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GOP upset in Mass. raises questions for health reform

WASHINGTON – The election of Scott Brown to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate has thrown the future of health-care reform into doubt.

With the Republican’s upset victory Tuesday in Massachusetts, Jewish groups backing comprehensive reform must figure out how to respond. One organization said that passing the Senate version of the legislation is the best possible outcome at this point, but others are undecided.

Brown has vowed to be the crucial 41st vote against ending the filibuster on any reform of the U.S. health-care system, dimming the prospects for passage of any kind of conference committee deal between the Senate and House of Representatives. That has led some to suggest that the only hope for health-care reform is if the House passes the Senate bill without amendments, so the Senate does not have to take another vote on the issue.

The associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Mark Pelavin, said that such a step would eliminate important provisions that his group backs in the House legislation — such as the “public option” — but “is something we could live with.”

Pelavin said that while it may not be the best possible outcome, considering the political landscape it would be an “incredibly significant step” in expanding the access to and lowering the cost of health care because it would cover two-thirds of those now without insurance.

Pelavin also said the Senate bill’s controversial language restricting the health-insurance coverage of abortion, which a number of Jewish groups have spoken out against, is “troubling.” But, he added, it’s not nearly as restrictive as the provision in the House version that would not allow anyone receiving federal subsidies to buy a plan covering abortion and would not permit plans on the “insurance exchange” formed by the bill to include abortion coverage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, said the Senate language on reproductive rights is still “pretty bad” because it would allow states to decide whether abortion is covered in insurance plans and force women to write a separate check for the portion of their health coverage that covered abortion.

As for the overall legislation, Moshenberg said her organization is waiting to see how the negotiations between the House and Senate play out.

“Obviously the political dynamics on the ground have changed” and congressional leadership is “going to have to develop a strategy,” she said. “It wouldn’t make any sense for us to decide right now.

“There are things in the Senate bill that we like, and things that we don’t like.”

B’nai B’rith International also has concerns about the Senate legislation. The organization believes that the subsidies for middle-income Americans are not large enough. Also, the bill allows insurance companies to charge older consumers up to three times as much as younger customers. The House bill’s “age rating” is 2 to 1.

“It would be very difficult for the aging community” if the House decided to pass the Senate bill as is, said B’nai B’rith’s director of aging policy, Rachel Goldberg. She also expressed concern about the independent commission that the Senate bill would establish to have authority over Medicare and Medicaid spending.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and head of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said his organization would continue to work with the Congress and Senate “in favor of the parts of the legislation we’re supportive of and oppose the parts we’re opposed to.”

The umbrella group Jewish Federations of North America has declined to take a position on the legislation as a whole, instead focusing on its priorities, which include the CLASS Act — a government long-term care insurance program that is included in the Senate bill — as well as increasing coverage for the most vulnerable and protecting Medicare and Medicaid.

Daroff was one of a number of Jewish organizational representatives who suggested that Democrats might still be able to sway a liberal Republican — such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins — to vote to end a Senate filibuster and thus be able to reopen negotiations with the House.

Whatever the case, Pelavin said his Reform movement constituency is still solidly behind comprehensive reform that makes health care more affordable and accessible.

“I don’t think there’s any diminution in the commitment in our community,” he said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, said in a statement that Brown’s election demonstrated the electorate as a whole has “serious concerns” about Obama’s health-care proposals.

JTA

 
 

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

Cantor could help GOP take the House, but can he win over the Jews?

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U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, shown speaking at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, hopes to shepherd the GOP to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – Eric Cantor has spent a lifetime having fun wearing the other hat.

Among Jews, the Republican congressional whip from Richmond, Va., likes to play the genteel Southern conservative, the posture that won over his wife, a socially liberal banker from New York.

Among southerners, he’s the nice Jewish boy who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and graduated from Columbia University but who has an easy familiarity with NASCAR, country music, and evangelical beliefs.

Profile

It’s an approach that has Cantor poised to become the highest-ranking Jewish member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Republicans take the House, as the pundits and polls are predicting, he is expected to rise to the position of majority leader.

