NCJW finds open doors in DC

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) addresses the NCJW Washington Institute, March 20. (Vincent Ricardel)

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) addresses the NCJW Washington Institute, March 20. (Vincent Ricardel)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Michael Lieberman was talking hate crimes, and his
applause line was, “I know you know that there’s a new sheriff in town.” Lieberman,
the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, was delivering a
pre-lobbying briefing to the National Council of Jewish Women’s
triennial Washington Institute conference, and he didn’t have to name
the sheriff.The new Speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a woman and a liberal
Democrat, is now running the show on Capitol Hill. The reality
of a Democratic Congress after years of Republican domination in
Washington galvanized the 400 delegates taking their liberal agenda to
the Hill last week. “Congress, on both sides, is more
receptive,” said Sammie Moshenberg, who directs NCJW’s Washington
office. “A lot of voters spoke out in November,” when Democrats took
both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. It marked a change from previous Congresses when, she said, “we’ve lobbied lost causes.” Not
this time: Each of the three initiatives NCJW delegates brought to the
Hill on March 20 has substantial backing from Democrats, virtually
guaranteeing passage.”The issues chosen are the ones moving
through Congress,” NCJW President Phyllis Snyder told JTA. “They’re
also issues that show our Jewish values.”They are: A
bill that would expand the definition of federal hate crimes to include
violations not committed during a federally protected act, for instance
voting; such restrictions have frustrated efforts to federally
prosecute crimes where state and local authorities dropped the ball.
The bill also would expand targeted categories to include gender,
sexual orientation and disability. Similar bills have passed previous
Congresses, but were shelved by the Republican leadership, heeding in
part conservative Christians who see the bill as backdoor recognition
of gay rights. Pelosi is expected to shepherd through the legislation.A
bill that would provide federal funding for sex education beyond the
“abstinence-only” programs that are currently funded. The Responsible
Education About Life (REAL) Act emphasizes abstinence as the most
effective way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease,
but also would provide information about other preventative measures.
NCJW delegates lobbied using statistical information that suggests
abstinence-only education discourages the use of condoms among sexually
active teenagers. Advocacy for the REAL act dovetails with NCJW’s “Plan
A,” unveiled at the conference. The program, a play on the
morning-after pill, “Plan B,” promotes access to information about
contraceptives. It’s a tradition for the group; in 1930, NCJW was the
first national U.S. organization to advocate the legalization of birth
control.Extension of the State Children’s Health
Insurance Program to 2012. This program, in place since 1998, has
reached 4 million children who otherwise would be uninsured. This bill
already is a favorite of the Democratic leadership; the Senate Health
Committee chairman, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and the Senate Finance
Committee Chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), have pledged to
appropriate up to $50 billion for the program.Delegates took the issues to more than 200 meetings on the Hill with lawmakers or their staffs. “This
is the best thing we do,” Farilyn Hale of NCJW’s St. Louis branch said
after meeting with top staff for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) The
senator was to have attended the meeting, but there was a last-minute
floor vote.McCaskill ousted Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican, in
November. Talent was not unsympathetic to NCJW causes, but McCaskill’s
enthusiasm has leavened what in recent years has been a profoundly
conservative delegation from Missouri in Washington. “She appreciates our issues,” Hale said.”Missouri is a tough state,” agreed her fellow St. Louis delegate, Dana Gaby.They noted that their House representative, Todd Akin, a conservative Republican, refuses to meet with them. “It’s
always nice to see a friendly face,” Hale said, nodding toward
McCaskill’s office as she waited for colleagues to join her in the
halls of the Hall Senate building.Last week’s conference also
marked NCJW’s decision to join other groups in divesting from companies
that deal with Sudan as long as genocide is continuing in Sudan’s
Darfur region.

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