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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

 
 

As Feingold exits, Senate loses a principled liberal

WASHINGTON – The speech that Russ Feingold gave to end his career in the U.S. Senate was much like his career itself: by turns crystal clear, obscure, ornery, defiant, and gracious — and quoting a fellow Great Plains Jew to boot.

“But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me,” the three-term U.S. senator from Wisconsin said Nov. 2, quoting Bob Dylan while conceding to Republican Ron Johnson, a Tea Party-backed plastics billionaire who beat him by a 52-47 percent split at the polls.

Then, “It’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012!”

Feingold’s spokesmen later denied that the senator was hinting at a Democratic presidential bid exploration like the one he had pursued in 2006-07. What he did mean they wouldn’t say.

It was typical of the fiercely independent streak that put Feingold into office and may well have pushed him out.

Ira Forman, the former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Feingold’s refusal to accept outside campaign money may have helped elect him in the past but likely was his downfall in this election.

“He wouldn’t accept DSCC ads,” Forman said, referring to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, typical of the bodies that run negative ads against opponents. “He often ran against people who were the beneficiary of that kind of advertising. He hoped people would stand up for his integrity, as they had in the past.”

Forman’s voice tinged with regret.

“He’s an independent voice, a loss to Democrats and the Jewish community,” he said of Feingold.

In fact, Feingold’s Jewish identity, while strong, rarely manifested itself in leadership roles on Israel, Holocaust commemoration, or the other areas that many Jewish lawmakers have made their own.

That was an approach rooted in a childhood in Janesville, Wis., a Plains town near the Illinois border. Feingold, 57, has described his upbringing as blessedly free of anti-Semitism.

“I was honored because I was Jewish,” Feingold said, describing teachers and other grown-ups to Sanford Horwitt, who wrote a political biography, “Feingold: A New Democratic Party.” “It was an amazing way to be treated.”

In 2003, asked by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle whether Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) stood a chance in his presidential bid, Feingold’s answer was why not?

“As a Jewish candidate from a state with a small Jewish population, I don’t feel I faced any issues as a Jew,” Feingold said. “In fact, it may sound naïve, but I think some voters regarded my being Jewish as interesting. I’ve only had a good experience.”

The Feingold family was socially involved, erudite, and reserved — characteristics that continue to define Russ Feingold. His staff is fiercely loyal to him, although he keeps them at a distance.

Feingold is embarrassed by forthright fans. The Dylan song he chose to quote, “Mississippi,” speaks to the senator’s teasing intellect: It is not from Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but from his 2001 album “Love and Theft.”

Feingold’s lawyer father, Leon, was the first Jewish president of the local Rotary Club; he mingled with farmer clients at 4-H events. (Leon’s father, Max, a refugee from Russia, established the family in the town and immigrated to Israel in 1950.)

Feingold has said that his Jewish legacy is manifest in his political career.

“I understood my religion as the pursuit of justice,” he told Horwitt.

That’s pretty much the extent of his public leadership on Jewish issues, although he routinely joins initiatives launched by other Jewish Congress members, recently expressing concerns to the Turkish government over its distancing from Israel and in 2008 joining a raft of Jewish senators pushing back against rumors that President Obama is a Muslim. He attends services on the High Holidays, and his sister, Dena, is a rabbi in Kenosha, south of Milwaukee.

Still, a national Jewish community that has a soft spot for independent liberals embraced Feingold. He drew Jewish support in his successful 1992 senatorial bid to oust the Republican incumbent, Bob Kasten, even though Kasten had a strong pro-Israel record.

“He is somebody who’s remarkably dedicated to civil liberties and to the Constitution, and has the courage of his convictions,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council for Jewish Women. “He took a lot of gutsy stands,” she said, citing Feingold’s lone dissent in 2001 when the Senate approved the U.S. Patriot Act.

That vote drew derision at a time of heightened concerns over terrorism, but eventually made him a hero of the Democratic base. It is a legacy still in dispute: A televised encounter last week between two liberals, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell over whether Feingold should have tacked further right to get re-elected — O’Donnell’s position — has gone viral in the blogosphere.

Feingold was among a handful of lawmakers in the recent election who drew the endorsement of both J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, and donors associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Officials in both groups lamented his departure.

Feingold’s independence was his biggest draw. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he crafted a law severely limiting corporate donations to campaigns. Unlike McCain, who won re-election last week, Feingold abided by the rules of his law even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

“This was a public servant who visibly, proudly, and courageously stood on principle,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which backs election reform. “His effort to make America’s election system more fair and transparent made major contributions to good government.”

It was an independence borne of his upbringing and the turbulent 1960s in which he came of age. Feingold’s home, harmonious in its support of liberal causes until the ‘60s, was riven by a split between Feingold’s two father figures: His father supported the war in Vietnam, and his brother David, older by five years, opposed it.

Feingold emerged from the era determined to do what best hewed to his philosophical principles, and in the process he occasionally frustrated his party. In 1998 he famously was the only Democrat to vote to consider the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment of President Clinton — not because he believed Clinton was guilty, but because he believed in the constitutional process of impeachment.

Three years later he voted to confirm former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as attorney general, even though they were polar opposites on critical civil liberties questions. Feingold’s reason: his abiding belief that a president, in this case George W. Bush, had the right to pick his cabinet. He later also supported Bush’s nominee for Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts.

His explanation of his Ashcroft vote in 2001, to skeptical Feingoldians at The Progressive, a liberal journal, presaged the vituperative climate that brought about his downfall.

“I believe we have to hold the line and not use ideology alone in making decisions about cabinet appointments,” Feingold said. “I fear if we keep going, more and more areas of our government are going to fall into the Great Divide and be engulfed in a culture war.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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

 
 
 
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