The stakes for Jewish groups in the Capitol Hill budget crisis are increasing by the day as lawmakers and the administration try to figure out where to find hundreds of billions of dollars for Iraq, Afghanistan and New Orleans, without exploding an already huge federal deficit.
"Every year, they take a little more, and we have to do more with less," said an official with one Jewish group. "The question isn't whether there will be disruptive cuts this year; it's how big and how disruptive the cuts will be, and how long we can go on, trying to pare back services."
In recent weeks, congressional conservatives, rebelling against what they say is the Bush administration's deficit disregard, have upped the ante in a budget "reconciliation" push that will preoccupy legislators for the next few weeks.
Republican leaders, who this summer called for $35 billion in cuts to "mandatory" programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, have added another $15 billion in cuts to their demands in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They are also calling for a 2 percent cut in appropriated spending, which covers everything from education to law enforcement. At the same time, they are continuing to insist on up to $70 billion in additional tax cuts, which they say are needed to spur the economy.
However, Democrats say new tax cuts will just increase the deficit and add to the pressure for cuts that could devastate critical health and social service programs.
In the wake of the Gulf Coast disaster, "this is the worst possible time to cut the safety net for people at the bottom, while cutting more taxes for people at the top, and at the same time adding at least $20 billion more to the deficit," said Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee.
A number of religious and social action groups agree. Recently, the Coalition on Human Needs, citing the images of desperate poverty on the streets of New Orleans, distributed a letter calling on Congress to "not just delay such service cuts and tax cuts -- it must abandon them."
Several Jewish groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the anti-hunger nonprofit Mazon and the National Council of Jewish Women, signed on.
The new budget pressure is coming mostly from the Republican Study Conference, a faction that has gained influence since the departure of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority Leader. GOP discipline has broken down, congressional sources say, and the conference, which represents the most conservative members of the House, has gained power -- with potentially big consequences for the budget.
"The right is under rebellion on both the deficit and the Miers nomination," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the Democratic Leadership Council, referring to the fierce reaction from some conservatives to the recent nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. "They feel they've been ignored and abused by both the leadership and the White House; these proposed cuts are part of that new dynamic of pressure from the right."
Jewish leaders say privately that the pressure is all the greater because Democrats -- critical of the tax cuts and the growing deficit, but unwilling to cut defense spending or propose tax hikes -- haven't come up with viable alternatives.
The most Draconian cuts are unlikely this year, Wittmann said, because of resistance from Senate moderates and an outcry from governors -- Democratic and Republican -- about big, new Medicaid cuts. However, he warned that the budget crisis is real and getting worse.
"This is just the first act," he said. "For Jewish groups, there should be caution and anxiety, but no panic."
Jews Divided on Security Aid
One appropriation supported by some Jewish groups, but a source of anxiety to others, has cleared Congress.
Just before fall recess, lawmakers finished work on a Homeland Security appropriations bill that includes renewal of a $25 million fund to help vulnerable nonprofit organizations enhance security in the face of terrorist threats. That includes Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues, which is why the Orthodox Union and the United Jewish Communities worked hard for the groundbreaking appropriation last year.
However, other Jewish groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), argue that the measure sets a dangerous precedent for giving taxpayer money to sectarian institutions. They also say the relatively small amount -- the $25 million covers all vulnerable nonprofits, not just religious institutions -- doesn't justify the constitutional risk or the risk houses of worship will become involved in political squabbles over funding.
This year's appropriation was changed somewhat. Now, money will be allocated by the Department of Homeland Security, not state and local officials. That came after concerns that politics played a role in the distribution of some of the money last year.
The Orthodox Union praised the congressional action, saying in a statement that "the American Jewish community deeply appreciates Congress' recognition of the current security challenges confronting our community's institutions, including synagogues and schools, alongside other nonprofits."
Nathan Diament, the group's Washington director, thanked key sponsors, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Pat Robertson "Helps" Miers
Conservatives are deserting President Bush on his nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, but at least one leader of the Christian right is standing tall: the Rev. Pat Robertson, the television evangelist and former Republican presidential hopeful.
However, some of Robertson's recent comments -- like his suggestion this summer that the United States should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his comments suggesting Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for abortion -- may cause the beleaguered president even more trouble.
Last week, Robertson, speaking on his popular "700 Club" television program, punctuated his strong support for Miers with a historical comparison. In warning Republicans not to reject Miers, he noted that many GOP lawmakers had voted for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 1993.
Robertson referred to Ginsberg's former role as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and said that "now they're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative president and they're going to vote against her for confirmation? Not on your sweet life if they want to stay in office."
Robertson did not mention the fact that Ginsberg is Jewish, but some Jewish leaders saw ominous hints of an inappropriate religious test in his comments -- especially since other supporters of the Miers nomination have been touting her evangelical Christianity in trying to put down the rebellion from some conservative quarters.
Abraham Foxman, national ADL director, warned against using religious identification and faith as a talking point in the confirmation debate.
"I think we're crossing lines all over the place," he said. "Now, religion comes up in all kinds of skirmishes. It's dangerous; it bodes ill for a basic idea of the social contract that has worked so well for this country: advancement by merit, not faith."