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Jewish Groups Wary but Hopeful As Congress Prepares Budget Requests

March 29, 2005
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Jewish groups preparing for looming battles on the nation’s budget are heartened that funding for Medicaid seems to have been salvaged — but they anticipate many other struggles this year. Several Jewish groups had placed the battle against proposed Medicaid cuts at the top of their agenda. They were ready to square off against the Bush administration and congressional conservatives who have advocated a reduction of up to $20 billion over five years for the program, which helps pay for health care for the poor and disabled.

However, the U.S. Senate voted earlier this month to strip the Medicaid cuts, suggesting Congress may be willing to reconsider other White House spending priorities as well.

Jewish groups remain very concerned about a proposal in President Bush’s $2.6 trillion budget to cut domestic spending by one percent across the board, worried how it might affect programs that aid elderly and impoverished Jews. But the Senate’s Medicaid move is being read as a signal that not all of Bush’s priorities will pass congressional muster.

“I think it means they’re not a rubber stamp,” Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council for Jewish Women, said of the Republican-controlled Congress. “It sends a message to all of us who care about issues that it’s not hopeless.”

Many Jews are looking to Congress to fight proposed cuts to housing subsidies and other retirement services. While Jewish organization largely have chosen to stay out of the Social Security debate, opponents of the White House’s privatization plans hope Congress will act deliberately on any reform to the program.

However, the Medicaid cuts were included in the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget proposal, and could be reinserted when the two chambers craft a conference version next month.

“There’s a lot of disagreement between the Senate and the House right now,” said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. “Our hope is that when they reconcile their versions, the right side will win out.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has been pushing members to meet with legislators and urge them to keep Medicaid funding.

“It’s a recognition that this is a central program for low-income Americans, and it should be studied further before making random cuts,” said Reva Price, JCPA’s Washington director.

The budget bill sets the overall spending and tax guidelines for appropriations, which Congress will take up later in the year.

Jewish groups remain concerned about other proposed cuts in Congress’ spending priorities, including $27 billion cut from education and job-training programs over five years, and the potential for deep reductions to food stamp programs because of cuts in the Agriculture Department budget.

A measure that would have blocked food stamp cuts, proposed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), was defeated.

Advocates also are watching a proposal to decrease the foreign-operations budget below Bush’s request. The Senate’s version called for $33.9 billion for international affairs, or $239 million less than Bush requested. The House recommended a $32.17 billion budget, $1.4 billion below the White House request.

Jewish groups often have backed foreign aid across the board in order to limit attention to money going to Israel.

Both the House and Senate proposals are higher than last year’s foreign aid bill of $29.72 billion. Nonetheless, foreign aid advocates said they will press for additional increases, and they remain hopeful.

“It shows that it’s not an automatic, that Congress won’t accept whatever the president is proposing,” said Jason Gross, director of governmental affairs for the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, a foreign-aid advocacy group.

Gross said the true test will come in the next few months when appropriators set limits for each spending bill.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the Jewish federation system, also is likely to push for more homeland-security funding for high-risk nonprofit institutions. The Bush administration did not request the funds this year, after $50 million was earmarked for that purpose last year.

Stephan Klein, UJC’s director of governmental affairs, said he believed the homeland-security spending still had a good chance of becoming law again this year through congressional sponsorship.

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