Maybe even House speaker, as the buzz goes, if the new wave of Republican lawmakers decides to dump Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom some conservatives see as too close to lobbyists and establishment interests. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican lawmaker in the Congress, denies that talk.

At the same time that Cantor, 47, stands on the verge of what could be his greatest victory in his young career, he faces what also might be his greatest test: reconciling the liberal tendencies of the smaller, Jewish community in which he grew up with the sharp swing right in the larger, conservative community he has embraced.

He insists it’s not such a big deal.

“The American Jewish community is not unlike others in this country,” Cantor told JTA this week in a quick phone interview from the campaign trail, where he was been spending a frenetic summer and fall in hopes of helping his party win as many as 90 seats from the Democrats. “Jews are frustrated at their own economic circumstance.”

Cantor said that American Jews have nothing to fear from the Tea Party, the disparate conservative insurgency that appears ready to propel the Republicans to victory.

“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending; and three, a return to free markets,” he said. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”

In the same interview, Cantor laid out a proposal on funding for Israel that could test exactly how “like that” is the American Jewish community — or at least its organizational leadership.

Cantor said he wanted to pull the $3 billion Israel receives in funding from the foreign operations budget so that GOP lawmakers — who in recent years have been voting in increasing numbers against the foreign funding bill — may vote their conscience: for Israel on one bill, against countries perceived as anti-American on another.

“Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”

Other Republicans have suggested putting the Israel funding in the defense budget, noting that most of the money is for defense assistance.

Prior to that statement, a number of pro-Israel officials had told JTA on background that they feared exactly such an initiative. However, the expectation was that it would come from Tea Partiers and not the GOP leadership, whom the pro-Israel officials expected to be an ally in making the case for foreign funding in January when the new Congress is inaugurated.

Repeated attempts by JTA in the wake of Cantor’s comments to reach the same figures — among them, some of the most voluble pro-Israel advocates — went unanswered.

The silence itself was not unusual — no one in a non-partisan role wants to stand directly against an entire party a week before Election Day. But it signaled the chasm with Republicans that pro-Israel groups may be looking at come January.

Democrats and their allies were not so shy in reminding Cantor of the traditional pro-Israel argument for wrapping spending on Israel into the broader foreign aid budget.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, called Cantor’s proposal “outrageous.”

“Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security,” she said in a news release.

The funding, Lowey said, promotes diplomacy and alleviates the factors that create a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

“Because it is inextricably linked with broader U.S. national security goals, separating assistance for Israel in order to make it easier for Republican members to vote against the foreign aid bill would be counterproductive,” she said in her statement.

Cantor outlined a much different view: Israel was not like other nations, he said.

“Israel’s survival is directly connected to America’s survival,” he said. “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own.”

Bridging divides is not new to Cantor. His conservative posture on social issues — he is against gay marriage and abortion — place him on the opposite side of most Jewish voters. And Jewish advocates for the elderly strongly oppose several proposals in his new book “Young Guns,” co-authored with two other youthful conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The Republican trio calls for opening up Social Security and Medicare to private companies and raising the eligibility age for both plans. In addition, the book extols the GOP leadership’s voluntary freeze last March on earmarks, which Cantor wants to make permanent — and extend to Democrats, should the GOP win the House.

Jewish groups have relied on earmarks, the funds lawmakers set aside for their districts, to fund programs for the elderly.

Still, Cantor is always a welcome presence at Jewish communal events, associates say.

“He always has gotten community support, even though the Jewish community is mostly Democratic,” said Jay Ipson, a retired auto parts dealer who has known Cantor since he was a boy.

Cantor, who has a reputation for tirelessness, makes himself available to the Richmond Jewish community when he is home, Ipson says — visiting its institutions and working on its behalf. Cantor’s intervention on the state level helped Ipson establish the city’s Holocaust museum, which opened in 2003.

Richard November, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said Cantor was typical of a younger generation of Southern Jews who refused to be circumspect about their Jewishness and would wear their identity with pride even as they ventured into the broader community.

November recalled tracking Cantor, who was the same age as his daughter, Debra, as he grew up.

