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First 100 Days’ Top Priority: Economic Stimulus Package

by Eric Fingerhut

January 15, 2009 | 7:03 pm

The administration of Barack Obama, seen above with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is expected to enact several pieces of legislation rejected by the Bush administration. Photo by Presidential transition team

The administration of Barack Obama, seen above with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is expected to enact several pieces of legislation rejected by the Bush administration. Photo by Presidential transition team

At the top of the list is the economic recovery plan and the help it can provide for the nation’s most vulnerable. But there are also other domestic items that they are hoping to see become law in the next few months — particularly some pieces of legislation that garnered congressional majorities in the past two years but were blocked by President Bush, including an expansion of children’s health insurance and a hate-crimes bill.

None of these will come up, though, before the estimated $775 billion economic recovery plan, which is likely to have a number of provisions backed by Jewish groups. Vital to Jewish nursing homes and family services institutions around the country is an increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP, the rate by which the federal government reimburses states for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for poor people.

“The recession is causing an increasing demand for services and a decrease of government funds available,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) and director of the organization’s Washington office. An FMAP increase, he said, “would relieve some of the fiscal pressure on the states” that have already been reducing Medicaid payments in order to cut budget deficits.

Daroff said that the UJC, the North American arm of the network of local Jewish charitable federations, also is urging Congress to modify the provisions in the bill for infrastructure projects, so nonprofit institutions also could receive, for instance, funding to add rooms to a soup kitchen or build an expansion to a nursing home.

Other Jewish organizations pointed to a variety of provisions to help the unemployed and fight poverty, including the extension of unemployment insurance and a hike in the funding for food stamps. And President-elect Barack Obama’s emphasis on creating “green jobs” and a “green energy grid” was welcomed.

“Building a smart energy grid is something we need for the environment,” as well as for “our economic and national security,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy advocacy group bringing together more than 100 local Jewish communities, the synagogue movements and several national organizations.

After the stimulus package is passed — likely sometime next month — Jewish groups will look to some “unfinished business” from the last administration that has “a real impact on people’s lives,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women.

Susskind said that with a Democratic administration, a number of pieces of legislation once opposed by the Bush administration now are likely to become law.

High on that list is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would permit greater federal involvement in investigating hate crimes and expand the federal definition of such crimes to include those motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

Supporters have been pushing the bill for about a decade and even managed to have the legislation — attached to larger bills — approved by majorities in both houses of Congress. But the measure kept getting eliminated in conference committees.

With a president coming into office who backs the bill, however, “this might be the year,” said Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League.

Obama also would sign an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, SCHIP, which is expected to pass early in the 111th Congress. The legislation, vetoed last year by Bush, would add 4 million to 6 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance, according to Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

“Health care for kids is a basic value,” Weinstein said.

Another issue widely popular in the Jewish community and likely to garner early attention is federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, although it is unclear whether action would come via an executive order, congressional legislation or both.

Jewish groups, as well as a congressional source, agreed that measuring the “first 100 days” is an artificial time convention. They said that while all of the legislation named had a good chance of coming up before the fall, some of it may spill into the second 100 days of the administration depending on numerous factors, particularly how long the economic recovery legislation takes to complete.

Richard Foltin, American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel, said the first few months of the administration will be a critical time for starting to “move items forward” dealing with more complex issues. For example, he is hoping to see Congress begin to work on comprehensive immigration reform.

Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, said his organization will be watching in the early days of the administration to see how Obama sets up his White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, although any change in policy may take longer than the first 100 days.

Diament would like to see the head of the office rank high enough to have influence with the president and impact his policies.

His organization also believes that religious groups that receive federal funding should be allowed to take religion into account when hiring, which Obama has said he does not support and a number of other Jewish groups also oppose.

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