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Congress focus on terror pushes all else aside


WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 (JTA) — The reverberations of the Sept. 11 terror attacks are still being felt on Capitol Hill, where this Congress´ final acts are expected to focus primarily on the creation of a homeland security department and fighting terrorism.

This focus, along with the growing problems of the economy, the debate over a war with Iraq and campaigning for November’s elections, has forced most other issues to the back burner. This disappoints many Jewish groups, who had hoped to see legislative movement on domestic issues such as hate crimes and religious accommodation in the workplace.

Instead, Jewish groups are closely tracking the civil liberties issues tied up with legislation aimed at fighting terrorism. In the aftermath of the worst terror attacks on American soil, Congress was quick to pass the USA Patriot Act, which gave greater authority to law enforcement in their criminal investigations, including enhanced surveillance procedures.

The legislation touched off a national debate on how to properly balance national security and civil liberties. Many Jewish groups supported the bill, but were concerned about specific aspects that limited personal freedoms. In fact, many have expressed misgivings about the legislation, say congressional observers.

“No doubt an awful lot of people feel they were sold a bill of goods by Attorney General John Ashcroft,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But Ornstein said that what Jewish groups and others are willing to do about it is “another issue.”

The Anti-Defamation League is working on a measure in the Senate that addresses what it sees as potential problems regarding the treatment of resident aliens and foreigners. Among the concerns are those provisions that allow for indefinite detention and eavesdropping on conversations between lawyers and prisoners. But with such little time left for congressional action, the ADL and other groups are not optimistic that changes will be made.

In the homeland security bill, one program that raised flags for groups such as the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee was the TIPS program, which encourages people — untrained in law enforcement — to report suspicious activity.

Jewish groups are also lobbying for the Refugee Protection Act, which got more attention in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The legislation would increase protections for asylum seekers. Groups want to assist refugees and keep immigration numbers up without compromising border security. Another Sept. 11-related bill pending would establish a temporary federal program that provides for a system of shared public and private compensation for insured losses resulting from acts of terrorism.

Many American Jewish institutions are struggling with new insurance rates and the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are negotiating a compromise bill that would ensure that groups could attain affordable terrorism insurance coverage. Terrorism-related legislation, while clearly a top focus, is not the only priority as Congress concludes its session. Lawmakers must pass 13 appropriations bills to keep the government functioning. One appropriations bill includes aid to Israel, $2.1 billion for military aid and $600 million for economic needs.

In addition, President Bush has promised that $200 million would be added as an amendment to the 2003 budget to help Israel fight terrorism. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, also will push for new legislation that would look at ways to require Palestinian leadership to move toward democracy, possibly conditional on aid, as well as legislation that calls for sanctions on Syria if it does not stop supporting terrorism.

A lame-duck session of Congress in December is likely but will probably focus on just getting the appropriations bills passed and nothing more. Several issues being watched by the Jewish community are likely going to have to wait until next year — and a new Congress — before they have a chance of seeing any movement. Among those are:

• Hate Crimes: The Senate has promised action on the controversial legislation that would authorize federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability, expanding the current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity. Hate crimes against Muslims increased after Sept. 11 and underscored for many the need for such legislation, but there is still substantial opposition to the bill in part because of the inclusion of crimes against gays and lesbians.

• The Workplace Religious Freedom Act: Long on the agenda for some Jewish groups, the legislation, which would strengthen provisions for religious accommodation, has been held up because of lingering concerns from the business community and congressional leaders have yet to make the bill a priority.

• The Senate version of the faith-based initiative contains tax incentives for charitable giving and removed some controversial points related to charitable choice, which allows federal money to go to religious groups that provide social services. But some Jewish groups remain wary of provisions in the bill that may lead to proselytizing and religious discrimination.

• Jackson-Vanik: Congress had been expected to officially end the application of trade restrictions to Russia and stop the historic Jackson-Vanik Amendment that tied emigration of Soviet Jews to trade, a move that President Bush backs. Just last week the long-running poultry trade dispute between the United States and Russia, which slowed down the move, was resolved. American Jewish groups are still pressing for assurances that the Russian government will ensure religious freedom for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Russian Jewish groups have lobbied for lifting the trade regulations without any strings.

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