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Cries of Victory, Sighs of Defeat from Jews As Congress Recesses

October 4, 2006
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If you listened closely, you could hear, beneath the noisy sex scandal roiling the 109th Congress, cries of victory and sighs of defeat from the pro-Israel and Jewish community. The revelation last week of salacious electronic exchanges between Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and teenage congressional pages — and the threat that allegations of a cover-up now pose to the Republican leadership — dominated coverage of Congress’ last days before it recessed for midterm elections.

The news all but overwhelmed one of the busiest weeks of the congressional year, with Jewish victories on care for the elderly, abortion, evangelism in the military and funding for Israel defense programs; qualified wins on funds to protect Jewish institutions and Iran sanctions; and losses on civil liberties and Palestinian Authority sanctions.

Here’s a rundown of how the chips fell on issues of interest to Jewish and pro-Israel lobbies:

Iran sanctions, partial victory: Pro-Israel groups and Democrats expected the U.S. Senate to easily pass the version of the Iran Freedom Support Act that the U.S. House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly in April.

The act would considerably expand sanctions against Iran by targeting overseas parties that deal with the Islamic republic. U.S. officials from President Bush on down have strongly hinted that they would unilaterally consider such sanctions if the U.N. Security Council fails to act against Iran after it refused to stop uranium enrichment, a key step in producing a nuclear bomb.

The thinking was that forcing overseas companies and nations to choose between dealing with the United States or with Iran, while not as effective as international sanctions, still would deliver a considerable blow.

In late September, however, Democrats were presented with a version of the act lacking language that would close a loophole for U.S. companies owning subsidiaries that deal with Iran. It also allows the president to waive sanctions on other companies. The new version offers language extending such sanctions to companies that provide nuclear assistance to Iran — a narrowing of the original sanctions, which targeted all economic relations.

House and Senate Republicans, along with the White House, had negotiated the new language before presenting it to the Democrats as a fait accompli. Democrats said removing the language was a gift to Halliburton, an oil giant with close ties to the White House. Republicans said the original language was unduly punitive to companies that had negotiated contracts with Iran in good faith.

House Democrats were chagrined to see the changes, especially Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who joined Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in sponsoring the original act, but they felt they had little choice but to swallow hard and vote for it.

Democrats in the Senate also passed it Saturday morning. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the majority leader, bluntly warned Democrats that they would suffer politically if they blocked passage, and Democrats also came under pressure from some pro-Israel lobbyists, who may have been disappointed by the act’s dilution but who traditionally back the White House line on final language in bills.

Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, defeat. This act, which would ban most U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority unless it renounced terrorism, disarmed terrorist groups and recognized Israel, already was written off this summer as unpassable because of irreconcilable differences between House and Senate versions.

The House version, sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen, rejected most presidential waivers and targeted the Palestinian Authority as well as non-governmental organizations that deliver services to the Palestinians.

The Senate version allowed the president more leeway to waive the ban, and underlined that the Palestinian Authority would be denied assistance as long as it was led by Hamas — meaning that the act’s provisions could be lifted once the terrorist party is removed from government. It also was easier on nonprofits and carved out an exception for the office of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate from Fatah who was elected separately from the Hamas Cabinet.

Some pro-Israel lobbyists attempted an end-run around the deadlock in the last days of Congress, persuading Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority whip, to slip a version of the act into an omnibus bill before Congress suspended.

The timing wasn’t right however: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to launch a Middle East tour aimed at bolstering Abbas and reigniting Israeli-Palestinian talks. According to insiders, Rice called McConnell and told him to back off.

Rice’s office refused comment and McConnell did not return calls. No one expects to hear about the act until 2007.

Homeland Security funds for non-profits, partial victory. Jewish community lobbyists, led by the United Jewish Communities, the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, lobbied hard for Congress to force the department to release $25 million allocated for non-profits in 2006.

Jewish institutions got most of the $25 million budgeted in 2005, and were using it to reinforce security at federations, schools and synagogues. Homeland Security wanted to keep the 2006 money for first-responders, but an attack this summer on the Jewish federation building in Seattle, which killed one staffer, changed the dynamic.

The UJC and the other groups had hoped for another $25 million in the 2007 budget, and language encouraging states and local communities to consider at-risk non-profits in doling out money, but neither provision was forthcoming.

The Orthodox Union praised Congress for including language that ensures that money for schools affected by hurricanes is distributed to both private and public schools, a boon for faith-based schools.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee scored a victory in a separate bill setting up an office within the Homeland Security Department that would coordinate cooperation with counterparts in Israel, Britain, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

Evangelism in the military, victory. A wall-to-wall coalition of Jewish groups opposed language to be included in the Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed military chaplains to mention Jesus in their official prayers.

The language, backed by conservative Republicans, passed in the House but hit a roadblock in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where senators from both sides — some of them veterans — felt it undermined unity crucial to a functioning military. They not only removed the language but ordered the Pentagon to rescind similar instructions it had issued earlier this year.

Appropriations for U.S.-Israel programs, victory. An AIPAC priority, the $460 million allocated for such programs in the U.S. Defense Appropriations bill is separate from the $2.8 billion Israel receives each year in assistance, and is considered an investment. Some of the innovations, including protective tiles for armored vehicles, a targeting and navigation pod and unmanned aerial vehicles, already are in use in Iraq.

The allocation includes $135.6 million for Israel’s Arrow missile interceptor program, a proven success. Within that allocation, Congress set aside $18.4 million to develop a system to intercept short-range missiles, an outcome of the difficulty Israel faced in stopping Hezbollah missiles during this summer’s war in Lebanon.

Military tribunals, defeat. Republican majorities in both houses guaranteed passage of a bill that grants Bush considerable leeway in defining what constitutes torture and allows him to remove habeas corpus, the centuries-old right of a prisoner to appeal his detention.

Bush said the bill was critical in advancing the war against terrorism. Jewish civil rights groups, including Reform’s Religious Action Center and the American Jewish Committee, had opposed the bill, even in the “compromise” version negotiated by three Republican Senators who balked at Bush’s demand that Congress redefine the Geneva Conventions.

Abortion rights for minors, victory. A broad array of Jewish groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils; the National Council of Jewish Women; the Reform movement; and the AJCommittee opposed a bill that would have made it a crime to take minors across state lines to have abortions.

Both houses had passed versions of the act, but Frist (R-Tenn.) balked when he saw that the much tougher House version had emerged from the House-Senate conference. The House version mandated requirements for doctors that essentially would have nationalized parental reporting, opponents of the act said.

Sensing that the act would not pass when it landed on his desk, Frist, ordered an immediate “cloture vote,” a procedural mechanism needs 60 votes to pass. It failed last Friday evening, bringing down with it a signature campaign for the conservative right.

Elderly care, victory. The Older Americans Reauthorization Act that passed last week codified the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities program pioneered by the UJC in 40 communities. The communities facilitate at-home living for elderly in their home communities.

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