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Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

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The likely prospect of Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress has triggered broad speculation about the remainder of President Obama’s time in the White House, Republican bids for the presidency in 2012 — and the very course of the nation, if not the West.

The issues that preoccupy Jewish voters and groups have a narrower cast. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, along with the more remote possibility of a Republican Senate, could mean sharp turns in foreign policy and domestic spending. Here’s a glance.

Israel

The biggest Israel headlines of Barack Obama’s presidency have had to do with the renewed direct talks with the Palestinians and with the Obama-Netanyahu administrations’ tensions that preceded them.

Such tensions have informed tight congressional races, where an array of Republican candidates have pledged to stand closer by Israel and painted their opponents as pawns of a president who is cool, if not outright hostile, to Israel.

In reality, the peace talks are not likely to be affected by a switch of congressional leadership. Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policy has been expressed through rhetoric and not any action. In fact, Obama’s main substantive shift has been to increase funding for Israel’s defense and enhance defense cooperation as an incentive to make concessions to the Palestinians — intensifications of the relationship a Republican Congress would likely embrace.

If there is a change, it might have more to do with politics than policy. An adversarial Congress may force the White House to tamp down public criticism of Israel ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

The single substantive policy a GOP House might influence is the massive increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority launched in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, from occasional spurts of $20 million in the early part of the decade to today’s $500 million annual expenditure, including half in direct funding.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the GOP whip, has suggested that continued funding could be contingent on PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. (See related story.)

Theoretically, putting a stop on such funding could threaten U.S.-backed programs, especially training for Palestinian security services.

In fact, such foreign policy funding confrontations in the past have rarely led to defunding. Instead the executive branch — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has dipped into approved funds to keep programs going while it works out new arrangements with Congress.

Congress also is less likely to defund programs favored by Israel. The Israeli defense establishment, while not as gung-ho as the Obama administration in praising PA nation-building, nonetheless appreciates the increase in stability in recent years brought about in part by U.S.-led financial backing for the moderate west bank government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Still, even the congressional threat of a U.S. cutoff of funds can inhibit growth and investment.

The more substantive possibility for change on Israel is in Cantor’s pledge to remove defense funding for the nation from the overall foreign aid package and place it elsewhere — perhaps in the defense budget.

In the short run, all this means is that Israel will continue to receive $3 billion in aid annually while the Republicans attempt to gut backing for nations they do not consider reliable allies.

Pro-Israel officials, speaking on background, have said they would work hard to beat back such a proposal because of possible long-term consequences. They see aid for Israel as inextricably bound with the broader interest of countering isolationism.

These officials are concerned, too, that elevating Israel above other nations might be counterproductive in an American electorate still made up of diverse ethnic groups. They also believe that such a designation would make Israel more beholden to U.S. policy and erode its independence.

Iran

Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s outreach to Iran and said he was too slow to apply sanctions.

Over the summer, however, Obama dialed back the outreach to the Islamic Republic and signed a sanctions bill. His Treasury Department already has intensified sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial sector. U.S. and Israeli officials say Iran is feeling the bite.

The principal U.S.-Israel difference remains timing, or what to do when: When does Iran get the bomb — and what happens then?

Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.

Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.

Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

Social issues: abortion,
church and state

The two Supreme Court justices more likely than not to uphold liberal social outlooks who were itching for a Democrat in the White House so they could retire — David Souter and John Paul Stevens — have done so. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan replaced them following smooth confirmation processes.

No other such resignations are imminent. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also tilts liberal in her decisions, is 77 and has battled cancer; Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, is 74; and so is Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote who tilts right more often than not.

In case one of them retires, don’t expect the smooth transitions that characterized Obama’s first two appointments. Republicans may not control the Senate, but they will likely have a stronger filibuster in January.

Republicans now control 41 seats — one more than is needed to keep a nomination from advancing to a full vote. After Nov. 2, more among their numbers are likely to be diehard conservatives and less likely to cross the floor to break a filibuster.

