The Republican leadership scramble set off by the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal has led to the selection of a new House majority leader who is at odds with most Jewish groups on most key issues of religion and state. It also has halted — at least for now — the rise of the sole Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.
In an upset victory last week, the House Republican Conference elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio to replace the embattled Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas as majority leader. DeLay, widely seen as the most powerful lawmaker in Congress until his recent troubles, is under indictment in his home state and under a cloud because of his close ties to Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.
The new majority leader is drawing a mixed response in Jewish quarters. Jewish Democrats are moving quickly to try to paint Boehner as inimical to mainstream Jewish communal positions on a host of issues, though he has not triggered as much controversy as DeLay. Jewish Republicans, meanwhile, are hailing Boehner as a great friend of the Jewish community, although many of them had been pushing for his favored opponent, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
The House election comes as Jewish organizations are struggling to find ways to influence domestic legislation in the GOP-controlled congress. Democratic activists and some liberal Jewish groups increasingly have taken to criticizing Republican priorities, while other Jewish organizations have opted to cultivate relations with well-placed GOP lawmakers such as Cantor.
Prognosticators also differed in their assessment of how the shuffle has affected the future of Cantor, a rising star in the GOP who emerged last year as DeLay’s foremost congressional defender. Cantor, chief deputy majority whip, had been expected to jump up to the whip position if Blunt, his main patron and a fellow DeLay supporter, had been tapped as majority leader. Both men retained their current posts.
Several observers pooh-poohed the notion that Cantor would feel awkward working with Blunt’s recent foe, Boehner.
“I don’t think that Eric will have any trouble working with Boehner because of [Cantor’s] own ambitions,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s going to realize that being at odds with Boehner is a lose for him. The best thing he could do is continue to be an avid, loyal member of a leadership team that just happens to have a new quarterback.”
But Ornstein said that rough shoals may lie ahead for the 42-year-old Cantor. The Virginian’s reputation as “the number-one public defender of DeLay” might come back to haunt him, he said — especially if, as some expect, prosecutors build a case against DeLay in connection with the Abramoff corruption. In that case, Ornstein said, Cantor might come to be embarrassed by some of those pronouncements, especially if his rivals for GOP leadership posts were to draw attention to them.
But Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who runs a Web site that he calls the “Crystal Ball,” sounded much more bullish on Cantor.
“The real question is when Blunt will step aside as majority whip,” he said. “Cantor is beautifully positioned to succeed Blunt whenever that occurs. Cantor did have the votes [for majority whip]. He had a much better vote count than Blunt.”
Cantor himself acknowledged that his and Blunt’s closeness to DeLay had hurt their electoral prospects.
“I think our members were looking for a new face at the leadership table,” Cantor told The New York Times regarding the leadership election. “I think that pretty much explains the outcome.”
Shortly after the February 2 House leadership vote, the National Jewish Democratic Council issued an opposition research sheet highlighting Boehner’s votes permitting school prayer and allowing religious groups to discriminate by faith in hiring in federally funded anti-poverty programs. The NJDC statement also noted that the new majority leader has opposed abortion rights and that he voted against a measure requiring the Air Force to report on Christian proselytizing at its academy. The Jewish Democrats also said that Boehner had pushed for the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in Ohio schools.
The NJDC report on Boehner, which preceded several other Democratic attempts to blacken the image of the new majority leader, got a lot of play when it was posted on the organization’s Web site: at least 17,000 hits within a day of appearing.
“His record is thick with actions that endanger religious liberty,” said the NJDC’s deputy executive director, David Harris.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, for its part, countered with an e-mail memo noting that as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Boehner had introduced language into the Higher Education Act Reauthorization designed to stop federal funding of anti-American, anti-Israel, and antisemitic programs on college campuses; had co-sponsored legislation expanding sanctions on Iran if it does not stop its nuclear weapons program, and had supported Israel’s construction of its security fence.
William Daroff, a former RJC official who is now chief Washington lobbyist of the local federation movement’s umbrella body, United Jewish Communities, also defended Boehner. Daroff got to know the new majority leader while working as a page in the Ohio legislature in the 1980s when Boehner was a state legislator.
“I’ve known him for 20 years, and I can vouch for him as a man of high integrity and good character who understands the great importance of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic relationship,” Daroff said.
As chairman of the House education committee, Boehner has triggered worries among the liberal national Jewish groups because of his avid pro-school voucher record, as well as his preference for a greater role for religion in the public square. But Boehner has endeared himself to more conservative elements of the community, such as the Orthodox Union, with his prominent role in making sure that funds for students evacuated because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita went to parochial as well as public schools.
Despite the liberal criticisms, Boehner is seen as less of a conservative firebrand than DeLay, an evangelical Christian who embraced the most right-wing elements of the Jewish community.
The House election results registered as somewhat of a disappointment among pro-Israel activists, who privately preferred Blunt because of the significant role he has played as majority whip in passing pro-Israel legislation and in leading congressional delegations to Israel. Other factors also worked in Blunt’s favor among Jewish Republicans. He is a longtime favorite of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose big donors have stuffed his campaign war chest. (Like Blunt, RJC National Chariman Sam Fox hails from Missouri.) In 2003 Blunt married Abigail Perlman, a Jewish lobbyist for tobacco interests, in a ceremony conducted by a rabbi; it is said that Perlman has deepened Blunt’s ties to the Jewish community.
Boehner, however, also has a solid pro-Israel voting record, by all accounts. In his first week in the leadership, he ingratiated himself with some Jewish officials by taking a strong stance against the restrictions on congressional travel that are being proposed as part of lobbying reform packages in Congress — which, Jewish activists say, could cripple their ability to send lawmakers to Israel.
Owing to his conservative, small-government philosophy, Boehner has not been a strong supporter of increased funding to social service programs in Ohio, including those run by Jewish organizations.
“He’s not someone who believes in a big-spending government,” said Joyce Garver Keller. She is executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the local federation. “We are oftentimes asking for federal support we may not be getting from the congressman.”