WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (JTA) — Like the man he replaced, new Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) backs Israel but has few ties to American Jews on domestic issues, Jewish leaders say. Until he was chosen last week to replace Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as majority leader when the new Congress convenes in January, Frist was not seen as a key contact for Jewish organizations. A heart surgeon before he entered politics, Frist focused much of his domestic attention on health-care issues, and did not play a leading role on any of the domestic issues that are priorities for the American Jewish community. Now that he will be setting the Senate’s agenda, however, Frist’s viewpoints will grow in importance. While he often has tried to stay out of policy debates in the past, Frist’s new role will require him to take a stand on the issues of the day. Overall, Jewish leaders say they are heartened by what they see as Frist’s willingness to build consensus among his colleagues and reach across the aisle to Democrats. “He’s always been someone interested in hearing a lot of voices and trying to foster consensus,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “He’s not someone I see as an ideologue, but as a practical politician.” However, Frist is a strong supporter of the Bush administration — some say the White House picked him for the post — and Jewish leaders say the White House has not been very willing to negotiate on controversial domestic issues like charitable choice. They hope Frist does not follow suit. Sharon Bell, a prominent member of Nashville’s Jewish community, said anyone who believes Frist will blindly follow the White House is underestimating the doctor. “Bush and Frist have a very good working relationship, but Frist will be his own person,” said Bell, co-chair of the United Jewish Communities’ federation campaign in Nashville. “Frist will bring his own sense of how to do things.” On Israel, Frist is among a number of conservative leaders in Congress who have strong ties to the Jewish state and its lobbyists in Washington. Frist told participants at the 2001 national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he gained a new-found respect for Israel after he toured the country, even putting on scrubs and observing surgeries in an Israeli hospital. “If every American could only go to Israel and have these experiences, the very few challenges to U.S. commitments that we have today, I think they would go away based on that experience,” Frist told AIPAC. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near Eastern panel, Frist supported a letter asking President Bush to reassess the U.S. relationship with the Palestinian Authority in 2001. He also has been a proponent of foreign aid for Israel. Bell first met Frist when he was a candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in 1994. Frist’s votes on domestic issues are unlikely to match what she calls the “liberal Washington action office” of Jewish organizations. In the last Congress, Frist received a score of zero percent from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, to which several Jewish groups belong. The score is based on a legislator’s votes on key issues, and Jewish leaders said Frist voted against their wishes on hate crimes, charitable choice and workplace religious freedom. Bush has said charitable choice issues will be a priority in the next Congress. Most Jewish groups have been wary of giving faith-based organizations an increased role in social service programming, fearing that the Bush administration’s effort to increase partnerships between the federal government and religious institutions could erode the separation between church and state. Frist has not spoken out much on the issue, but is expected to fall in line with the administration. Jewish leaders also note that he has voted in favor of school vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools. Yet on Frist’s pet project, health care, there may be room to work with Jewish groups. “It’s clearly something that is not just his background, but his passion as well,” Pelavin said. Frist has shown an interest in allocating the necessary funds to fix the U.S. health-care system, Pelavin said, but tackling domestic issues with heavy price tags may be difficult as the government gears up for what could be a costly war against Iraq. The circumstances behind Frist’s ascension may aid the Jewish community’s domestic agenda. Frist was unanimously elected majority leader after Lott resigned under fire for comments he made at a 100th birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Lott praised Thurmond’s 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform, saying that if Thurmond had won, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.” Lott’s comments outraged many, particularly in the African American community. Jewish leaders say Republicans now may be interested in moving ahead on civil rights bills in the interest of damage control. “If members of the Senate feel compelled to do something under the rubric of civil rights, that may help us,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. The O.U. is pushing for passage of a bill that would guarantee an employee’s freedom to wear religious clothes or participate in religious observances. Any Republican effort to show that the party is open to minorities might also help hate crimes legislation, which Jewish groups have been lobbying for. □
Can Jews work with Frist on domestic policy?