After Great Hopes for New Congress, Reality Falls Short

For years, Senator Dianne Feinstein has earned failing grades from the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union. But when the California Democrat unexpectedly helped her Republican colleagues approve a controversial judicial nominee last week, she gained a new, somewhat more unlikely, adversary: liberal advocate Sammie Moshenberg.

“I don’t know what she was thinking,” said Moshenberg, who heads the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women. “It was a shock and quite appalling that she would vote to send such an extreme nominee on to the full Senate.”

Clearly, it wasn’t supposed to go like this. Back in November, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1995, Moshenberg and Washington’s cadre of mostly left-leaning Jewish lobbyists had high hopes for the new leadership. Nine months later, they are confronting a more checkered reality.

Faced with razor-thin majorities and a veto-wielding executive, as well as the looming shadows of the war in Iraq and the 2008 presidential race, congressional Democrats have found themselves compromising on a number of fronts. They head into the August recess this week with early defeats on major policy issues such as immigration reform, but also several modest wins on domestic issues championed by Jewish groups, including the raising of the federal minimum wage and the expansion of a federal program for children’s health insurance.

In conversations with the Forward this week, a half-dozen Jewish advocates anticipated a fall season filled with pitched battles over energy policy, hate crimes legislation, habeas corpus and judicial nominees, while giving the new Congress a mixed progress report.

“It’s five months into the session, and not much has happened, generally,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress. “Is it going to be the New Deal Democratic Congress that revolutionized the country? Absolutely not. At the same time, I think it is true that the political climate has changed.”

To be sure, the White House has curtailed some of the efforts. While the minimum wage was raised for the first time in a decade as part of the party’s much-vaunted “first 100 hours” agenda and approved by President Bush, another measure in the package, a bill providing funding for stem-cell research, was felled by the veto pen in June. The president also has promised to veto the expansion of the program that provides health coverage to millions of otherwise uninsured children. Passed separately by the House and Senate last week, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has been one of the highest priorities for a number of Jewish groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

While the new Congress has achieved less than many liberals had hoped for, Jewish activists acknowledged that this is in part due to factors beyond the control of congressional Democrats. For example, the debate over the Iraq War has stalled legislation to expand the federal definition of hate crimes to include violence against a person because of his or her “actual or perceived” sexual orientation. Pushed aggressively by a coalition of Jewish groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, JCPA and NCJW, the bill had been stymied by Republican leadership in previous years, but was supposed to face relatively easy passage in the current Congress. Although the measure passed the House, it is currently held up in the Senate, where it is attached to a defense appropriation bill.

Divisions within the Democratic caucus have also hampered domestic initiatives, as is the case with the moribund immigration bill, and with the energy bill passed by the House of Representatives last Saturday. Although the energy measure will require most utilities to produce 15% of their electricity from renewable sources, it does not increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, not least because of opposition from Democrats in states dependent on the automobile industry.

Some Jewish Democratic lawmakers also have faced criticism for placing politics above progressive policy. In recent weeks, Senator Charles Schumer has faced scrutiny for opposing raising taxes on the managers of hedge funds.

Meanwhile, Feinstein, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is under fire after casting the deciding vote to send the nomination of conservative Judge Leslie Southwick to the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals on to the floor of the Senate. Southwick’s appointment has been condemned by an array of liberal groups, in large part due to votes he cast in the past. In one case, the Mississippi State Court of Appeals judge voted to reinstate a white employee who had been fired for calling a black co-worker a “good ole n—–.”

In the wake of last week’s vote, Feinstein has faced the wrath of some usual allies, including the National Council of Jewish Women and other liberal groups, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Several Jewish advocates told the Forward they find themselves on a better playing field on issues including church-state separation, religious liberties and so-called values issues. Earlier this term, Congress reauthorized the Head Start program, without a provision, backed by Republicans in the past, that would have allowed private providers to make hiring decisions based on religion. Marc Stern of AJCongress said he is hopeful that after their recess Democrats will take up legislation to reverse the ban on so-called partial birth abortions and a recent Supreme Court decision that narrows the window for bringing employment discrimination cases, as well as limitations on habeas corpus imposed under President Bush.

“You at least get to first or second base where you couldn’t before,” Stern said. “We will see as time goes on if you can get further than that.”

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After Great Hopes for New Congress, Reality Falls Short

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