Powerful Chairmanships at Stake in November

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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A Democratic surge on Election Day would put a number of Jewish pro-Israel lawmakers in charge of key congressional committees, but Republican critics are warning that a GOP defeat would in the end undercut support for Jerusalem.

Registered voters said they plan to vote for the Democrat over the Republican in congressional elections next month by a margin of 54% to 41%, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this week. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report now lists 25 GOP-held House seats as a tossup — seven more than before the Foley scandal broke September 29.

Such predictions, which come on the heels of distressing developments in Iraq and the recent discovery that Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida sent sexually explicit messages to underage male pages, are fueling predictions that Democrats will capture the 15 seats needed to retake the House of Representatives. Democratic prospects are more uncertain in the Senate, where the party needs six more seats to command a majority.

Should Democrats win back control of the House, a number of long-serving Jewish lawmakers in ranking positions would likely accede to chairmanships of key committees, including Barney Frank of Massachusetts (financial services), Henry Waxman of California (government reform) and Howard Berman of California (ethics). Rep. Tom Lantos, a Bay Area Democrat and the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, is expected to chair the international relations committee, where he has worked closely with Republicans and is known as hawkish on Middle East policy.

Several Jewish lawmakers are also expected to lead powerful subcommittees, including two New York Democrats, Nita Lowey and Jerrold Nadler. Lowey is in line to assume the chairmanship of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which approves nonmilitary assistance to other countries, including reconstruction aid to Iraq and Afghanistan and aid to the Palestinian Authority, and Nadler, who is the ranking Democrat on the judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, which handles all constitutional amendments and has the ability to review legislation that raises questions regarding civil rights and civil liberties.

Republican activists argue that even a roster of Jewish Democratic stalwarts won’t be enough to neutralize the drop in support for Israel among grass-roots Democrats.

“The problem … has to do with what’s been going on in the grass-roots among Democrats across the country,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. National surveys show that “a majority of Democrats across the country don’t support Israel anymore,” and since “politics is about serving your constituents, it’s going to be harder for [Democratic leaders] to stand up.”

A July poll, conducted by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, found that while 84% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than with the Arab states, 43% of Democrats felt similarly. A separate survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg last summer found that 54% of Democrats favored neutrality in the Middle East, while 64% of Republicans supported alignment with Israel.

In conversations with the Forward this week, several Jewish Republicans highlighted the prominent liberals, not known as friendly to Israel, who also would be in line for chairmanships. At the top of that list were two Michigan Democrats, John Conyers and John Dingell, who are both from heavily Arab districts. Both men were among the eight House members who voted this summer against a resolution in support of Israel. Dingell is the ranking member of the energy and commerce committee and Conyers would likely chair the judiciary committee.

In contrast to GOP warnings, leaders at several national Jewish organizations expressed confidence that Israel policy would not change significantly under Democratic leadership.

“We would remain optimistic that with regard to Israel things would stay essentially the same,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. If chairmen like Conyers or Dingell “could affect Israel-related issues, it would be at the margins.”

The broader issue for Democrats, according to political insiders, is how effective the leadership would be in positioning the party for victory in 2008.

The likely committee chairmen and party leaders overwhelmingly hail from the generation of liberals that preceded both the Clinton-style centrist “New Democrats” and the more moderate cadre that is likely to capture seats this November. Political observers say they would likely try to push forward an agenda in a closely divided Congress and use newfound subpoena powers to call the Bush administration to task, all while trying to avoid appearing overly partisan.

Nathan Gonzalez, political director at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said that the Democrats are “going to have to find the line between holding the President accountable for the last two years and stepping over the line and risking a backlash two years from now.”

In recent days, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who represents a liberal San Francisco-area district, has promised to begin to “drain the swamp” of Republican mismanagement and outlined an immediate post-election agenda that includes breaking the link between lobbyists and legislation, adopting all the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and raising the minimum wage. She has ruled out opening impeachment hearings against President Bush, while Conyers, who had in the past vocally backed impeachment, has backpedaled on the issue.

Meanwhile, the presumptive ways and means chairman, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, has attracted notice by suggesting that he might try to use that position to stop the Iraq war through a defunding of the military campaign.

Both Berman and Waxman are likely to play marquee roles should the Democrats take back the house. As the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, Berman currently is leading the bipartisan investigation into the Foley scandal, and would play a key role in any future investigations into members’ dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House’s principal oversight committee for all federal operations, would be in a position to investigate waste and mismanagement in relation to the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the work of the Department of Homeland Security.

According to several Jewish communal leaders, the prospects for their own agenda within a Democratic House appear mixed. Several said they expected to spend less time and energy on fighting off conservative efforts to curb immigration and lower the wall separating church and state. But they were less than optimistic about their efforts to secure increased funding for fighting poverty, health care and education.

“Some of the church-state narishkeit” — or nonsense — “we’re just far less likely to see,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “But on some of the bigger issues, I’m not sure what [a Democratic takeover] would mean. Would Congress’s view on Iran change, would its view on the war change?… It’s not like we have some great plan on the table.”






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