They will want Obama to tailor a judge more to conservative likings under those circumstances, especially if he is replacing Scalia or Kennedy.

Earmarks

The House’s GOP caucus imposed a yearlong moratorium on its own earmarks last March. An extension is likely, Cantor said, and a GOP majority will be able to enforce a moratorium on Democrats.

That prospect concerns federations and Jewish groups that care for the elderly and infirm. Earmarks, less lovingly known as “pork,” are the funds lawmakers attach to bills in order to help their districts. Such funds have helped spur forward the Jewish Federations of North America crown project, naturally occurring retirement homes, among other programs for the elderly.

Medicare, Medicaid, and health care

No matter who wins next week, both parties have pledged cuts to entitlements like Medicare, the program that funds medical assistance for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides medical care for the poor. Jewish groups draw on both programs to help fund assistance for the elderly and provide the Jewish poor with kosher meals.

Targeting entitlements misses the point, say Jewish professionals whose expertise is elderly care. They say the real savings come from addressing burgeoning health care costs overall and not just entitlements.

“Let’s go after health-care spending and health-care costs and see how we can make the system more effective,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, the largest Jewish sponsor of senior housing in the United States.

The Republican leader in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said he will lead an effort to repeal the Obama health-care reforms passed this year by the Democratic Congress. It’s not clear that Boehner has broad party support, and he likely would not be able to override Obama’s veto of such a bill.

JTA

 
 

Jewish groups adjusting agendas for new GOP-led Congress

WASHINGTON – Faced with a new Congress intent on slashing the U.S. federal budget, Jewish groups are trimming their agendas to hew to its contours.

On issues from Israel aid to the environment to elderly care, Jewish organizations are planning to promote priorities that would find favorable reception in the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. The groups are trying to build alliances based on shared interests and recasting pitches for existing programs as Republican-friendly.

“Some parts of our agenda won’t have much traction in this new climate,” acknowledged Josh Protas, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are looking for items that have bipartisan priorities.”

To be sure, Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, and many conservative initiatives will die in the Senate or by the stroke of a presidential veto. But the House, with its considerable oversight powers and its ability to stymie legislation, remains extremely important.

Protas says the JCPA, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, already has had meetings with staff members of the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On domestic issues, many of the major Jewish organizations are devoted to policies that directly contradict Republican approaches. According to Protas, Boehner’s staffers told JCPA representatives that the best strategy for working around that is to cherry-pick the smaller issues within the broader agendas that could appeal to Republicans.

“We definitely got the sense that smaller, more focused legislation is what we’ll be seeing, so we’re trying to look at more discrete cases,” he said.

For example, on elderly care, a signature issue of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA will seek to frame Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, one of the jewels of the federation system, as a cost savings, according to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office.

NORCs have been pitched previously as appealing earmarks for lawmakers to insert into bills. But Republicans say they will eliminate earmarks, or discretionary spending by lawmakers; the Jewish Federations’ emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an attempt to hit a popular Republican note.

“Programs like NORC,” Daroff said, “shift governmental policy away from expensive institutionalized care to less expensive” programs.

Daroff invoked Republican talking points in explaining how the Jewish Federations would continue to seek funding for security for Jewish community institutions. Security funding, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in recent years, has given local law enforcement the power to decide exactly how the money is spent, not federal officials.

“It’s not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat in downtown Washington making a decision but someone in a community allocating funds to what a community feels its needs are,” he said.

Another strategy is to establish relationships with Republican Congress members based on mutual concerns, and then trying to make the lawmakers aware of what drives Jewish community concerns, said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

He cited international religious liberty issues, including the persecution of Christians around the world.

“You have to go member by member to find people’s interests,” he said.

