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Leading Candidates for High Post in House Are Both Strong on Israel

January 11, 2006
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Tom DeLay’s Jewish friends — and enemies — can expect the same friendliness to Israel and affection for faith-based funding from whomever replaces him as majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under indictment for alleged campaign finance abuses in Texas and reportedly under investigation in Washington for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, DeLay (R-Texas) resigned from the second-ranking House job this weekend.

The two declared candidates to succeed DeLay are Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip, and John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House’s Education and Workforce Committee. Both are 56.

The vote will take place after President Bush’s State of the Union address Jan. 31.

DeLay was known for his affection for Israel and its settlement movement. Boehner and Blunt don’t have the same closeness to Israel’s right wing, but both men have records that please the pro-Israel community.

“Both have traveled to Israel, their voting records are very strong, both are great candidates,” said an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who asked not to be identified because it’s AIPAC’s policy not to comment on political races.

Blunt probably has the advantage on Israel issues. Working with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), his Democratic counterpart, Blunt has initiated pro-Israel resolutions that are guaranteed overwhelming passage, and he leads a trip to Israel every two years for Republican freshmen.

“He has been eager and willing to be a role model and a passionate advocate with regard to other members on the Middle East,” said a senior Jewish community leader with strong Republican ties. “Blunt has taken the opportunity and run with it to do a number of proactive things with the Jewish community.”

If Blunt is distinct from DeLay in any way, it’s that he has shunned American Jews and Christian evangelicals who speak for Israel’s far right — a constituency that considers DeLay a hero.

Blunt helped pass a House resolution last year welcoming the election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, fending off attempts from DeLay’s office to water it down. As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formulated his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Blunt did not return calls from hard-line settlers who visited Washington to lobby against the pullout.

In 2003 Blunt married a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, Abigail Perlman, who is Jewish, in a Jewish ceremony with a rabbi. Blunt already had warm Jewish ties stemming from his relationship with St. Louis’ Jewish community, but Jewish lobbyists say Perlman deepened those relations.

“She has been a key liaison with the Jewish world and has helped to expand his knowledge and relationship with the community,” said William Daroff, the top lobbyist in Washington for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group and, until recently, a deputy director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

A key focus for Blunt has been trying to end traditional Jewish financial and electoral support for Democrats.

“Increasingly, if you ask a Jewish voter which party is more dependably pro-Israel and focused on the war on terrorism, they would say the Republican Party,” Blunt told JTA in a November 2004 election-eve interview.

Perlman figured in a controversy that could dog candidates eager to distance themselves from lobbying scandals of the sort that brought down DeLay: Blunt revealed his relationship with Perlman in 2003 only after he had championed legislation that would have favored the tobacco industry.

Still, as the No. 3 Republican in the House after Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and DeLay, Blunt is favored for the majority leader job.

Boehner has not assumed as prominent a role on Israel, but that’s mostly a function of his domestic emphasis as chairman of the Education Committee. He is committed to the Jewish State, according to those who know him.

Daroff began his own political career as a page for Boehner in the Ohio House.

“Even as far back as 1986, Boehner had a keen understanding of the role Israel plays as a bulwark of democracy and freedom in the region from a Cold War perspective,” Daroff said. “He always saw Israel as being on the side of the good guys.”

Boehner represents a mostly rural district in southwestern Ohio that has virtually no Jews, but he has gone out of his way to keep his door open to Jewish interests.

Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, said Boehner was receptive to the lobbying group’s efforts to extend special education funding to religious schools.

“He really has always seen himself as someone who has a broader constituency for all Ohioans,” she told JTA. “He has been open to taking our calls.”

Both Blunt and Boehner are committed to faith-based funding, which has won them friends among Orthodox Jews. Boehner especially played a prominent role in making sure that funds for students evacuated because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita went to parochial as well as public schools, a cause championed by the Orthodox Union.

However, that makes both men controversial for the majority of the Jewish community, which opposes the erosion of laws keeping government funding from going to groups that discriminate on hiring based on religion.

The Reform Movement in particular was outraged when a Boehner amendment passed in September that would remove a ban on discriminatory hiring from organizations that receive federal funding for Head Start pre-school programs. The amendment has yet to pass the Senate.

Jewish activists who favor existing safeguards for church-state separation say they see little of substance that distinguishes Blunt and Boehner from DeLay, who also strongly favored faith-based funding. On style, though, there is a difference: DeLay was likelier to socialize with Jewish groups, especially the Orthodox, that did not openly oppose any Republican plank.

“Both Boehner and Blunt are folks who reached out more to the broader Jewish community than DeLay ever did,” said a representative of a group prominent in lobbying for church-state separation, who spoke anonymously to avoid reprisals from the Republican Party. “They sought to build broader bases in the community .”

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