Most Jews ever set to enter Congress
A record number of Jewish members will enter Congress Thursday, but more remarkable are the unparalleled positions of power they will hold on committees related to Israel, many local Jewish activists say.
Six new Jewish legislators will be joining 37 familiar faces as the 110th Congress convenes, making the total the highest-ever, according to Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC.
“It’s unprecedented that there have been so many [Jews] in so many positions of leadership in both houses,” Bloomfield said, using a Jewish simile for how that fact will affect support for Israel: Like chicken soup, it won’t hurt.
Other political analysts went further, saying that congressional backing of Israel would remain at least as strong it has been, if not stronger.
Among the familiar House faces on key committees will be Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) as chairman of the International Relations Committee (HIRC) and Gary Ackerman (D-NY) is set to be chair of the HIRC Middle East subcommittee. Nita Lowey (D-NY) should be chairing the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. Ackerman’s and Lowey’s appointments are expected to be officially announced within the next few days.
In the Senate, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will head the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, while Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is expected to take over the Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee if unsuccessful presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass.) doesn’t challenge her for the job.
Also, much of the Democratic leadership is considered strong on Israel, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois), head of the House Democratic Caucus.
And many Republican backers of Israel, who no longer head committees, still continue to serve in minority leadership roles.
Plus, Jews – who voted overwhelmingly Democrat in the November election (87 percent, according to exit polls) – often see more eye-to-eye with Democratic members on domestic issues and have strong personal relationships with them, according to Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Pelosi has outlined a list of legislative priorities for the first 100 hours of the congressional session, including raising the minimum wage; funding stem cell research; implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations; and energy reform.
The Orthodox Union’s public policy director Nathan Diament, often more at home with Republicans on church-state issues but supportive of some of the Democrats’ initial legislative efforts, such as stem cell research, also expressed satisfaction with the incoming leadership.
“It’s certainly as strong as it’s ever been [on Israel],” he said.
Forman said the incoming Democratic, pro-Israel leadership constellation was an opportunity for the party to rebut Republican charges during the elections that the Democrats were soft on Israel.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, however, maintained that Republicans still had the stronger record on Israel and that it remained to be seen how Democrats handle their new position.
Brooks also criticized one of the pieces of legislation expected to clear the House this week – a government reform bill aimed at preventing lobbyists from taking congressmen on trips abroad.
As a result, his and other Jewish organizations will have to leave their lobbyists at home on trips to Israel. Some groups will set up educational divisions as a way of enabling the visits. Brooks said it would hurt the value of these trips if some of the most informed members of organizations would be unable to come.
He did acknowledge that, “Certainly having somebody like Tom Lantos, who is a passionate defender of Israel, is very good for the Jewish community.”
But Brooks added that he was concerned by several Democrats who were not so friendly toward Israel taking on leadership positions, such as new House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) and judiciary chairman John Conyers (D-Michigan).
Other observers, though, point to members seen as key critics of Israel who were pushed out of top roles, such as Senators Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and Lincoln Chafee (R-Rhode Island), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and its Middle East Subcommittee respectively.
In addition, Forman maintained, some Republican leadership tepid on Israel was replaced by stronger supporters. “Hoyer’s considered very pro-Israel. Pelosi’s pro-Israel and has been very active on the issue. [Outgoing House Speaker Dennis] Hastert (R-Illinois) never was.” Bloomfield added that the diminished influence of Evangelicals, many of whom vocally supported Israel, shouldn’t worry Israel advocates.
He called Evangelicals “great cheerleaders” whose backing of Israel never resulted in specific action or was really tested. “They might love Israel, but they hate gays more than they love Israel.”
But some have raised question marks about how a Democratic Congress would handle issues in the Middle East more broadly.
“There’s obviously more interest in speaking to Iran,” said one Jewish Democratic strategist who asked not to be named. “[But] I don’t see a Democratic Congress being naive about Iran’s nuclear intentions.” He added, “I don’t see this Congress interested in anything which would pressure Israel.”
Another Jewish organizational official, also speaking anonymously, said, “There’s a more significant group within the Democratic Party than within the Republicans that’s more likely to have an affinity with the Palestinians and the peace process, [but] I don’t think it’s something that will have much impact in the short term.”
And ultimately, many Jewish leaders pointed out, that it was the White House that called the shots on foreign policy.
Republican former House majority leader Tom Delay “could be more pro-Israel than the Israeli embassy,” said the Jewish official, continuing that when it came to Oslo, Delay “really did not stop Clinton at all.”
American Jewish Committee legislative director Richard Foltin echoed many when he said that Israel, in any case, is a bipartisan issue.
“You see a Congress that is supportive of Israel, so I don’t think you’re going to see much of a difference. You’re going to see bipartisan continuation of support for Israel,” he said.