When the House of Representatives gutted legislation last week to combat terrorism, Jewish activists were left wondering what went wrong in their yearlong quest to see the measure become law.
“You don’t even have the illusion of effective anti-terrorism legislation,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Members of Congress and their supporters in the Jewish community once hailed the bill as a means to stop Hamas and other terrorist groups from fund raising in the United states.
It was also supposed to allow for expedited deportations of aliens suspected of terrorism.
Instead, in a vote of 229-191, the House passed a bill March 13 that has few anti-terrorism provisions.
Most notably, the lawmakers stripped the bill of a key provision to combat terrorism: the government’s ability to brand a group as terrorist.
Even the name of the bill was changed to reflect the priorities of the lawmakers.
What was once known as the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act became the Effective Death Penalty and Personal Security Act, whose main provision would limit appeals by death row inmates.
What emerged from Capitol Hill is a case study on the influence of the gun lobby and on how opinion can turn virtually overnight against a bill that once garnered widespread support.
The House vote marked the second time counterterrorism legislation had taken a hit on Capitol Hill over the last 10 months.
The Senate passed a watered-down version of the measure in June, drawing a tepid response from the Jewish community.
Activists then turned to the House to correct the problems they found in the Senate bill.
Now, after last week’s action in the House, the Senate’s work does not seem half-bad, many say.
Jewish groups had joined the Clinton administration almost 18 months ago in championing counterrorism legislation.
Terrorist attacks in Israel and the Oklahoma City bombing last April prompted calls for swift passage of a strong measure.
Since then, the legislation encountered several obstacles.
But its final demise came in the course of 48 hours last week, as most hopes were dashed that Congress would pass any anti-terrorism bill with teeth.
When debate began last week, many Jewish groups feared that the measure was too stringent and that in its effort to counter terrorist activity, did not adequately protect civil liberties.
In its place they supported a middle of the road version.
But by the end of the day, pro-gun House Republicans and southern Democrats banded together to strip the bill of virtually all its counterterrorism provisions.
The decision unleashed the fury of President Clinton, who was in Egypt and Israel working to fight terrorism when the House abandoned the legislation.
“On the same day I was in the Middle East rallying the world community to fight terrorism, some in Congress, led by Republicans, were taking apart piece by piece the tough legislation designed to beat back that very threat,” Clinton said in his weekly radio address over the weekend, vowing to continue the push for legislation.
Jewish officials repeatedly called the House’s vote an “abdication of responsibility.”
Supporters of the measure were cursing the Republican leadership for abandoning a bill they had once supported.
Only days before the vote, Republican leaders had sent a letter to their colleagues urging them to support the measure.
But when the roll was called, three of the five top Republican officials voted for an amendment that stripped the bill of most of its counterterrorism provisions.
Many of their rank and file followed suit.
What led them to change their minds?
The National Rifle Association thinks it was their concerted lobbying campaign.
Neal Knox, an NRA vice president, wrote on the groups’ Internet bulletin board, “It was as slick a piece of sophisticated lobbying as you’re ever going to see.”
Jewish activists agree.
“The leadership gave into the gun lobby.” said Richard Foltin, assistant director of the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee.
“There was an elevation of partisanship above doing what’s right for the country.”
The NRA opposed the measure because it included a call to study certain types of bullets that law enforcement officials criticize as “cop killers” because of their ability to penetrate bullet-proof vests.
The gun lobby also fought the measure for its expansion of law enforcement’s ability to conduct wire taps and a provision that would allow explosives to be traced.
Led by freshman Rep. Robert Barr (R-Ga.), lawmakers voted to strip the bill of its anti-terrorism provisions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of three sponsors of a substitute version that would have retained many of the counterterrorism provisions, hailed the efforts of the Jewish groups.
“They tried but were overwhelmed. The NRA is very strong in this Congress,” he said in a telephone interview.
By the time she substitute amendment came up for a vote, the measure was all but dead.
For all that the bill does not include, there is at least one terrorism provision that garnered the support of the Jewish community.
Victims of state-sponsored terrorism would for the first time be allowed to sue foreign governments for damages.
The measure was strongly supported by the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 who have been unable to sue Libya for its role in the downing of the jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, eight years ago.
The House legislation also includes two provisions that make terrorist acts a federal crime.
Those who once held high hopes for the measure now are reduced to hoping that at least some form of legislation emerges from Congress.
Attention has now shifted to a small group of lawmakers from the House and Senate who will meet to try to resolve the differences between their versions of the bill.
The House team includes many of the proponents of strong legislation. But they are starting with a House bill with no anti-terrorism provisions and a substantially watered-down Senate version, activists say.
But those who have worked closely with Congress to enact the legislation are not abandoning all hope.
As Clinton continues to chide Congress for voting “to let terrorists like Hamas continue to raise money in America,” Congress could come under pressure to act.
Many activists are hoping that as the presidential campaign heats up, Republicans will not want to give Clinton an opportunity to attack the GOP for inaction.
“Right now the president can accurately say Congress fumbled the ball,” the ADL’s Hordes said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.