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New Leadership in the House Could Breathe Life into Jewish Domestic Concerns

November 9, 2006
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New faces in the congressional leadership may mean new opportunities for American Jewish groups seeking legislative solutions to many of its own concerns and those of the broader community. Democrats garnered control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994 Tuesday, winning at least 27 seats, 12 beyond what was needed to wrest control from the Republicans.

The fate of the Senate remained undecided Wednesday morning, with the races in Virginia and Montana still too close to call.

It is too early to tell whether a Democratic Congress, swept into power over discontent with the Bush White House, will have the ability to effect much change on the legislative front, especially with such a divided Senate.

Still Jewish lobbyists in Washington expressed some optimism that they would be able to advance issues as diverse as raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration policy and finding a solution to the crisis in Darfur.

They also expressed confidence in the relations they have established with many of the incoming House Democratic leaders, especially the likely next Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Jewish groups have also established strong ties with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the frontrunner for majority leader, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a Jewish lawmaker who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and is now considered a shoo-in for a leadership position.

Hoyer is close to Howard Friedman, the Baltimore-based president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and is considered one of Israel’s best and most influential friends on Capitol Hill.

Hoyer makes it a point to educate freshmen lawmakers about Israel issues and he has led delegations to the Jewish state multiple times. He prides himself on making Israel a bipartisan issue, vetting proposed legislation with his GOP counterpart, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

There are, however, some likely incoming committee chairmen who spark concern on certain issues, primarily because of their opposition to Israel’s settlements policy. At the same time, these lawmakers often see eye-to-eye with the Jewish communal agenda on domestic issues.

These include Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the likely new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. David Obey, the likely incoming chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

In general, said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, “Among the new leaders, there will be people we have a longstanding relationship with and others we will have to build it with.”

William Daroff, vice president for public policy at United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, said of Conyers: “He’s always had an open ear to the concerns of the Jewish community, particularly as it relates to its domestic agenda.”

Conyers, who is black, earned Jewish plaudits last month when he phoned former President Carter to castigate him for describing Israeli settlement policies as “apartheid” in his new book, a term Conyers said was inappropriate to use in any Jewish context.

The Jewish leaders point to the Republican control of Congress as a key example — Jews, who largely disagreed with the GOP on domestic issues, were still able to garner robust support for common-ground issues, mainly Israel.

On the domestic front, some Jewish organizational leaders expressed optimism about focusing on longtime domestic priorities.

“One of the first pieces I expect them to bring up is a clean increase of the minimum wage,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. By clean, he meant the bill would not be lumped in with other Republican-sponsored, tax-cut initiatives.

The initiative would be led by Conyers. Conyers’ committee is also expected to play a large role in the continuing debate over immigration debate. Jewish groups and their allies have had a hard time pushing comprehensive immigration reform in recent years, due to strong opposition from House Republican leaders.

Susskind said he believes an immigration deal could be worked through the Senate if it passes the House.

“We’re now in a situation where the House will be putting forward a more comprehensive approach, and the Senate has to work with that,” he said. “That’s a whole different situation.”

Other likely key committee chairs include:

Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the likely incoming chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Obey once proposed linking Israel’s foreign aid package to how much Israel spent on settlement expansion. But insiders say he is likely to concede a lot of leeway to his subcommittee chairs.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a Jewish lawmaker and a strong supporter of aid to Israel, will likely be one of those chairs, heading the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Jewish member who is a strong supporter of Israel, is likely to seek the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos, who has also been an advocate for a stronger stance against Egypt and Iran as the committee’s top Democrat, may be challenged by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), another Jewish lawmaker.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a Jewish member who will likely chair the Middle East subcommittee of International Relations Committee.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the most senior member of the unofficial House Jewish caucus, who would likely chair the House Government Reform Committee. Waxman’s committee could take on a lot of environmental issues the Jewish community has been touting.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the likely leader of the House Ways and Means Committee, which focuses on how money is raised, including tax policies.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the likely incoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Daroff, a former Republican operative, said he believes a lot of the issues the Jewish community will be touting will be ones in which both parties can come together.

“Aging and social services can bring people together to find solutions to issues that are going to be intractable,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a great deal of pressure on all of the parties to show that they are able to effectively legislate in the new environment.”

A lot will depend on what happens in the Senate, and whether it turns over to the Democrats or stays Republican.

Democratic initiatives will have a much easier time if they do not have to be approved by a Republican Senate.

But the Senate is considered a more deliberative body, with lawmakers more likely to work in a bipartisan matter and to cross party lines. Indeed, 60 votes are needed to bring most initiatives to the floor. So even if the Republicans maintain their majority — Vice President Dick Cheney would hold the tie-breaking vote — Jewish officials said they could work in that environment.

“There’s a benefit from having a balance,” Foltin said. “You’ll have different views emanating from both houses, and that can lead to a more constructive conversation.”

Matthew E. Berger is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

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