Jewish groups applaud Jeffords switch


WASHINGTON, May 24 (JTA) — Many Jewish groups are gratified by the decision of Sen. James Jeffords to leave the Republican party and become an Independent, changing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

With the defection of Jeffords, a Vermont moderate recently elected to a third term, a number of issues dear to the Jewish community now will have better chances in the restructured chamber, several Jewish groups predicted.

The move means the Democrats will have a slim voting edge of 50-49-1 in the Senate. As the majority party, Democrats will take over chairmanships of most committees, setting the legislative agenda and deciding which bills to bring to the floor.

Until Jeffords’ abrupt decision Thursday, the Senate was evenly split between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, with Vice President Dick Cheney having the tie-breaking vote. The change will give Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 1994, and will take effect after President Bush signs the tax bill later this week.

For the Jewish community, the impact of the switch will be felt mostly on domestic issues, as there is strong bipartisan support for Israel. Leadership changes on foreign relations and appropriations committees are not expected to significantly affect U.S. policy toward Israel.

With the Senate so narrowly divided, the now-minority Republicans will continue to wield a lot of power. Nevertheless, there is anticipation that changes are afoot.

A Democratic majority will make it easier to move forward pro-immigration bills, said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

It also will be less likely that charitable choice initiatives — which allow religious groups to receive government funds to provide social services — will be a part of any bill, Foltin said. Some Jewish groups fear charitable choice measures will break down the wall separating church and state and infringe on religious liberties.

Civil rights concerns about charitable choice will resonate more with Democrats, which could help diminish the likelihood of a broad expansion of charitable choice, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

The ADL will press the newly reconfigured Senate to take up a hate crimes bill, an issue that had little hope of advancing prior to Jeffords’ move. Democratic leadership is more likely to support a free-standing hate crimes bill and push it forward.

In his announcement, the 67-year-old Jeffords said he foresaw a number of issues where he would be in conflict with the administration, such as abortion rights, the direction of the judiciary, education and the environment.

Jeffords, who chaired the Education and Labor Committee, got into a disagreement recently with the White House as he pushed for more education funding than the Bush administration wants. The chairmanship now will likely go to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

In addition, Bush’s attempts to place conservatives on the federal bench will hit more than a snag as either Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) or Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) could become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

In addition, having someone who’s pro-choice and amenable to women’s rights makes the process of judicial nominations much less daunting, said Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Other issues such as child health care, which are not necessarily contentious but were not on the radar screen of the Republican-controlled Senate, may now see the light of day, Moshenberg said.

However, Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said Jeffords’ switch will not radically change things.

But Diament does believe that issues of religious freedom in the workplace may have a better chance to advance under Democratic leadership, since the issues were resisted by the business community, which is more aligned with the Republican party.

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