Can lame-duck Congress accomplish anything?


WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 (JTA) – As the 106th Congress prepares to put finishing touches on its much-maligned legislative track record, Jewish groups are hoping their top agenda items will get addressed before it’s too late.

Whether or not Congress – which faces criticism that it hasn’t accomplished much – will feel hard-pressed to move on issues such as immigration or hate crimes when it reconvenes Dec. 5 depends on a number of factors.

Republicans, who will retain control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the next Congress as a result of the elections earlier this month, may have little incentive to compromise with President Clinton’s outgoing administration over outstanding legislation.

But much still depends on the outcome of the still-undecided presidential race.

If Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins the White House, Republicans may try harder to block Clinton’s initiatives and hold off on legislative initiatives until Republicans control both Congress and the presidency.

But if Democrat Vice President Al Gore wins, it is not clear whether there would be an attempt at bipartisan cooperation or lingering animosity against Gore for the way he achieved his victory.

Jewish organizations, in particular, are watching an immigration bill, one of the issues holding up the budget, that would restore certain benefits – including Medicaid and food stamps eligibility – taken away by welfare reform laws in 1996.

In addition, provisions of the bill, known as the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, would ease the process for undocumented immigrants, including Jews from the former Soviet Union, who have resided in the United States for a long time and require permanent resident status to remain here legally.

Clinton is pushing to grant a form of amnesty to this group of immigrants, some of whom may be illegal, who have lived in the United States for 15 years or more.

Another change would allow undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States and on the verge of obtaining a green card, or immigrant visa that allows legal employment, to obtain that visa in the United States rather than having to get it in their home country.

With the support of the White House and some key legislators, the law could pass, according to Gideon Aronoff, Washington representative for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Opponents of the immigration bill say it helps illegal immigrants and gives benefits to people instead of making them take responsibility for themselves.

Aronoff says efforts should be spent on legalizing people who already live in the United States rather than on spending resources to deport them.

Another issue Jewish groups are hoping will get Congress’ attention is hate crimes legislation, which has been strongly promoted by the Clinton administration.

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

The controversial legislation would authorize federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability, expanding the current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity. State and local law enforcement would still have primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League see this lame-duck session as a chance for passing the bias crime legislation, especially if Clinton continues his support for it. White House officials have said they will make a last push to expand protections against hate-motivated crimes.

Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL, says scenarios for passage still exist but that it’s an uphill battle.

Some Jewish groups are also looking to stave off charitable choice provisions in education and urban development legislation.

Charitable choice, passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform, allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts. Some charitable choice provisions already have been passed in connection with health legislation.

Although Israel’s annual foreign aid package is set, the White House sent a request last week to Capitol Hill for additional aid to Israel.

The Clinton administration wants Congress to approve $450 million this year to Israel for military purposes and to help defray the cost of its withdrawal from Lebanon. The White House also wants to give an additional $225 million to Egypt and $75 million to Jordan.

Under different circumstances the request might have been somewhat routine, but with politically volatile situations in Israel and the United States and the continued violence in the Middle East, the aid package might get more scrutiny.

U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which must clear the legislation, has not indicated whether or not he would support the bill.

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