Worries Build As GOP Seen Pushing Bills To Rally Base

Groups Respond With Liberal Lobbying Blitz

By Ori Nir

Published June 30, 2006, issue of June 30, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — In the face of Republican efforts in Congress to rally the party’s conservative base, Jewish organizations are stepping up efforts to push liberal positions on several legislative fronts.

With fewer than 50 workdays left in the 109th Congress, and lawmakers increasingly focused on November’s midterm elections, Capitol Hill’s Republican leadership is moving up votes on several pieces of legislation favored by conservatives. For example, in recent weeks congressional Republicans have been pressing for constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage, as well as for legislation repealing the federal estate tax. At the same time, Jewish organizations are actively opposing conservatives on measures involving immigration, reproductive rights and the separation of church and state.

“As we are nearing the end of this Congress, and as politicians are moving into campaign mode, we are facing… an aggressive, ultraconservative agenda,” said Hadar Susskind, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The council is a public policy coordinating organization that brings together 13 national agencies and 127 local Jewish communities. “We are finding ourselves in a position of needing to stand up for our agenda, in the face of these very politically driven moves taken by the congressional leadership.”

On the issue of immigration, several Jewish organizations mobilized members to urge their representatives in Congress to support comprehensive reform rather than a measure backed by conservatives focusing solely only on enforcement that eventually would allow illegal aliens to become citizens. A comprehensive reform would include provisions legalizing the status of some undocumented immigrants, as well as provisions allowing for a

guest-worker program.

Both chambers of Congress have passed different versions of immigration-reform bills, with the House backing a bill that deals only with enforcement and the Senate voting for a measure along the lines of the more comprehensive approach backed by Jewish groups. The House and Senate are expected to appoint members to a conference committee to reconcile some very significant differences between the two bills.

Anti-immigration activists are applying heavy pressure on lawmakers to settle on an enforcement-only formula. As part of their lobbying efforts, the anti-immigration activists launched a “brick campaign,” urging supporters to mail bricks to lawmakers as a gesture of support for building a wall along America’s border with Mexico.

Acting on an “action alert” issued by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, several Jewish organizations joined an interfaith coalition last week that is aimed at countering the push for the House version of the bill.

Also last week, Jewish groups took part in a HIAS-organized call-in day to boost congressional support for the Senate version, which allows for some illegal immigrants to obtain American citizenship, an easier family reunification procedure and a guest-worker program. The version also simplifies the process for legal immigration to America.

On reproductive rights, several Jewish organizations are joining forces to put pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to legalize the over-the-counter sale of the so-called “Plan B” contraceptive. Last week, senior executives with several Jewish influential organizations — including the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the JCPA — circulated a letter around Capitol Hill. The letter called on House members to sign on to a letter to FDA Acting Director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, urging him to make a decision on the drug that is also known as the “morning after pill.”

In 2003, two FDA advisory committees recommended that the drug be made available without a physician’s prescription. Women’s rights groups and other advocates have since joined Barr Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the maker of the drug, in urging the FDA to act on the committees’ recommendations. Named for its purpose to prevent pregnancy when conventional contraceptives fail to do so, or following unprotected intercourse, the drug reduces chances of pregnancy by 89% if taken within 72 hours after sex.

Under pressure from conservatives, the FDA has put off a decision on allowing universal access to the drug. Plan B proponents emphasize that preventing pregnancy during the short hours that follow intercourse could help avoid a risky, morally controversial and emotionally traumatic abortion later on. “Now it is time for [the FDA] to do its job and issue a decision regarding this important advance in women’s health,” said the president of NCJW, Phyllis Snyder, in an interview with the Forward.

Jewish organizations are also at loggerheads with conservatives over the Pledge Protection Act, a bill that would ban federal courts from hearing challenges to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The bill’s sponsors, citing several past First Amendment challenges to the pledge, say they are concerned that the court may decide someday that the inclusion of the phrase “under God” is unconstitutional. But opponents of the legislation say that congressional action to strip all federal courts of jurisdiction over a particular class of cases threatens the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches by undermining the federal courts’ ability to interpret constitutional law.

Several Jewish organizations, including the AJCommittee, the Anti-Defamation League, the JCPA, NCJW, the URJ and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, joined civil rights groups in sending a letter to all House members, urging them to oppose the Pledge Protection Act.

In the letter, the bill’s opponents argue that the measure would “undermine the longstanding constitutional rights of religious minorities to seek redress in the federal courts in cases involving mandatory recitation of the Pledge.”

According to congressional insiders, the bill is likely to pass the House, as it did twice before, but chances are slim that it will make it out of the Senate.

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