Jewish Lawmakers See End-of-Year Split on Priorities

Progress on Budget — Gap Grows on Israel-Iran Policy

Split Verdict: Republican leader Eric Cantor is pushing for a harder line on Iran, even as progress is being made on Jewish priorities on budget issues.
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Split Verdict: Republican leader Eric Cantor is pushing for a harder line on Iran, even as progress is being made on Jewish priorities on budget issues.

By Ron Kampeas

Published December 18, 2013.

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Representatives of Jewish groups that deal with the social safety net caution that budgets only set broad-stroke priorities; Congress quickly could return to deadlock when it gets to the nitty-gritty of congressional spending in appropriations bills.

As one example, Jared Feldman, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, cited Head Start, the federally funded preschool program aimed at children from low-income families.

The proposed budget mandates a restoration of half the cuts that came about as a result of “sequestration” — the automatic spending cuts that kicked in last March when Congress missed the deadline to agree on a budget.

Democrats favor including Head Start among programs that would receive restored money; Republicans want to restore defense spending.

“Are we able to restore Head Start? That’s going to be a big question,” Feldman said.

An additional strain on Jewish service providers will come when 1.3 million Americans lose unemployment insurance at the end of this year and another 2 million or so lose it during 2014, said William Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America. Republicans refused to include an insurance extension in the budget deal.

“Millions of individuals will be left out in the cold, in despair,” Daroff said.

One bright spot is that the prospect of an end to the tussling over spending clears the congressional agenda for other domestic items. Chief among these for many Jewish groups is immigration.

Abby Levine, director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a coalition of 26 Jewish domestic policy groups that advocates for paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said the prospect of immigration reform was bolstered this year by the passage of a comprehensive reform act in the Senate with strong bipartisan backing.

“For months since the summer we’ve been waiting for the House to act,” she said. “It’s clear that the legislation has the votes to pass.”

House leaders have not said whether they will advance the legislation; Cantor has said he favors bringing immigration legislation to the floor.

Another bright spot for liberal Jewish groups is a matter of partisan rancor: the rolling back by the Democratic-led Senate of the filibuster rule, which required a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate to advance nominations to the judiciary or to the executive branch. Now such nominations require only a simple majority. Republican senators are livid at the change.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women, said the appointments advancing through the Senate will bring about better governance and a less-burdened judiciary. She cited as an example the Senate confirmation last week of Chai Feldblum — the daughter of a rabbi and a leading gay activist — to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission three years after President Obama named her to the post.

Gun control is an issue backed by Jewish groups that seemed ripe for advancement a year ago after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn. But within months, fierce pushback by gun rights groups, led by the National Rifle Association, diluted what had appeared to be bipartisan backing for more extensive background checks for gun buyers.

That was a major disappointment, said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We passed the Newtown anniversary this month with the spectacular failure of the country to introduce even the most modest background checks,” she said.

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