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Senate Democrats to Jews: Help us on budget, defending Obama

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

July 15, 2011 | 12:20 pm

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

When two-fifths of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate met this week in Washington with representatives of Jewish groups, the senators delivered a clear message: If you agree with us, it’s about time you spoke up.

The appeal, delivered at an annual meeting organized by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee with the assistance of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was targeted at two disparate issues: Helping to pass a budget and defending President Obama from charges that he is selling Israel down the river.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), both of whom are Jewish, spoke most forcefully, participants reported, linking Jewish requests for funding to the need for Jews to lobby Republicans to help pass the budget.

In an interview after the meeting, Cardin told JTA that it’s not enough to advocate for spending; the Jewish community, he said, needs to help get a budget passed.

“The Jewish community has a direct interest not just with the debt ceiling but in the budget as we attempt to get the deficit under control. Will our priorities be preserved?” he said. “The Jewish community has been very effective in their involvement in the American political scene. My point was these are very consequential times, and they need to focus their efforts in a much more dramatic way. The consequences are much too great.”

The hourlong meeting Wednesday morning attracted 21 senators—a substantial turnout, considering how Congress is mired in negotiations to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 3 or else face a default and shortfall in government funding. There are 51 Democrats in the Senate, along with two independents who caucus with them.

Not all of the Jews attending the meeting were Democrats.

Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said the takeaway was that Jewish groups need to be more proactive in resolving the budget crisis.

“The Jewish community can be actively talking to their members on both sides of the aisle about the importance of addressing this and not getting to the crisis point we’re close to approaching,” he said.

The remarks by Levin and Cardin were prompted by a presentation by the chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America’s board of trustees, Kathy Manning. Manning appealed to the senators to protect a number of funding programs in budget talks, including Medicaid, the program that funds the poor, and Homeland Security grants that help nonprofit institutions implement security precautions.

“We know firsthand the critical impact that the delivery of basic health- and long-term care made possible by Medicaid has made in people’s lives and the tragic consequences should this program be weakened by Congress,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of Jewish Federations of North America.

One of the Jews present who asked not to be identified because of an agreement at the meeting not to describe what others said, characterized the senators’ response as follows: “They basically said: ‘If you want these things, help us pass the budget.’”

While they will aggressively lobby to defend discrete budgetary items, Jewish groups are wary of taking sides in a bitter partisan budget fight. Particularly difficult for Jewish groups is the issue of tax increases to generate revenue.

Indeed, some of the major donors to Jewish organizations that lobby for increased social spending are wealthy Jewish Republicans who chafe at increasing taxes.

At the meeting with the senators, the budget crisis seemed to push Israel and Middle East issues aside for the first time in years. Usually, Israel takes up two-thirds of the meeting, one participant said; this time, most of the talk was about domestic issues.

When it came to Israel, Levin and Cardin said that misimpressions about Obama’s Middle East policies need to be corrected, according to meeting participants. It may be fine to criticize Obama for pressing Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 lines, they said, but it’s dishonest not to mention that he also called for mutually agreed land swaps and secure borders for Israel.

Levin thanked Howard Kohr, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for agreeing to his request to write to his constituents in Michigan earlier this year to quash an unfounded rumor that the Obama administration was funneling money to Hamas, participants reported. Levin said that such rumors, left unchecked, undercut Obama’s prospects of pushing back against a Palestinian effort to obtain U.N. recognition of statehood in September.

Susie Turnbull, a past vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee who now heads Jewish Women International, said it was critical for the Jewish community to push back against misconceptions.

“We as Jews have a responsibility to take up this mantle,” said Turnbull, who had delivered a presentation on how budget cuts would adversely affect women’s health care. “You tamp down rumors and misstatements and misconceptions when they appear.”

Some of the Jews at the meeting resented the pressure from the Senate Democrats to take sides in the budget battle. “I’m not going to get deeper into the debt ceiling game of chicken,” one said.

But with the stakes high, some Jewish groups are wading into the battle.

JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, joined an interfaith appeal on Thursday to pass a budget, saying the two sides need to explore ways to increase revenue.

“We make up what is needed for Medicaid patients, but we can’t do it all,” he said in a conference call with other clergy. “There are other ways to balance our budget, there are other ways to close our debt” other than further cuts, he said.

In addition to representatives from the federations, AIPAC, JCPA and Jewish Women International, top staff and laypeople came from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, NCSJ, American Friends of Lubavitch, and the Reform and Conservative movements.

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