Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio came to the defense of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, at a Jewish Week breakfast forum Tuesday.
Asked about recent criticism that Lieberman, the first Jew nominated on a major party’s national ticket, had injected too much discussion of God into his campaign speeches, Lazio said, "I encourage people to talk publicly about their spiritual beliefs and the meaning of their faith in everyday life. I think thatís absolutely fine."
He did caution, though, that public servants must "compartmentalize" their personal beliefs and appreciate that public policies affect people of diverse backgrounds.
Further discussing his views on religion and government, Lazio said he opposed the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, but defended his support of a controversial, failed 1998 Constitutional amendment that opponents feared would pave the way for prayer in schools, courtrooms and the military.
"I do not believe that we ought to allow an administrator or a teacher to effectively coerce or lead prayer in schools," said Lazio. "But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with students being involved in voluntary prayer. We begin every single session of Congress with a prayer."
Lazio seemed to recognize the unpopularity of that amendment, proposed by Rep. Ernest James Istook of Oklahoma, when he said "we don’t judge a person by one particular vote."
The congressman said he would support another such amendment in the Senate "if it was crafted correctly."
Fielding questions for 45 minutes from Jewish Week writers at Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, Lazio’s manner was soft and reserved, in contrast to his performance during a televised debate earlier this month in which he was aggressive in sparring with Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Addressing criticism of his conduct at the conclusion of that debate, when he confronted Clinton at her podium and challenged her to sign a pledge against soft money, Lazio defended his behavior and said it was "sexist to believe that you have two different standards if you are a man or a woman. In the Senate, nobody is going to treat you like a king or a queen." He added, "She, I believe, invited me over by suggesting that we could shake on some agreement."
On the Mideast peace process, Lazio called on the Clinton administration not to wait for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, which would be a "dagger in the heart of the peace process."
He said the U.S. "should be speaking out strongly right now and explaining what the consequences are. I believe that the consequences should be the isolation of the Palestinians … and the end of any assistance and aid. It’s important that we send a good, clear message about what we stand for and what we will tolerate."
The first lady has also called for the cessation of aid to the Palestinians if such a state is declared.
As for the U.S. role in the peace process, Lazio said the U.S. should not be "dictating results" and he did not believe "in a sort of Neville Chamberlain ‘peace in our time.’ I believe in a sustainable, generation-long peace that is meaningful and not one that is politically expedient."
Lazio also criticized the administration for considering an arms deal with Saudi Arabia and drought relief for Iran "given what is going on with the Iran 10," a group of Jews convicted of spying for Israel.
Lazio was less forthcoming when it came to discussing clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the former naval analyst who gave secrets to Israel, and his view of former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Asked his personal view of the Pollard case, Lazio repeated his call for President Bill Clinton to release a report on the case, which he said is now 600 days late. "If he deserves clemency, he deserved it 600 days ago and he has been in jail for longer than he should have," said Lazio. "If he does not deserve clemency we should know what the basis of that decision is."
Other political figures, including Lazio’s predecessor in the Senate race, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have concluded that Pollard’s sentence is unfair, based on information currently known. But Lazio insisted "The only person qualified to make that decision is the president. He has access to classified information that I [don’t]."
Asked if being tied by Hillary Clinton to Gingrich, architect of the conservative Republican Contract With America agenda of the mid-90s, was an asset or liability, Lazio also demurred. "Newt Gingrich is not in this race," he said. "I’m in it and Hillary Clinton is in it." Pointing to Clinton attacks that he joined in Gingrich’s cuts to education, he said he supported "a higher level of education spending than the president."
Lazio also declined to explain why he had refused to co-sponsor a federal hate-crimes bill this year that had broad bipartisan support. He said he had supported what he called an "almost identical" version of the bill in 1993 and had supported hate crimes prosecution while a Suffolk County legislator. He said he would sign the latest federal bill if it came to a vote in the House or Senate.
In perhaps his most detailed discussion yet of publicly funded tuition vouchers for parochial school education, Lazio said such programs should be implemented in school districts determined by their states to be failing for two years or longer. Funding for such programs should not come from public school budgets but from new federal sources. "It would be largely left up to the states to determine how much to allocate," he said, with a cap of $5 billion nationwide over 10 years.
Which two Supreme Court justices does he admire most? Lazio cited Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the bench, and Antonin Scalia, whom he said he admired for his Italian American background as well as his "doggedness and intellect." If called on to approve appointees to the high court as a senator, Lazio said he would look for "judicial temperament, intellectual ability and the ability to respect precedent."
Discussing a photo of himself with Yasir Arafat released last week by the White House, Lazio said he was fully aware that the photo existed and expected it would surface in the campaign. "I know what I’m up against," he said, prompting laughter and applause from a group of supporters in the audience of about 150. He said Hillary Clinton shook Arafat’s hand at the same event. "That picture must have been lost by the White House," he said, prompting more laughter.
Lazio insisted there was a difference between his handshake with the Palestinian Authority president after changes in the Palestinian charter to recognize Israel and Clinton’s embrace of Arafat’s wife, Suha, after she maligned Israel in a speech. "You can’t make an equivalent," he said, asserting that Mrs. Arafat’s "blood libel" charges against Israel were intolerable.