“In my day — I graduated high school in 1956 — it was more isolated if you would, the Jewish kids stuck together,” he said. “During my daughters’ high school years, there was a greater acceptance of the Jewish students, the Jewish students were more aggressive in becoming involved in things that were not just Jewish.”

Cantor was well-turned-out early, he recalled.

“He always had a certain demeanor that most people don’t have at that age,” he said.

It helped win over his wife, Diana, six years his senior and a Goldman Sachs employee when he courted her while he was at Columbia.

“I said, ‘I thought you were Jewish?’ I’d never met someone who was Jewish and Republican,” she told The Washington Post in 2008.

In Washington, Cantor has made the Jewish community’s case to the Republican leadership, particularly as it applies to funding for safety net programs, said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office.

“He’s been helpful with legislative matters where there have been funding issues, issues around regulations, particularly with Jewish family service agencies,” Daroff said.

Some Jewish Democrats see Cantor as a friend and appreciate his outreach on Israel.

“We disagree on domestic issues, but when it comes to Israel there are no disagreements,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “His heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel.”

Cantor’s Jewish profile has, if anything, heightened as he ascended to the leadership. While his family remains Conservative, he now attends Orthodox services and, when his busy schedule allows, takes classes with a rabbi.

In “Young Guns,” his new book, he makes no bones about the Jewish values he brings to the GOP.

“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” he said. “Paul and Kevin,” his co-authors, “go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their gs.”

That’s an outlook appreciated by a professional Jewish class that has been stymied at times in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers.

“The Jewish community has unfortunately had its fair share of members who shy away from their identity as they embrace public life and build their careers,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch. “Eric has done the exact opposite.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

GOP takes aim at North Jersey

Republican Jewish Coalition uses candidate forum to launch local vote bid

Republican strategists are taking direct aim at a traditional Democratic Jewish stronghold — Northern New Jersey – with Israel and a sagging economy acting as their weapons of choice to woo voters into the GOP camp in 2012. Bergen County is home to approximately 100,000 Jews.

The full-court press kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 20, as the recently formed Northern New Jersey chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) hosts a candidates’ forum at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. The program is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.

Anecdotal evidence shows that the Jewish vote in some Northern New Jersey communities, such as Teaneck, Englewood and Fair Lawn, has been trending to the right in recent years. Local GOP party activists see that expanding in 2012. They say that growing disappointment in President Obama by Jewish voters is the catalyst that will generate more Republicans votes in local contests as well in the national election.

The new Republican Jewish Coalition chapter is aggressively courting Jewish voters. Leaders of the RJC say they perceive widespread disenchantment with what they say is the president’s lack of support for Israel and his weak performance on the economy. They hope to use the forum to demonstrate how their local candidates offer a better alternative.

Local reaction was mixed.

Dr. Deane Penn of Englewood, who labels himself an independent, welcomes the advent of the local RJC chapter because, he said, “it would bring more open discussion of the issues confronting Israel, thus leading to a better understanding of this complex problem of defining borders for a peace treaty.”

He does not necessarily agree that a national standard-bearer’s views on Israel would translate into votes on a local level, however. “I have supported and hosted Democrats and Republicans,” Penn said, “and I would support the best local, state or national candidate, without reference to their party affiliation.”

Not so, said Rabbi Mark Karasick of Teaneck. He believes that “coattails work both ways.” Jewish voters, he said, need to “react with their brains” in the 2012 election and focus on how the president “embarrassed Israel”: repeatedly over the last three years. “You can’t just vote Democratic,” he said.

“I think there is a perfect opportunity for the Republican Party to make strides in this area,” agreed Gary Glaser of Oradell. “The disenchantment with the Democrats I think is overwhelming. People were sold a bill of goods by a real smooth-talking Democrat who really knows nothing about real life and just thinks the government should control everyone by spending money that is not there.”

Glaser also agreed that there will be local fallout. “The local Democratic party just follows what the national party wants them to do,” he said. “There are too many ‘old-time politicians.’ There needs to be new people in politics, the kind of people who listen to their voter base and just have common sense.”

