Jewish Groups Step Up Activism on Capitol Hill

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Congressional fights over judicial nominees and stem-cell research have unleashed a new wave of Jewish political activity on Capitol Hill.

Organizations were sending out messages and calling rabbis as the U.S. Senate prepared to take on controversial judicial nominations and the House of Representatives passed a bill to expand stem-cell research. The sudden burst of activism came partly because the congressional fate of both issues had been uncertain beforehand — a rarity in recent years, when Republicans have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

Leaders of several Jewish organizations said that members are clamoring for a more activist approach to counter the growing influence of Christian conservatives.

After a deal was struck preventing Senate Republicans from using the “nuclear option” on judicial nominations, several Jewish groups were poised to keep up the pressure on nominees they see as too conservative. Both National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had urged senators not to change rules and end the filibuster, which allows opponents to block a vote by prolonged speechmaking on topics not necessarily relevant to the issue.

A group of senators reached a compromise Monday evening allowing three judges to receive floor votes and permitting the filibuster option to continue only in “extraordinary” circumstances. In addition, Republicans agreed not to change rules to circumvent the filibuster, a last-ditch move that has become known as the “nuclear option.”

Jewish groups applauded the compromise because it kept the filibuster intact, but they remained concerned that controversial nominees, including those for the Supreme Court, will be confirmed.

“It’s very much a beginning,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director. “All the deal really did was set the ground rules for the debates we are now going to have.”

The RAC took out ads in several Jewish newspapers this week, declaring, “The next fight will be even harder.”

Pelavin and many others anticipate that a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy will be announced this summer.

On another highly controversial legislative front, several other Jewish groups voiced support for a bill supporting research on human stem cells from embryos that otherwise would be discarded. The bill passed the House 238 to 194 on Tuesday evening and is expected to be approved by the Senate. But the House vote suggests that congressional support is not strong enough to override President Bush’s promised veto.

Hadassah has led the fight for the bill in the Jewish community, using its stature as a medical-research organization.

“Hadassah can make a big impact, because we are so large and we have real credibility on this issue,” said Marla Gilson, the organization’s Washington director. “If there is a district that has a targeted member, we have someone who can call them up and talk on this issue.”

Both the Reform movement (through the RAC) and the Orthodox Union are backing the stem-cell bill.

The stem-cell issue represents an increasingly rare opportunity for the Orthodox community to stand with other Jewish organizations and many Democratic lawmakers. In the past, Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, has reached out to Democrats on stem-cell research.

“It’s important that we as an organization and a community pursue and promote policy positions consistent with our religious values,” Diament said. “And wherever that puts us on the political spectrum, we let the chips fall where they fall.”

Diament added that he has had many “teachable moments,” using the issue to show that the Orthodox community is not in lock step with Christian conservatives even though they do agree on such issues as faith-based initiatives and school vouchers, which most other Jewish groups oppose.

Jewish organizational leaders said they have been able to change some lawmakers’ minds about stem-cell research.

“We have seen instance after instance where a member of Congress was absolutely tied to a position, and we brought in a 10-year-old diabetes patient or a young woman attached to a wheelchair,” Gilson said. “Seeing that real people are tied to research has had an impact.”

Jewish leaders say they will stay on top of these issues after this week’s votes. Many are expected to participate in a meeting Thursday with Senate Democratic leaders, organized by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

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