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America Decides 2004 Jewish Groups Fret Republican Gains Could Hamper Their Domestic Agendas

November 4, 2004
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Jewish groups say they are expecting much the same in the U.S. Congress over the next two years, with little legislative progress on their top domestic policy priorities. At the same time, the new Congress, with 11 Jewish senators and 26 Jewish representatives, is expected to remain strongly pro-Israel.

With Republicans strengthening their hold on both the House of Representatives and Senate, liberal Jewish groups are taking solace in the fact that Republicans would hold fewer than 60 votes in the Senate, giving Democrats an option to block legislation through a filibuster.

That could be crucial over the next few years on several issues, including Senate confirmations of U.S. Supreme Court justices. The illness of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the age of others could mean several new appointments in the next few years.

Most Jewish organizations look to Democrats for support on their domestic agenda items. In the past several years, with Republicans holding majorities in Congress, and the focus on tax cuts and defense rather than domestic spending, little new money has flowed to the social welfare causes many Jewish groups advocate for.

That trend, analysts and Jewish activists say, is likely to continue.

“I think many of our domestic issues, how we fund programs, are in big trouble,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils.

She said Medicaid, a federal health-care program for the needy and disabled, was at the top of the list of programs likely to suffer.

Other health-care priorities, as well as Social Security reform and funding for educational programs, could take hits as well.

Some Jewish officials said they expected the focus in Washington to remain on homeland security and foreign affairs, further hampering the Jewish domestic agenda.

“The president and the country is engaged in a war against terrorism, a war in Iraq, a lot of priorities internationally that I think will engage the Bush administration for the next several years and probably not enable them to get too proactive on the domestic agenda,” said Jack Rosen, president of American Jewish Congress.

But these officials expect that the new Congress would remain supportive of Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Palestinians by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

“By and large, the people who are coming in are people who are known to people in the community,” said Howard Kohr, the executive director of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The Supreme Court is also on the minds of many Jews. The court may hear cases in the next few years on partial-birth abortion and the line between church and state, and as many as four seats on the bench could open up during the next president’s term.

President Bush’s election means it will be he who appoints any new justices in the next four years, but Democrats — who hold more than 40 seats in the Senate — could filibuster any selection they view as too conservative.

“I think that process right now, to filibuster extreme nominees, is a good measure that can be taken if need be,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Some Jewish activists said they hoped that, should Bush’s victory stand, he would cross party lines and reach out to moderates.

They were also encouraged that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a Jewish moderate re-elected to a fifth term Tuesday, would lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds hearings on nominated justices.

But Orthodox leaders said they would miss Specter’s predecessor at that committee’s helm, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch, a more conservative lawmaker, was forced to vacate the committee chair because of term limits.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, suggested Democrats would need to reach out to faith groups after Tuesday’s results.

“The Orthodox segment was courted by the Bush campaign and very supportive at the polls of the president’s re-election,” Diament said.

“We expect to be able to pursue and promote the interests of our community — many of which are bipartisan — over the next couple of years.”

Orthodox Jews appreciate a social agenda that rejects abortion and promotes more federal funding for religious institutions, often parting ways with a majority of other Jewish groups

Indeed, Tuesday’s results suggested a majority of people in the country are comfortable with faith, and Democrats may need to work to gain a larger foothold in that community.

The Orthodox Union has led Jewish groups in backing the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill that would provide new protections for religious people to practice their faith at work.

The bill has languished in Congress for years and, although it made progress this year, it did not pass. Jewish groups say this legislation remains a priority, and the pro-faith tone may aid that battle.

Jewish advocates also expect Bush to continue to push faith-based initiatives, both through Congress and the federal bureaucracy. A stronger Republican Congress will hurt many Jewish groups that oppose the plan, and aid the Orthodox groups that back it.

Republicans have also supported a Jewish initiative to give federal homeland security funding to Jewish and other nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship.

Several Jewish groups led the charge for the legislation — which has passed the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee but needs to be made permanent — but it is opposed by both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and the Anti-Defamation League.

With the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on Tuesday, one important question looming is who will lead Democrats in the Senate.

With Bush staying on in the White House, the next Democratic Senate leader could be an important mouthpiece for the liberal and left camps, and the fight to determine who takes up Daschle’s mantle may help determine who will run for president as a Democrat four years from now.

Insiders say that after Daschle’s defeat, Democrats are likely to look for a senator in a safe state to be minority leader, to avoid a repeat of the Republican targeting of Daschle.

Among the names being considered are Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority whip; Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

Durbin, who defeated the anti-Israel legislator, Rep. Paul Findley, in 1982, is well liked in the Jewish community.

“He’s utterly accessible and a real friend to our community since the first day he started as a congressman,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Reid is the likely choice, given his current leadership position. Clinton is beloved in some Democratic circles, but remains a controversial figure nationwide. Dodd is also well respected for his work in the Jewish community.

While Daschle was well liked by Jews, and his leadership was appreciated, Jewish organizational officials said they felt comfortable they would be able to work with whomever leads the Senate Democrats, because the two groups have similar agendas.

The bigger loss, they said, was that Daschle’s seat went to a Republican.

Jewish activists are likely to keep an eye on two new Senate Republicans as well — Rep. David Vitter, who won the Louisiana Senate race, and former Rep. Tom Coburn, who won a Senate seat in Oklahoma.

Coburn, who defeated Rep. Brad Carson, is a staunch opponent of abortion and, as an obstetrician, will likely look to lead Republicans on the issue. He also has expressed conservative views on gay rights.

Vitter is seen as a conservative lawmaker also, and has campaigned against abortion and gambling.

Coburn was also generally opposed to foreign aid when he served in the House of Representatives, from 1995 to 2000, which has caught the eye of pro-Israel advocates in Washington.

These advocates will also likely watch Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat who is seen as anti-Israel, who is returning to the House after a two-year respite.

As for policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Congress has traditionally backed the Jewish state, but the breadth of that support could be tested in the near future, as the situation on the ground changes dramatically.

Sharon is expected to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and several West Bank settlements in the spring, and Israel will continue to build a security fence around the West Bank, jutting into Palestinian land in some areas.

Questions also remain as to who will lead the Palestinians, with their longtime leader, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, aging and ailing.

Pro-Israel groups are also likely to ask Congress to codify support for Sharon’s actions.

Several of the Texas Democrats who lost their House seats were strong backers of the Jewish state, including Rep. Martin Frost, a Jewish member who once served as House minority whip.

But sources say the new Texas legislators have expressed pro-Israel sentiments.

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