The spending bill had been finalized by House and Senate negotiators the day before, and was expected back on the House floor for a final vote any day. Normally, voting for foreign aid is a proud moment in the Jewish lawmakers' calendar, an annual ritual reaffirming America's $3 billion bond with Israel.
But on Sept. 28 the Jewish representatives agreed, after an emotional 45-minute discussion, to do something they'd never before dreamed of: vote against foreign aid.
The main reason, attendees said, was the Wye River aid package. That's shorthand for a $1.8 billion bundle of grants to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, pledged by President Clinton as part of last year's Wye River Accord. The foreign aid bill didn't include the promised money, making it a non-starter, Jewish lawmakers said.
"It takes a lot to get me to vote against a foreign aid bill," said California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman. "But I thought this was essential."
Most Jewish lawmakers agreed. Of 23 Jews in the House, the only one who voted for the aid bill was the sole Jewish Republican, Ben Gilman of New York, who chairs the House International Relations Committee. Gilman didn't attend the Sept. 28 meeting, even though he nominally chairs the Jewish caucus as its longest-serving member. The meeting was convened instead by California Democrat Henry Waxman, the second longest-serving member.
The House eventually passed the GOP bill Oct. 12 by a razor-thin 214 to 211 margin, largely along party lines. President Clinton vetoed it six days later, citing Wye as its biggest flaw.
Jewish lawmakers had other gripes besides Wye. Foreign aid is just too low, down from a 1985 high of $20 billion to $12.7 billion this year. Israel's share remains $3 billion. "As a percentage of the overall package it's bigger and bigger," said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler. "It sticks out like a sore thumb."
"It makes it more difficult for Israel, by building up resentment among others," added Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. Even so, opposing foreign aid was a wrenching choice for Jewish lawmakers, Frank said. "But by leaving out Wye, the Republicans made it a slam-dunk."
The Jewish Democrats' decision to vote no echoed widely. Jewish lawmakers are watched closely by colleagues for signals on the Middle East. Politically speaking, a vote against foreign aid is a vote against aid to Israel. The powerful Jewish opposition amounted to a green light to others to vote no. That forced Republicans to scramble for votes. "They had to pressure a lot of Republicans who wouldn't normally have voted for foreign aid," said New York's Nadler.
The maneuvering has turned this year's foreign aid budget into a high-stakes poker game, with everybody claiming the high moral ground and nobody saying what they mean. Israel's needs have become hostage to Washington's increasingly bitter partisan divisions.
Democrats say the Republican budget is so low it threatens American security. Republicans say it's only $1 billion lower than the budget Clinton signed last year. Democrats warn of children starving in Africa because of GOP cuts. Republicans say their grandmothers won't get Social Security if U.S. tax dollars are whisked abroad "every time somebody walks into the White House with a turban on his head," in the words of GOP Alabama Rep. Sonny Callahan, chairman of the House Foreign Aid subcommittee.
Amid the rancor, one thing everyone agrees on is Israeli security. Everyone backs the $3 billion aid package. Everyone claims to support Wye, too. "I think there's overwhelming support for it on both sides of the aisle," says New York Rep. Nita Lowey.
What's holding it up, observers agree, is figuring out how and when to enact it. Clinton first asked Congress for Wye money last February in an emergency request. But when the peace process ground to a halt, the Wye money was shelved.
In September, when the new Barak government got talks restarted, the foreign aid budget was already drafted. Democrats called for the Wye money to be added in. But congressional spending is subject to strict caps, imposed two years ago to reduce the deficit. Republicans won't lift the caps despite the current surplus. That's why the Democrats revolted.
Caught in the middle was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The powerful Jewish lobbying group had quietly gone along with the GOP leadership all year, assured Wye money would be found in good time. Only after the aid bill was finalized in October -- with no Wye, Democrats in revolt and Jerusalem seething -- did AIPAC realize it would have to take on the Republicans, an unpleasant task for the bipartisan group. The result was last week's lobbying blitz by AIPAC and an army of allied Jewish groups.
Democrats now have other ideas for funding Wye. It could pass as emergency spending, technically exempt from budget caps. Or it could go into an omnibus spending bill, a catch-all covering any parts of the $2 trillion federal budget that Congress and the president can't agree on before Congress adjourns.
Both plans are iffy. An omnibus spending bill seemed increasingly unlikely this week as Clinton signed more pieces of the GOP budget into law. As for emergency spending, Republicans insist it would have to be "paid for" by cuts elsewhere. "We haven't found the money tree that the White House obviously believes is growing up here," says Joe Bonner, chief of staff to Foreign-Aid Chief Callahan. Many Republicans want to wait until next year.
Listening to Republican leadership it's not clear how enthusiastic they are about Wye funding. Most say it's up to the president to bargain for it. Few acknowledge a need to pass it this year, even though Israel is already incurring the expenses it's meant to cover. Some lawmakers even sound downright hostile.
One reason for the hostility: lobbying against the Wye agreement by right-wing Israelis and American Jews. Particularly effective is a sophisticated campaign by a group of former Likud officials, urging Republicans to approve Israel's share of the Wye aid, but block the Palestinians' until they change their ways.
"We've met many members and found unconditional understanding," said Yossi Ben-Aharon, onetime chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Several House Republicans confirmed they were sympathetic.
Ben-Aharon says even Texas Republican Tom DeLay, the most powerful figure in the House, has signaled support. "As I understand it, he's using the excuse that there's no money for the Wye package, but in fact he supports our position," Ben-Aharon says.
If that's true, kiss Wye bye-bye.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.