Jewish organizations will continue to promote some issues even if the Republican-controlled Congress isn’t interested in them. Protas and Pelavin cited cuts in funding for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, as an area where their groups would push back against GOP cuts. Daroff mentioned plans by some fiscal conservatives to disburse funding for Medicaid and poverty assistance in bloc grants to states, which would dilute spending on programs for the disabled.

Israel funding is likely to remain steady, Capitol Hill sources said, although there are concerns about how the funding will take place given the Republicans’ interest in trimming foreign spending.

Some leading Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, say Congress could separate funding for Israel from overall foreign spending, allowing conservatives to maintain current levels for Israel while slashing foreign spending for countries they don’t see as friendly or programs they oppose.

The pro-Israel community sees such a proposal as disastrous, in part because it will make Israel a “special case” after years of efforts to make backing Israel a natural extension of foreign policy. That could engender resentment of Israel.

Correspondingly, the pro-Israel lobby sees foreign aid as a means to bolster support for the U.S.-Israel alliance in the international community. Pro-Israel groups in Washington often have taken the lead in lobbying for Israel-friendly countries in the past.

One proposal has been to make Israel funding a part of defense spending. Insiders say they have been reassured that Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has no intention of giving up funding for Israel and the power it yields her.

It also remains unclear what Republicans mean when they say they plan on keeping funding for Israel steady. Israel and the United States are in the middle of a 10-year agreement that incrementally increases assistance year by year between 2007 and 2017, so that it averages $3 billion a year.

Does “keeping funding steady” mean maintaining the 2010 level of $2.775 billion, or keeping to the agreement and upping the amount to $3 billion this year?

Officials say the best asset available to Jewish organizations dealing with domestic and foreign policy is the grass roots — not the lobbyists in Washington, but the activists across the country who make appointments to see their lawmakers on home visits.

The lesson of the Tea Party, the grass-roots movement that propelled Republicans to retake the House, should not be lost on Jewish groups, says Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, which will advocate this year for President Obama’s judicial nominees, pay equity, and immigration reform, among other issues.

“The inside-the-Beltway strategy is to find our friends where we can, on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “But also to get the grass roots to speak out — that’s key, that’s what always turns the tide. If the Tea Party taught us nothing, it’s that getting folks to speak out and be persistently involved makes a difference.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Pascrell briefs press on Afghanistan, condemns Fogel murders

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Rep. Bill Pascrell speaks with U.S. troops during his recent fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. Courtesy office of Bill Pascrell

Surrounded by maps and wielding a laser pointer to illustrate the complicated geography of Afghanistan, its volatile neighbors, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) held a press conference in his Paterson office last Friday on his recent fact-finding visit to the region and the American northern Africa command in Italy. He discussed the budding revolutions in the Arab countries and their causes and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and suggested ways to hasten the departure of American troops from Afghanistan and bring peace to the regions in turmoil.

He also strongly condemned the murders of members of the Fogel family in Itamar last month. “This family,” he said, “their throats were slashed…. There is nothing in the Koran that justifies such a barbarous act. The trouble comes from those — the true infidels — who pull lines out of context from the Koran.”

Pascrell said the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and other North African and Gulf countries have nothing to do with Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and that Islamic extremists, notably from al-Qaida, were not involved in most, except perhaps Yemen. Al- Qaida today, he said, is active in the Yemen peninsula and in Pakistan.

Asked how he responds to those who hold President Obama’s policies responsible for the Fogel murders and renewed long-range rocket attacks by Hamas, Pascrell said, “This administration believes in two states. To arrive at two states, we can’t impose anything on either party. No matter who you are, there is no doubt that peace is better than war, so we try to show fairness without angering people too much. The Orthodox Jews complain; yes, it’s a contentious issue, but I love both peoples. I grew up here in Paterson as an Italian among both groups. Before I depart for the elephant burial grounds, I want to see peace. That whole region could be a natural breadbasket for the world, and there is much to do to make that happen, but the less ‘us,’ the better.”

