Jewish Journal

Key Jewish California lawmakers return to powerful roles in new Congress

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

February 1, 2007 | 7:00 pm

The 2006 congressional election that brought the Democrats back to power on Capitol Hill was a moment filled with meaning for four Jewish lions of California politics -- Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (Van Nuys).

After six years in the wilderness as the minority during the polarizing Bush presidency, they have suddenly been given an unexpected second chance to be at the center of national policy. And with the 2008 presidential race looking very competitive, both within and between the parties, the Jewish community in Los Angeles also finds itself back in the middle of things.

For Waxman and Berman, in particular, the moment is delicious because the highly disciplined House was a prison under Republican speakers, and the Democratic majority is now large enough to allow them to take their time planning hearings.

The key to the House of Representatives is the committee and subcommittee system. Members have little power individually, unless they are in the party leadership, but when they exercise their power through committees, they can move mountains. The majority chooses virtually all the committee chairs, and that means that each of these political figures will have a forum from which to issue subpoenas, run hearings and propose legislation.

Waxman has the premier spot as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a perch from which he can roam throughout the government. The image of Waxman waving a subpoena must ruin the sleep of many White House staffers.

Undoubtedly, Waxman will explore the role of Bush administration officials in overriding the decisions of professionals in federal agencies, the secrecy that has surrounded government decision making, crises in public health and even profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq. Administration officials used to being coddled by Congress will find Waxman a much tougher customer. Barely able to contain his readiness, Waxman noted that there was so much to investigate that it was only a matter of deciding where to start.

Berman is a member of the Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Courts. Along with Judiciary Chair John Conyers, Berman has issued a call to close the loophole placed in the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (a Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania) that allows the Justice Department to remove U.S. attorneys and replace them without Senate confirmation.

Two other Jewish Democrats from this area will have important roles in national security matters. Rep. Jane Harman (Wilmington) had a choice position coming her way as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, but conflicts with then-incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) ended that dream, when the new leader passed Harman over for chair in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Harman did land a position as chair of the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. From that spot, her considerable experience in intelligence and national security will showcase her, while she tries to rebuild her relationship with the speaker.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) has earned a choice seat on the Judiciary Committee and the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. He has staked out a tough position on Iran's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, calling it a far greater threat than Iraq ever posed.

For Feinstein and Boxer, the world looks a little different. Individual senators are extremely important, regardless of their committee positions. But the Senate majority rests precariously on one vote, that of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a different sort of Jewish Democrat.

While winning re-election as an independent in very blue Connecticut, Lieberman appeared to be critical of President Bush's Iraq policy. Once back in office, he has taken to implying that the president's critics are lending "aid and comfort" to our enemies.

His fellow Democrats fear that he wants to join the Republicans and thereby swing control of the Senate back. Boxer, ever vigilant to electoral challenges as the more liberal of the two senators, can hear rumors that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might run for her seat in 2010. And yet, even with these unknowns, as senators they have great authority and public attention.

The two Senators will not only have key committee positions (Feinstein on Intelligence and Appropriations, Boxer as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) but access to national media. Expect Feinstein to play a leading role in the Iraq debate and other military matters, and Boxer to be central to discussions about education, choice and the environment. Much of the social agenda of the Bush administration has been conducted quietly through administrative decisions (such as imposing limits on family planning in international programs), a situation that can only be rectified by active congressional oversight.

A great unknown is the political impact of America's relationship with Iran on these leading Jewish Democrats. They have all become vocal opponents of the Iraq War, despite, in some cases, being initially supportive.

Iran presents a different case. Supporters of Israel consider Iran to be a profound threat, especially if it should acquire nuclear weapons.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear to be laying the groundwork for possible war with Iran. Based on the Iraq experience, few have much confidence in the ability of the Bush administration to handle this crisis well.

Yet Jewish Democrats will still want to make sure that Iran's nuclear ambitions are not realized. Perhaps these California Democrats, some of whom are on pivotal national security committees or subcommittees, can craft a wise but forceful policy with Iran that can win public support and prevent another catastrophic foreign policy failure.

Having these long-serving members back in positions of power is going to make a real difference in national government. They have seen it all, from having great impact to being in the doghouse. Like athletes who know how hard it is to win a championship, they will be careful not to waste a second of their time at the top. They will question and probe, inquire and complain. An administration unused to being challenged will face oversight every working day.

But more than that is going on. Congressional elections always set the tone for the next presidential election, and 2006 has set the stage for 2008. California Jews, especially in the Los Angeles area, will play a significant role in that contest.

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