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Stung by Democratic Debacle, Jews Fear for Domestic Agenda

November 9, 1994
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Stung by the Democratic debacle in this week’s elections, many Jew find themselves grappling with the rightward tidal wave that has swept the country.

For many of the defining issues of American Jewry, an unclear and uncharted path lies ahead in the wake of widespread Democratic losses across the nation.

While Jewish Republicans rejoiced and some voiced little worry, others sounded a dire warning.

“The entire domestic agenda is clearly in trouble,” said Jerome Chanes, co- director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella organization.

With new Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Jewish activists across the political spectrum predict a tumultuous time for Jewish domestic concerns on Capital Hill beginning in January.

Faced with the loss of many longtime supporters of Israel and other Jewish causes – including nine Jewish lawmakers – many in the Jewish community have already begun to re-evaluate strategies and legislative priorities for the coming year.

The 104th Congress that was elected Tuesday will include a total of nine Jewish senators and 23 Jewish representatives, down from 10 senators and 31 representatives in the current legislature.

Much of how the Jewish community reacts to the altered balance of power in Washington depends on the level of cooperation that Republicans strike with the Clinton administration, analysts say.

American Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jewish organizations, which tend to have a liberal bent, basked in the past two years of Democratic rule.

Organizations were generally more concerned with shaping good legislation than opposing what they saw as harmful initiatives.

Jewish organizations supported much of the recent congressional domestic agenda, including abortion rights legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They also supported Clinton’s goal of universal health care coverage and welfare reform.

But now many activists fear a new role will emerge for Jewish groups as the Republican majority launches more conservative initiatives, such as school prayer and budget cuts that harm social programs.

Democrats painted the loss that spanned all ideological, geographic and social barriers as a “catastrophe.”

Republicans picked up eight seats in the Senate assuring the GOP its first majority since 1986. On the other side of the Hill, Republicans captured a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.

Democratic consultant Mark Mellman called the election “a volcanic eruption of anger” by voters, who were “anxious about the economic status and crisis of values.”

Voters “are totally distrustful of government,” he said.

“We’re going to see a much smaller, but rather unified, Democratic Party, because if they don’t hang together, they will hang separately,” Mellman said.

A somber Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, blamed not only the White House but all Democratic organizations, which he said, “didn’t do a good job selling changes.”

Still, he added, “the president has to learn to express himself and not be all over the map.”

In contrast, a jubilant Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, hailed the election as the “Most important of the century for Republicans.”

Brooks said the next few weeks will be critical for the Jewish community.

“The Jewish community will lose influence if it does not start to support the Republican Party,” Brooks said. “There’s a choice – to get on board or be left outside.”

Some on the Washington Jewish scene agreed.

“There is no reason to believe that the Jewish political agenda will not be advanced,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel.

Noting that the Jewish community “is not a monolithic community,” Cohen said. “There are differing positions on a wide range of issues, and I believe the Jewish community can find allies in both political parties.”

However, Jewish organizations that have traditionally sided with Democrats in many legislative battles are unlikely to heed Brooks’ advice and alter their domestic agenda.

Many painted a bleak picture for the new Congress.

“There will be efforts to undo much of the social legislation the Jewish community has been key on in the past 40 years,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

“Clearly we will have to fight defensive battles to stop bad legislation,” the rabbi said.

But Saperstein remained optimistic that bipartisan coalitions could be forged. He recalled the Reagan years when landmark civil rights legislation passed.

Nonetheless, Saperstein predicted, “this is likely to be the toughest Congress on domestic and constitutional issues I’ve faced in my 20 years as a Jewish representative in Washington.”

Democratic activists scored the election as a major victory for the religious right.

Perhaps the most important challenge to the Jewish community, observers say, will center around prayer in public schools.

With the new conservative Congress likely to consider an amendment to the Constitution to allow prayer in school, many Jewish analysts predict that major battles over the issue lie ahead.

Some Jews, including many in the Orthodox community, support issues such as school prayer and school vouchers for private school education.

But the majority of Jews have traditionally felt that school prayer crosses the line separating church and state.

“There’s a real danger that a constitutional amendment will be introduced and there’s real possibility of passage,” NJCRAC’s Chanes said, adding, “This congress poses a troubled road.”

Gutow of the National Jewish Democratic Council believes that “the Christian Coalition is going to claim – and rightfully in many cases – that it had a significant impact in the election.”

As a result, he said, “we’re going to see an attempt to promote their agenda.”

But Brooks countered, saying that he guaranteed there is nothing to fear about the Christian Coalition.