Pascrell acknowledged that the peace process is not easy, but he feels that he must be doing something right. “On my last trip to Israel,” he said, “I was picketed by Jews and Muslims. I am frank with my Jewish and Muslim friends. And while some people don’t believe in persistence, I am a strong believer in it.”

The congressman mostly focused on the war in Afghanistan and said that he was optimistic for the first time in four years to see that it might be possible to pull out of that region. Along with four other Congress members led by minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he met with President Hamid Karzai — whom he described as hospitable and direct, even blunt — and with members of the parliament. It was, said Pascrell, “a most positive meeting.” He also said that “we have made mistakes, and need to understand how the culture works. Whether we like it or not, Karzai does have to negotiate with the Taliban.”

Of much concern to the congressman are arms entering Afghanistan’s northeast corner from China and from borders with Iran and Pakistan. Describing the treacherous terrain, he said the United States was using unmanned drones and flying into sovereign territory to protect its own people, though he regrets any collateral damage.

A former teacher, Pascrell said he was gratified to learn that for the first time, there are six million children in Afghan schools. “There’s a 90 percent illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, and you cannot run a country or build an economy if you can’t read and write. People under fire can’t read a map. They are certainly behind the times, yet only the Afghans can solve their problems. We can help,” he said, “with educational and agricultural programs.”

Another important issue broached in his meetings was women’s rights in the Mideast. He said, “The men will have to understand that there will be no peace without the women.” (Research about developing countries has shown that women are primarily responsible for creating the basis of a local economy and the education of their children.)

Though he doesn’t see a problem withdrawing troops by July in Afghanistan, in keeping with President Obama’s timetable, he does feel we cannot “cut and run,” and will have to provide humanitarian assistance and continued military assistance in the hunt for bin Laden. “We have to reassure the Taliban that we don’t want to be there forever, and ultimately we can only win this if we win their hearts and minds.”

He said the Italians, who have generally been snubbed by other NATO members and the Americans, were doing a terrific job in training the Afghan police and army. “The Italians have been at our side throughout all these conflicts, and we have basically ignored them. We certainly should have gone to them before we decided what we would do in Libya, and we didn’t do that. They, perhaps more than any other country, know Gaddafi and how he operates.”

On the no-fly zone in Libya, Pascrell said he agrees with current policy, but that it should have started earlier. He believes that the United States will exit in approximately three weeks, and noted that this is not the first time America has acted to protect Muslims. Of the air war over Serbia in 1999 that ended the genocide in the Balkans, “It was the right thing to do,” he said.

 
 

Facing big cuts by Congress, Jewish groups struggle for bipartisan appeal

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 29 April 2011
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Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla., second from left) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla., third from left) attend an April 21 meeting in Broward County, Fla., to discuss federal social services programs with Holocaust survivors. William Daroff

WASHINGTON – In the showdown over the 2012 U.S. budget, Jewish organizations clearly fall on one particular side of the partisan divide: the Democratic one.

But as the battle between Republicans and Democrats over spending gets under way, the trick the organizations are trying to pull off is appealing to both parties.

For now, the organizations — which include groups whose boards boast major Republican givers — are strategizing on how best to protect medical subsidies they fear will be wiped out under Republican plans.

The challenge is they’re warning that even if just some of the proposals touted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, make it into a final compromise budget, that would constitute a doomsday scenario.

“We’re very concerned about whatever elements in the Medicare and Medicaid parts of the Ryan proposal make it into the discussions,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy for B’nai B’rith International, which runs the largest network of Jewish homes for the elderly in the United States. Medicare is the federal program providing health coverage for those 65 and older. Medicaid covers the poor.

Such apprehensions have led 17 national Jewish groups and more than 100 local groups to make their concerns clear in an unusually blunt letter to every Congress member that rejects the restructuring Ryan has proposed.

“Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the April 14 letter, initiated jointly by two Jewish umbrella groups, Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”

The letter was notable in that its signatories came from every major religious stream — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist — as well as an array of Jewish service groups.

