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Jewish Journal

Safe in the Senate?

New committee chairmen could advance or stall Jewish issues.


by Matthew E. Berger

November 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

A Republican Senate means Republican committee chairs, and for many Jewish organizational leaders, a step backward toward more defensive lobbying tactics.

Jewish lobbyists say that when the Republicans take control of the full Congress in January, they will need to respond more to legislation they oppose rather than help craft laws that fit with their priorities. They say they will need to work hard to remove elements of some measures that are seen as too conservative, such as those related to charitable choice, which allows federal funds to religious organizations to provide social services. And they will work with lawmakers to construct measures that address their agenda, such as hate crimes legislation.

Still, many are holding out hope that there will be wiggle room to get some items on their agenda through the 108th Congress.

Among the people expected to head key committees are: Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). who will chair the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee; Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who takes over the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who will head the Senate Appropriations Committee.

On foreign issues, where Jewish leaders say the debates are often more bipartisan, the Senate Armed Services Committee will now be chaired by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be manned once again by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who first chaired it in 1985 and 1986.

Jewish groups say their relationship with Gregg will be important in the next Congress. His committee is expected to take up school voucher issues, which most Jewish organizations oppose, and will likely shape the debate on prescription drugs and Social Security privatization.

Jewish activists say they have worked with Gregg on several issues, and have had a running dialogue with his staffers over the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. The legislation would strengthen federal civil rights laws by requiring employers to grant employees greater accommodation for religious observances, such as taking time off for religious holidays and wearing religious garb.

However, the community is more divided on the contentious issue of vouchers, which provides federal funds for students to attend private or parochial schools. Many said they believe Gregg will push for some type of voucher program. Gregg's position was strengthened by a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that deemed school vouchers constitutional.

Leaders of many Jewish groups that oppose vouchers say they understand their position is at odds with Gregg's and they will need to work to try and prevent the legislation from being passed in the full committee.

But Orthodox officials support

Gregg's stance.

David Zweibel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, said the Orthodox community would work with Gregg to expand the federal special education law to broaden the use of vouchers for special education children. Gregg supports the use of vouchers for private schools if the public school is not suitable for them.

On judiciary issues, Jewish leaders are gearing up for a flood of new judicial appointments that are expected now that Hatch is chair. He is expected to lead the charge toward swift approval of new conservative judges.

The major judiciary policy debate is expected to revolve around the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which stalled in the Senate last year and would provide hate crime protections that Jewish groups have been seeking.

Hatch, a Mormon senator wears a mezuzah around his neck for good luck, has "made impassioned speeches" about the need for hate crimes laws and does not join other conservative Republicans in opposing provisions against discrimination based on sexual orientation, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

But Hatch is a vocal opponent of the bill on the grounds that it takes away states rights and because he fears that rapes and other attacks against women would all be classified as hate crimes, Lieberman said.

Hatch is also a vocal opponent of abortion, and there may be movement to restrict a woman's access to abortion, through bills targeting late-term abortions or seeking parental notification.

Jewish activists are less concerned with Stevens, who will be the Senate's chief appropriator. He is considered a strong supporter of foreign aid to Israel, which falls within the purview of his committee.

Jewish activists say they are further encouraged that the new chairman of the committee's foreign operations subcommittee is expected to be Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the chief Senate sponsor of a bill that would punish Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders for violating signed agreements with Israel and the United States.

Foreign affairs issues are seen as less dependent on the right chairman, since aid for Israel and support for the pro-Israel agenda is considered bipartisan in the current climate.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish groups have worked with both Lugar and Warner on foreign affairs issues in the past.

Hoenlein said Lugar has not been a strong advocate for the Israeli agenda, but has been supportive and is viewed as a friend.

Warner has recently joined Democratic lawmakers in supporting tougher action on Egypt for its airing of a miniseries deemed to have anti-Semitic elements.

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