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Senate Shocker

More gridlock, less influence for religious right.

by James D. Besser

May 31, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Senator James Jeffords in Washington, D.C. last September.

Senator James Jeffords in Washington, D.C. last September.

The stunning change in the U.S. Senate triggered by Sen. James Jeffords' switch from GOP to independent status means a seismic shift in the war over a host of domestic issues, including the church-state skirmishes that have preoccupied Jewish groups.

The change is less likely to impact U.S.-Israel relations, although several strongly pro-Israel lawmakers will ascend to chairmanships -- and one, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has been consistently hostile, is slated to become chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which plays a major role in Israel's foreign aid allotment.

But the mid-session shakeup does not change some of the fundamentals underlying the 107th Congress, including the harsh reality of gridlock.

The newly Democratic Senate will have to fight a Republican House whose leaders are likely to dig in their heels to avoid any retreat from their conservative social agenda.

Still, "you can't minimize the importance of controlling the calendar, running committees and setting the day-to-day agenda in the Senate," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.

Conservative Republican leaders have used that power to bury Democratic proposals for six years; Democrats, now that they are in the saddle, will try to do the same with many GOP proposals.

For liberal Jewish groups, the shift is more important for what it may prevent than what lawmakers may pass.

"The result is likely to be more gridlock," said an official with a major Jewish group here. "Split government may be even less likely to deal seriously with long-term problems like Social Security and health care. But it also makes it less likely Congress and the administration will ram through dangerous legislation like school vouchers and other threats to church-state separation."

In fact, vouchers and another administration priority, charitable choice -- which cuts back restrictions on religious groups seeking government money to provide vital services -- were on life support even before Jeffords switched parties on Thursday. Vouchers were stripped from the main education bill in both Houses; the chief Senate sponsors of charitable choice legislation had already decided to delay their proposal in the face of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

Jeffords' switch represents a huge blow to the religious right, which had hoped to use the GOP's control of both Congress and the White House to advance its social agenda. But it will make it only marginally easier to pass legislation Jewish groups want, such as a long-stalled hate crimes bill.

But in one area, the change will have an immediate and dramatic impact: nominations, and especially the judicial nominations that have the potential to affect the nation for years to come.

"Looking ahead, this is the Senate that could advise and consent on one or two Supreme Court nominations," said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women -- which was celebrating this week because the Democratic takeover could thwart administration plans to appoint more conservative judges and justices who oppose abortion rights.

President George W. Bush recently began making nominations to the federal bench; the specter of a Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) instead of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) may force the administration to veer toward the center in its choices, she said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is poised to play a major role in that process as the likely head of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime leader on immigration and refugee policy, is expected to take over the Judiciary Immigration subcommittee from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Brownback has been supportive of Jewish immigration and refugee concerns, but he has not had much support from his party. Kennedy "may give the issue considerably more traction," said an official with a Jewish group here.

Kennedy, one of the last old-time liberals in Congress, will also retake the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

Several Jewish groups hope the shift will boost a stalled hate crimes bill that survived votes in both houses in the last Congress only to be blocked by the GOP leadership. The new Senate leaders will work for its enactment; Leahy, the presumed new chair of the Judiciary Committee, has been a strong supporter.

"Until this happened there was a real question about whether this would ever come to the floor as a separate bill," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, a leading backer of the bill. "Now we will press to have it taken up as a separate bill; this is one of the issues that could be significant affected."

But the GOP House leadership remains largely opposed, as is the President.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is likely to chair the Judiciary subcommittee dealing with terrorism -- taking over from the conservative Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is due to get the Armed Services Committee. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to get the nod as chair of the Government Operations Committee -- which several observers pointed out could help boost his 2004 presidential ambitions by keeping him in the limelight.

Gridlock, a major problem in the last few sessions of Congress, could reach epic proportions in the newly split 107th.

House-Senate conferences to resolve differences in legislation will be major battlegrounds as the Democrats now have a fighting chance to kill legislation they dislike.

Bush, facing a dramatic change in prospects for his domestic agenda, "will have to show he can govern from the center, as he promised to do," said Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist. "On the domestic side, it will force more centrist policy -- which will benefit the Jewish community."

But Kahn warned that the GOP House leadership "will not roll over; that's not the personality of the leaders there."

On the foreign policy front, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is slated to be replaced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms, a recent convert to the pro-Israel cause, has become a strong supporter of Likud policies, but he remains hostile to foreign aid and dislikes U.S. involvement around the world -- a position many pro-Israel activists see as worrisome.

Biden has been a supporter of the peace process, but his top foreign policy interests are Europe and Asia, not the troubled Middle East.

The Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs could go to Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who is Jewish. Wellstone may be the most liberal member of the Senate, and he is considered dovish on Mideast matters; he will replace Brownback, who has generally supported Israeli hardliners.

And Leahy, in addition to the Judiciary Committee chair, is likely to resume his old role as chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee -- which he used in 1990 to demand punitive cuts in Israeli loan guarantees because of the government's settlements policies.

But with strong, bipartisan support on the committee, pro-Israel lobbyists do not expect Leahy or Byrd, the incoming Appropriations chair, to do much more than huff and puff periodically.

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