WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (JTA) — The new Congress doesn’t just feature more Jews in powerful positions than the community has seen in more than a decade — it also features more friendly faces across the board, Jewish leaders say. “A net positive” is how one pro-Israel activist described it.
Lobbyists who focus on domestic issues are pleased, too, noting in particular friendly faces who deal with elderly care and immigration issues.
No one denies that the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, in power from 1995 until 2006, was overwhelmingly pro-Israel. But with Democratic wins in both houses, the 110th Congress removes from power several maverick Republicans who wanted the United States to be more critical of Israel, and boosts to leadership lawmakers who are not just Israel-friendly but intimately acquainted with the U.S. Jewish community.
That’s partly because some of the top leaders are from the community.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the sole Holocaust survivor in Congress and one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in the House of Representatives, assumes control of the International Relations Committee. His deputy is Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), also Jewish.
Lantos replaces Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who was often critical of Israeli settlement policy, particular its effects on Palestinian Christians. Hyde was retiring in any case, and moving into the top Republican spot on the committee is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), whose pro-Israel record is unmatched.
Four of the committee’s seven subcommittee chairmen are likely to be Jewish, though the positions will only be formalized by week’s end:
• In line for chairmanship of the Middle East subcommittee is Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.);
• Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) is set to head the International Terrorism and Nonproliferation subcommittee;
• Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is ready to helm the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, which deals in part with terrorist and Islamist incursions in the Americas; and
• Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) is set to take over Europe and Emerging Threats, which deals with anti-Semitism on that continent.
Other Jewish members guiding House committees include:
• Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who will deal with banking laws in the Financial Services Committee;
• Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), likely to assume a high profile heading the Government Reform Committee as he investigates the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, the 2005 hurricanes and rising energy costs; and
• Berman, who as chairman of the Ethics Committee will be closely watched to see if Democrats make good on their pledges to clean up government.
Perhaps the most prominent pro-Israel boost is of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who becomes majority leader. Hoyer is on a first-name basis with much of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has been to Israel multiple times, exhibiting broad knowledge of its political workings.
His immediate predecessor, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), now the minority leader, is friendly but not as well acquainted with the intricacies of Middle East politics.
Lawmakers considered less friendly to Israel are also set to head committees, but none that deal directly with the Jewish state. They include Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) at Energy and Commerce; Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at Judiciary, although Conyers distinguished himself recently by delivering perhaps the most stinging rebuke to former President Carter for likening Israel’s settlement policy to apartheid; and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) at Resources.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who will head the powerful Appropriations Committee, is in the “friendly but critical” category, backing assistance to Israel but diverging sharply on its settlement policy. Obey once proposed linking assistance to changes in that policy.
However, with the burgeoning deficit and major Iraq war funding battles in the offing, Obey is not likely to have much time to deal with Israel. He’ll leave that to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who will chair the Foreign Operations subcommittee. Lowey, who began her political career leading Jewish groups, is quite friendly to Israel.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the new House speaker, has elevated a number of Jewish members to powerful committees. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) joins Appropriations after just two years in the House, as does Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). They join Lowey and Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) on the committee.
Jews now number 30 in the House — a net increase of four from the last Congress.
Other significant new committee appointments include Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) to the Ways and Means Committee, which deals with taxes; and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who marks her freshman term by joining the sensitive Armed Services Committee.
There are a record 13 Jews in the Senate, including 11 who are Democrats or caucus with Democrats — 20 percent of the Democratic presence.
Jews in chairmanship positions include:
• Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) at Armed Services;
• Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) at Environment;
• Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at Homeland Security;
• Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) at Aging;
• Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at Rules; and
• Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) at Economic.
The most significant change for Israel, however, is at the Foreign Relations Committee. Gone is Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who as chairman of its subcommittee was perhaps the toughest congressional critic of Israel’s settlement policy. His replacement is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is eyeing another bid for the presidency in 2008 and is unlikely to deviate from his record of solid support for Israel.
Similarly, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the committee’s chair, is also on the presidential track and shows no sign of changing his pro-Israel views. He replaces Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who was circumspect about Israel but allowed the committee considerable leeway in questioning Israeli policies.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who will head the Appropriations Committee, is also a tough Israel critic but, like his House counterpart Obey, will be preoccupied by the deficit and Iraq, and thus is unlikely to initiate changes in Israel funding. He takes over from Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who had a solid pro-Israel record.
Missed will be Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who headed the Foreign Operations subcommittee. His determination was key to the last-minute passage in 2006 of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which isolates the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. It is not yet known who will replace McConnell.
Both Houses have Jews in the top political position of caucus chair — Schumer in the Senate and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in the House.
Jewish leaders who deal with domestic issues already were expressing off-the-record approval of the Democratic wins because the community as a whole favors Democratic Party positions on issues such as health care, elderly care, stem-cell research and poverty.
But activists said several chairmanships in particular stood out: Kohl, for instance, brings his Jewish sensibilities to the Committee on Aging. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who has long supported naturally occurring retirement communities, a program pioneered by United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, now is in a position to codify federal support for NORCs as chairwoman of the Health Committee’s Retirement subcommittee.
“She’s a longtime champion of senior issues in general and of the NORC program,” said William Daroff, the UJC’s Washington director. “We’ve had a great working relationship with her.
Stacy Burdett, a lobbyist with the Anti-Defamation League, noted the ascension of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to the chairmanships of their respective houses’ immigration subcommittees. Their views should stem an anti-immigrant tide that the ADL has noted with concern, she said.
“They are both leading proponents of fair and generous immigration,” Burdett said.