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For Women’s Group, Change in Congress Means Open Doors

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.. 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.. 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.

a.. 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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