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Activism on Judges, Stem Cells Brings Results for Jewish Groups

May 26, 2005
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Jewish groups hope to maintain the high level of activism they have brought to several recent key domestic policy discussions on Capitol Hill. Organizations were sending out messages and calling rabbis as the U.S. Senate prepared to take on controversial judicial nominations and the House of Representatives passed a bill to expand stem-cell research.

Even after a deal was struck preventing Senate Republicans from using the “nuclear option” on judicial nominations, several Jewish groups were poised to keep up the pressure on nominees they see as too conservative.

The sudden activism came in part because the congressional fate of both issues had been uncertain beforehand, a rarity in recent years, when Republicans have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

Leaders of several Jewish organizations said they heard a desire from their members for a more activist approach to counter the growing presence of Christian conservatives, who infuse religious context into their advocacy for positions that often are in opposition to positions held by many Jews.

On judges, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism urged senators not to change rules and end the filibuster, which allows opponents to block a vote by prolonged speechmaking on topics not necessarily relevant to the issue.

The NCJW flew constituents to Washington to meet with swing senators during the Passover holiday, and the RAC asked members to get in touch with their lawmakers.

“I think legislators understand they have to represent their constituents, and when the grassroots reach out, I think legislators listen,” NCJW President Phyllis Snyder said.

A group of senators reached a compromise Monday evening allowing three judges to receive floor votes and allowing the filibuster option to continue only in “extraordinary” circumstances. In addition, Republicans agreed not to change rules to circumvent the filibuster, a last-ditch move that has become known as the “nuclear option.”

Jewish groups applauded the compromise because it kept the filibuster intact but remained concerned that controversial nominees, including those for the Supreme Court, will be confirmed.

“It’s very much a beginning,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director. “All the deal really did was set the ground rules for the debates we are now going to have.”

The RAC took out ads in several Jewish newspapers this week, noting, “The next fight will be even harder.”

Pelavin and many others anticipate that a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy will be announced this summer.

Several other Jewish groups focused their attention on a bill supporting research on human stem cells from embryos that otherwise would be discarded.

The bill passed the House, 238-194, Tuesday evening. It is expected to pass the Senate, but the House vote suggests congressional support is not strong enough to override President Bush’s promised veto.

Hadassah has led the fight in the Jewish community, using its stature as a medical-research organization.

“Hadassah can make a big impact because we are so large and we have real credibility on this issue,” said Marla Gilson, the organization’s Washington director. “If there is a district that has a targeted member, we have someone who can call them up and talk on this issue.”

They have had support from many groups, including the RAC, which rallied members who were motivated after hearing actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, speak on the issue in March.

The Orthodox Union sent a letter to lawmakers last week, also expressing its support for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act.

The stem-cell issue represents a rare opportunity for the Orthodox community to stand with other Jewish organizations and many Democratic lawmakers. In the past, Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, has reached out to Democrats on stem-cell research.

“It’s important that we as an organization and a community pursue and promote policy positions consistent with our religious values,” Diament said. “And wherever that puts us on the political spectrum, we let the chips fall where they fall.”

He added that he has had many “teachable moments,” using the issue to show that the Orthodox community is not in lock step with Christian conservatives, even though they do agree on such issues as faith-based initiatives and school vouchers, which most other Jewish groups oppose.

Jewish leaders said they have been able to change some lawmakers’ minds on stem-cell research.

“We have seen instance after instance where a member of Congress was absolutely tied to a position, and we brought in a 10-year-old diabetes patient or a young woman attached to a wheelchair,” Gilson said. “Seeing that real people are tied to research has had an impact.”

Jewish leaders say they will stay on top of these issues after this week’s votes. Many are expected to participate in a meeting Thursday with Senate Democratic leaders, organized by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

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