On the other hand, Jay Nadel of Demarest did not believe an expanded RJC presence would make much of a difference in the area. “My prediction is that Obama will receive a majority of the Jewish vote,” he said. As for what the impact of the national Jewish vote would be on local races, Nadel quoted former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., who quipped, “all politics is local.”

“As we saw in what just took place in Brooklyn, anything can happen on a local basis,” Nadel added. He was referring to the loss of a Democratic House seat in a special election held in New York on Tuesday.

The discussion at the Jewish Center of Teaneck will feature candidates for State Senate and Assembly, including Robert Lebovics and Keith Jensen, District 37 candidates for State Senate and Assembly respectively, and Sara Rosengarten, who is running for State Assembly in District 36. All three are facing incumbent Democrats. (See the box on this page for a rundown of the two districts and who currently represents them.)

The evening will be moderated by Heather Robinson, assistant editor of The Jewish Standard, who is currently on leave. It will focus on education, property taxes, and the economy.

The time has come for the Jewish community to support Republican candidates, said Greg Menken, regional director of the RJC. “More and more people are feeling that President Obama has failed Israel,” Menken told The Jewish Standard. “As a result, the 2012 election will be the most important election that we’ve had in a long time. We’re trying to attack Northern New Jersey so that we can make sure people are paying attention and are informed of the issues.”

Jensen, running in District 37, said the time is ripe for North Jersey residents to begin voting Republican. “People are fed up with high property taxes and inequities in school funding,” he said. “People want less regulation, more jobs and above all lower taxes.”

Jensen said the state school funding formula now in place is not working. It punishes students and taxpayers in Bergen County, he said, “and throws billions of dollars on poor-performing school districts that have shown little sign of progress.”

Lebovics, a physician who is challenging State Senator Loretta Weinberg, calls himself a “radical centrist who believes in fiscal responsibility, public safety, education reform, government transparency and is socially moderate.”

District 37, he said, does not receive its fair share of its own tax dollars for its public schools. “Our tax dollars leave Bergen County to pay for bloated inefficient schools statewide,” he said, “while our property taxes have to be raised year after year to make up for the shortfall.”

Lebovics believes that all school alternatives should be explored including charter schools and vouchers.

District 36 State Assembly candidate Rosengarten said New Jersey residents are at a breaking point. “They know that the status quo is financially unsustainable, taxes are too high, and they are tired of government waste,” she said in an interview. “Democrats are content with the same old policies of no growth economics, and voters know that the current policies must be changed.”

As she sees it, the hot issues for North Jersey Jews are the ever increasing taxes and the high costs of education, said Rosengarten. “Many Jewish families send their children to private school, yet they pay property taxes for public education which affords them little to no benefit,” she said. “The state needs real solutions, such as lowering the cap on property tax increases, and instituting a school voucher program. With these measures, we will make New Jersey more affordable and ensure the quality education that our children deserve.”

While the Republicans claimed to have the answers, Larry Stempler, a New Jersey Democratic activist and a board member of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he did not believe voters would be swayed by the GOP rhetoric.

“As long as Republicans keep on supporting candidates like [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry and [Rep. Michelle] Bachman, Obama will still have the support of the majority of the Jewish community,” said Stempler.

“Jews will still vote overwhelmingly with Obama and with the Democrats in general as they recognize [that] the social policies advanced comport with their issues and that Israel has a very strong supporter in this administration.”

Regarding support for Israel, he cited such things as joint military operations; the Obama administration’s announced veto in the U.N. Security Council of the expected Palestinian statehood resolution; numerous statements made by Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren; and last weekend’s remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly thanking President Obama for U.S. help in evacuating Israeli diplomats from Cairo.

No matter a voter’s plans, however, it is essential to hear out both sides, said moderator Robinson. “It’s good to hear ideas across the political spectrum. People have been down on their elected officials lately, but I think that in a lot of ways people get the leaders they deserve. You can’t complain if you didn’t educate yourself about the issues.”

The event is free of charge. Refreshments will be served.

 
 
 
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