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New Senate Chairmen Could Advance, Stall Jewish Agenda

November 13, 2002
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A Republican Senate means Republican committee chairmen, and for many Jewish organizational leaders, a step backward toward more defensive lobbying tactics.

Jewish lobbyists say that when the Republicans take control of the full Congress in January, they will need to respond more to legislation they oppose rather than help craft laws that fit with their priorities.

They say they will need to work hard to remove elements of some measures that are seen as too conservative, such as those related to charitable choice, which allows federal funds to religious organizations to provide social services.

And they will work with lawmakers to construct measures that address their agenda, such as hate crimes legislation.

Still, many are holding out hope that there will be wiggle room to get some items on their agenda through the 108th Congress.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“I see that, by and large, these are all people we can work with.”

Jewish groups say their relationship with Gregg will be important in the next Congress.

His committee is expected to take up school voucher issues, which most Jewish organizations oppose, and will likely shape the debate on prescription drugs and Social Security privatization.

Jewish activists say they have worked with Gregg on several issues, and have had a running dialogue with his staffers over the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.

The legislation would strengthen federal civil rights laws by requiring employers to grant employees greater accommodation for religious observances, such as taking time off for religious holidays and wearing religious garb.

“My sense was that they were not, in principle, opposed to it, but there were issues he wanted to get worked out,” one Jewish official said of the legislation that has long been a top legislative priority for Orthodox groups and is supported by most Jewish groups.

However, the community is more divided on the contentious issue of vouchers, which provides federal funds for students to attend private or parochial schools.

Many said they believe Gregg will push for some type of voucher program. Gregg’s position was strengthened by a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that deemed school vouchers constitutional.

Leaders of many Jewish groups that oppose vouchers say they understand their position is at odds with Gregg’s and they will need to work to try and prevent the legislation from being passed in the full committee.

But Orthodox officials support Gregg’s stance.

David Zweibel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, said the Orthodox community would work with Gregg to expand the federal special education law to broaden the use of vouchers for special education children.

Gregg supports the use of vouchers for private schools if the public school is not suitable for them.

“We have a lot of problems with the existing law for children enrolled in non-public schools,” Zweibel said.

Washington lobbyists say Gregg has a unique personality that they will have to work with.

“He’s very territorial,” one lobbyist said. “He’s got a formula and you have to be very careful.”

On judiciary issues, Jewish leaders are gearing up for a flood of new judicial appointments that are expected now that Hatch is chair.

Zweibel said he has always found Hatch to be sympathetic to the Jewish community — the Mormon senator wears a mezuzah around his neck for good luck — and he hoped that the logjam of judicial nominations would be eased under Hatch’s leadership.

The major judiciary policy debate is expected to revolve around the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which stalled in the Senate last year and would provide hate crime protections that Jewish groups have been seeking.

Hatch has “made impassioned speeches” about the need for hate crimes laws and does not join other conservative Republicans in opposing provisions against discrimination based on sexual orientation, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

But Hatch is a vocal opponent of the bill on the grounds that it takes away states rights and because he fears that rapes and other attacks against women would all be classified as hate crimes, Lieberman said.

“It’s going to require some creative negotiating with Chairman Hatch,” Lieberman said. “There may be a way to move a bill which is attentive to his concerns.”

Hatch is also a vocal opponent of abortion, and there may be movement to restrict a woman’s access to abortion, through bills targeting late-term abortions or seeking parental notification.

A constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade, which constitutionally protects a woman’s right to an abortion, is not expected.

Jewish activists are less concerned with Stevens, who will be the Senate’s chief appropriator.

He is also considered a strong supporter of foreign aid to Israel, which falls within the purview of his committee.

Foreign affairs issues are seen as less dependent on the right chairman, since aid for Israel and support for the pro-Israel agenda is considered bipartisan in the current climate.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish groups have worked with both Lugar and Warner on foreign affairs issues in the past.

Hoenlein said Lugar has not been a strong advocate for the Israeli agenda, but has been supportive and is viewed as a friend.

Warner has recently joined Democratic lawmakers in supporting tougher action on Egypt for its airing of a miniseries deemed to have anti-Semitic elements.

Both those committees are also stocked with other pro-Israel lawmakers, from both parties.

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