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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

 
 

Still a problem

 

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

 
 

Do hearings on Muslim radicalization leave room for nuance?

WASHINGTON – Are the congressional hearings on radicalization among American Muslims an instance of McCarthyism, or is the opposition to them political correctness run amok?

Jewish groups may disagree on why, but there appears to be wide consensus that the congressional hearings led by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, are off on the wrong foot.

The differences are over whether hearings, which began March 10, are needed at all — and if they are, what they should address.

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee agree that examining Muslim extremism is a proper issue for Congress, and AJC went a step further by saying that lawmakers should not bend to political pressures.

An AJC official, Yehudit Barsky, director of the organization’s division on the Middle East and International Terrorism, submitted written testimony to the hearings, which officially are called “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”

In her testimony, Barsky said it was “essential that we all tread carefully so as to avoid rhetoric that smacks of stereotyping members of a particular faith and similarly avoid actions that amount to discrimination against, much less persecution of, members of a faith group based on their identity or beliefs, as opposed to their actions.”

In a statement, the ADL echoed that sentiment.

“Homegrown Muslim extremists pose a real threat to the United States, but the issue is one that may be difficult to explore seriously in a hearing that has engendered an unfortunate atmosphere of blame and suspicion of the broader American Muslim community,” the ADL said. “We need to be careful not to single out an entire community for special scrutiny or suspicion.”

The Reform movement called on congressional Democrats to expand the hearings to encompass all forms of terrorism.

The National Jewish Democratic Council and J Street said the hearings are indelibly tainted.

Critics of the hearings say King seeks to smear American Muslims. They note that in the lead-up to the hearings, King said there are “too many mosques” in America. King also has suggested that Muslim leaders do not cooperate with authorities and that the vast majority of clerics are radicalized.

The Republican Jewish Coalition said King was fulfilling his proper mission.

“The hearings have met with strong resistance from the left, but they are critically needed,” the RJC said in its newsletter.

King was unrepentant as the hearings began last week.

“To combat this threat, moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim-American community,” he said.

Yet King failed to invite to the hearings major Muslim-American groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to defend themselves against charges that they coddle terrorist sympathizers. The council criticized the King hearings as tainting all American Muslims.

But the hearings also did not invite those who maintain that much if not all of the Islamic world has been radicalized.

If anything, the hearings provided an opportunity to hear a range of voices, including both those who praised the American Muslim community’s stance against radicalism and parents of American Muslims lured into terrorism. There were also a number of Muslims who have criticized insularity among Muslim Americans.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, testified before the committee. So did Leroy Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff who praised the Council on American-Islamic Relations as cooperative.

In her testimony, Barsky, who listed recent planned attacks by Muslim extremists on U.S. Jewish targets, cautioned against viewing the hearings as an assault on all Muslims.

“Some Muslim organizations, joined by well-meaning supporters, have reacted to the idea of discussing the threat posed by Islamic extremist terrorists by raising the specter of McCarthyism,” Barsky said. “They and others have demanded that any discussion or investigation of this national security threat be broadened to include all extremists in all communities.

“Logic and experience, however, dictate that any meaningful inquiry focus on particular organizations and extremists that currently pose a national security threat.”

The Reform movement said the failure to broaden the inquiry unfairly singled out Muslims.

“A wide-ranging exploration of radicalism writ-large is necessary, and we would welcome it,” Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the movement’s Religious Action Center, said in testimony submitted to the committee. “But today’s hearing is not that exploration. It is a narrow, myopic investigation into the American Muslim community which unfairly targets one group of citizens in congressional proceedings.”

Pelavin joined a Capitol Hill protest that included representatives of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim bodies and described the hearings as “anti-Muslim.” Also appearing at that event were a prominent Conservative rabbi, Jack Moline, who has advised the Obama White House, and Marc Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi and co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Steve Emerson, who heads the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a research organization that has consulted with a number of pro-Israel groups, said the concerns were overblown.

“Those involved in terrorism are a tiny sliver of the overall Muslim-American population,” he wrote in a New York Daily News Op-Ed. “But one ought to be able to focus on a very real problem — homegrown terrorism fueled by Muslim extremism — without being accused of painting the entire U.S. Muslim population with a broad brush.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), perhaps the most passionately pro-Israel lawmaker in Congress, said in a statement that King’s tone mitigated against a sober assessment of domestic Muslim extremism.

“Instead of singling out this particular community for investigation, our focus should remain on the many sources of terrorism and violence that threaten our nation and its residents,” she said, noting her concerns about the “tone and substance” of the hearings.

“I ask,” she said, “if this hearing were focused on the Jewish community, Japanese community, or the African-American community, or any other community, would we not be justifiably outraged?”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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