their home countries.

In addition, Congress gave the State Department $700 million – $42 million more than the administration had requested – to bring in and process refugees and to aid refugees abroad.

Hate crimes legislation did not make it into the spending bill, though it had been strongly promoted by the Clinton administration. Jewish groups were disappointed by the failure of the legislation, which would have authorized federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability, expanding current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity.

The Senate passed hate crimes legislation in June, but the measure was stripped from a defense bill because of objections from the Republican leadership in the House.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League saw the lame-duck session as a chance to pass the hate crimes legislation, but an expected last-minute surge of support from the White House never materialized.

Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL, said the presidential election controversy overshadowed any chance for progress on hate crimes. He believes that more members of Congress will support hate crimes legislation next year, but the leadership will oppose it and the Bush administration is not likely to support the bill as aggressively as the Clinton administration did.

Jewish groups also had looked to stave off provisions for charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts. However, language allowing for charitable choice was included in both health and urban development legislation.

Some Jewish groups fear it will be difficult to stop moves toward charitable choice under the new president, since Bush strongly supports the issue.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Lieberman said.

One victory for the Jewish community was the passage of legislation that allows elderly Jews enrolled in managed health care programs to return to their health care home community after hospitalization.

An interfaith coalition of faith-based health care providers, run through the United Jewish Communities’ Washington Action Office, seized on the “Return to Home” issue, worrying that managed care organizations were building closed groupings of health care providers and excluding facilities not on their provider lists, including many Jewish homes.

“The result for Jewish patients is that they will be able to heal in community skilled nursing facilities that comply with dietary laws, holiday observances and other essential religious or cultural practices that are central to their mental and spiritual well being,” said Diana Aviv, UJC’s vice president for public policy, which lobbied hard on the issue.

Aviv said the success of that legislation, together with the congressional focus on Social Security and Medicare reform, makes UJC confident that Congress will make servicing seniors a priority next session.

At this point, however, most Jewish groups are withholding judgment on the outlook for the next session, which begins in early January. Much of the talk in Washington is about bipartisanship, but Vice-President-elect Dick Cheney said Sunday that Bush does not intend to relent on his agenda.

Jewish organizations, meanwhile, plan to push their own agendas, or at least modest proposals that should get support from both sides of the aisle. Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said they will “hope for the best” for their efforts to increase the minimum wage and pass a patient’s bill of rights and a prescription drug plan.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it will lobby for the supplemental aid package, and will press to keep sanctions in place against Iran and Iraq.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society hopes to get benefits restored next year to elderly refugees, and ease legalization efforts for long-term immigrants.

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