The major Jewish concerns with Ryan’s proposal have to do with his plan to deliver Medicaid in block grants — federal funds transferred to states for wide discretionary use — and with offering Medicare recipients an array of options through vouchers.

Ryan says the voucher plan would strip away inefficiency by making Medicare providers competitive — “using competition to weed out inefficient providers, improve the quality of health care for seniors, and drive costs down,” as he wrote in an April 15 Washington Post op-ed piece.

Ryan has said block grants make sense because the procedure hands over Medicaid planning to states that have widely varying needs. “We’ve had so much testimony from so many different governors saying: Give us the freedom to customize our Medicaid programs, to tailor for our unique populations in our states,” Ryan said on Fox News Sunday on April 4. “We want to get governors freedom to do that.”

Jewish groups objecting to the voucher plan say it effectively reduces federal coverage for the elderly from three-quarters to one-third of the costs they incur.

“The restructuring has a potential to compromise the guarantees in level of coverage that we’ve counted on and people depend on, and it changes the commitment we as a society make,” said Josh Protas, JCPA’s Washington director.

Additionally, the choices inherent in a voucher program may appeal to the young, but not necessarily to the elderly, said Mark Olshan, B’nai B’rith’s associate executive vice president.

“Having older people who are less healthy having to go through the myriad of options doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Protas said Jewish groups object to block grants for Medicaid because the procedure would strip away requirements of coverage for vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly. If states have the autonomy to decide how to cover, he said, cash-strapped states may well choose to drop certain individuals from coverage.

There are other objections to the Ryan budget: It essentially would repeal the reforms that President Obama signed into law last year that mandate health-care coverage and remove pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny coverage.

That, Goldberg of B’nai B’rith says, would impel Americans not to take on new insurance — expecially those in the 55-65 age bracket who are out of work or in new jobs without insurance. It also would keep them from seeking preventative care, which would make them less healthy once they are eligible for Medicare — and more expensive to cover.

The fact that Ryan’s proposed changes raise overwhelming objections places the groups in a potentially uncomfortable position: Aligned strictly with Democrats on a major issue.

It’s not a problem that the organized community often faces, although it trends liberal on most issues. On Israel, there is unanimity of support from both parties. On energy independence, the community has favored solutions from both sides of the aisle — the Democrats’ clean energy investment and the Republicans’ development of American resources.

When it comes to entitlements like the ones currently under debate, the Jewish community traditionally has cultivated moderate Republicans. But those voices have been muted by Tea Party victories in the last congressional elections and by the fervor with which the Republican Party has embraced the proposals touted by Ryan. His lucid, measured appearances explaining his budget have led some analysts already to mention him as a presidential hopeful.

William Daroff, the director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office, spoke to JTA just after he left an event in South Florida promoting services for Holocaust survivors. It was also attended by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), two of the most powerful women in their respective parties.

Ros-Lehtinen is exactly the kind of moderate Republican Jewish aid groups have cultivated over the years, but Daroff acknowledged that bipartisan displays of support for entitlements like the one he had just attended would be increasingly rare.

“The political environment is one that is pretty tender, pretty conflicted, and very political,” he said. “It’s our job to find areas of commonality with this vulnerable population stuck in the middle.”

One strategy is to pitch service programs that cost less. Another is to acknowledge Ryan’s central political point, if not his solutions: The deficit is out of control.

“All sensible people believe we have to make progress in closing the deficit,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a group that adopts mostly liberal positions. “That requires sacrifices equitably applied across the board.”

The next step, organizational officials interviewed by JTA said, is overcoming preconceptions prevalent among Jews that the issue is somehow remote from the community. The bulk of funding for the Jewish elderly comes from Medicare and Medicaid, the officials noted.

An educated community is better able to organize around an issue, they added, and use its influence in Congress.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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