“There are going to be those who continue to play on the fears of the Jewish community, but we’re going to see that it’s nothing more than politicians plying with emotions,” Brooks said.

“We’re not going to see the Christianization of America or prayer in schools,” he said. “That’s people trying to drive a wedge between the Jewish community” and the Republican Party.

Ironically, Jewish organizations that turned to Congress in the mid-1980s to counter conservative decisions from the Supreme court on issues such as school prayer and religious freedom could find themselves now turning to those same courts for remedy.

“Now we’re going in the opposite direction once again,” Chanes said, citing the new moderate balance of the Supreme Court.

As for the Jewish community, the election’s message “is loud and clear,” said Diana Aviv, Washington director of the Council of Jewish Federations, which has been especially active on domestic issues such as welfare reform and health care.

“We must challenge ourselves to find creative ways to forge alliances, or we’ll be closed out before we begin,” she said.

The Republican takeover does not necessarily spell the defeat of Clinton’s domestic agenda, many activists say. But they add almost in unison, “We will certainly see a move to the right.”

Despite the dire predictions for domestic Jewish interests, the picture on the pro-Israel front looks brighter, according to Jewish activists.

The American-Israel relationship and Israel’s $3 billion in foreign aid are not threatened by the new Congress, the activists suggest.

The turnover “does not pose a threat to Israel,” said Steven Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

“I’m very upbeat about the prospects for the pro-Israel cause and the American- Israel relationship,” he said.

“From past bipartisan support, it’s clear that the pro-Israel community has the support of the Republican leadership,” he said.

Ever since the high turnover in the last Congress, AIPAC has continued a massive grass-roots campaign to educate lawmakers and candidates alike on the pro-Israel agenda.

Despite dire predictions for foreign aid in the last Congress, both the House and Senate passed Israel’s $3 billion package by record margins this year.

As pro-Israel activists to forge new alliances, some stalwart friends of Israel went down to defeat election night.

On the Senate side, all the Jews up for re-election managed to stave off some tough competition. With the retirement of Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), the 104th Congress will have nine Jews in the Senate, one less than the minyan that made up the last Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the most vulnerable incumbents going into the election, will return to the Senate for a third term. The Jewish senator narrowly defeated N.J. Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian.

Another Jewish incumbent, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), also edged out her challenger Michael Huffington in a race so close that results were not final until Wednesday morning.

When the dust settled, voters also had returned Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wise.) to the Senate.

But the major news from the Senate will be the shift from the Democrats to the Republicans in leadership positions and chairs of committees. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) will become majority leader.

Most notably from the pro-Israel perspective, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) will chair the Foreign Relations Committee. Helms, an archconservative criticized by many in the Jewish community for his domestic agenda, has nonetheless been supportive of Israel in recent years.

Mark Hatfield (r-Ore.) will take over the Senate Appropriation Committee, a position he held when the Republicans controlled the Senate in the 1980s. The Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which will be chaired by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is responsible for foreign aid.

Another closely watched Senate race saw incumbent Chuck Robb (D-Va.) defeat Republican Oliver North, a religious right-backed candidate who suffered voter backlash because of his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Other key congressional races across the country held a mixed bag for Jewish incumbents.

Voters returned freshman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) to the House.

But several other Jews – freshmen and veterans alike – lost. Among the list is freshman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.), who lost to Jon Fox, a Jewish Republican.

Fox is believed to be the only new Jewish member to join the 104th Congress.

Other Jewish members who lost their seats include freshmen Eric Fingerhut (D- Ohio); Dan Hamburg (D-Calif); Jane Harman, (D-Calif); Herb Klein (D-N.J.); David Levy (R-N.Y.) and Lynn Schenk (D-Calif.).

Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), a veteran Jewish member, was ousted by his constituents.

As of press time, Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), was leading by 400 votes in a race still too close to call. JEWS IN THE 104TH CONGRESS Senate Barbara Boxer (D- Calif.) * Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) * Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Herb Kohl (D- Wis.) Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) Carl Levin (D-Mich.) * Joseph Lieberman (D- Conn.) Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) * Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) * *was not up for re- election in 1994 House of Representatives Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif.) Howard Berman (D-Calif.) Benjamin Cardin (D-MD.) Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) Bob Filner (D-Calif.) Jon Fox (R-Pa.) * Barney Frank (D-Mass.) Martin Frost (D-Texas) Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) Sander Levin (D-Mich.) Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) Jerrold Nadler (D- N.Y.) Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) Steven Schiff (R-N.M.) Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Norman Sisisky (D-Va.) Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Sidney Yates (D-III.) Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) *first time in office

As of press time Wednesday, Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) held a slight lead over his opponent, leaving the race too close to call.

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