WASHINGTON — With polls showing Democratic congressional candidates gaining ground in several states, officials at Jewish organizations are quietly rooting for an end to Republican control of the Senate.
The focus on the Senate, which the GOP controls with 51 votes, comes as many Jewish communal organizations have voiced strong approval for President Bush’s policies on Israel and on fighting terrorism. On the domestic side, however, Jewish organizations tend to take a much more liberal position than the president on a host of issues, including church-state separation, abortion, gay rights and federal funding for anti-poverty initiatives.
The potential importance of the Senate during the next presidential term was thrust to the forefront this week, with the hospitalization of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The winner in November is expected to have the opportunity to fill as many as three vacancies on the nation’s highest court — but judicial selections require Senate approval.
Jewish communal officials declined to speak publicly in support of a specific political party for fear of jeopardizing their groups’ tax-exempt status. But senior staffers at major Jewish organizations told the Forward that a Democratic Senate would help allay their concerns about the domestic ramifications of a Bush victory.
Former New York mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who favors Bush for foreign policy reasons, has been urging Jews to split their ballots.
“I understand the tie that the Jews have to liberal issues and how difficult it is to break the relationship with the Democratic Party,” said Koch, who has been campaigning for Bush in conjunction with the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I therefore tell Jewish voters wherever I speak that they can have their cake and eat it, too” — by re-electing Bush to pursue his foreign policy and handing control of the Senate over to the Democrats in order to counterbalance Bush on domestic issues.
Senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania who has worked with Jewish organizations on several domestic and foreign policy issues, rejected the notion that Jewish causes would fare better under Democrats.
“I fundamentally disagree with that,” Santorum said, adding that the question is how you define Jewish issues.
“If you’re talking about those in the Jewish community who are liberal — that’s probably true,” Santorum said. “If you mean increasing taxation and government services and doing more things out of Washington, D.C., there are many liberals who feel that way. But if you’re talking about the Jewish community in respect to issues that are not really liberal or conservative issues, but issues that matter to Jews as Jews as opposed to people with a political ideology, then I would say that is not necessarily the case.”
Most election analysts say that the GOP definitely will retain its majority in the House of Representatives and is likely to maintain and maybe even increase its majority in the Senate. Still, they add, polls show that the Democrats have the potential to score an upset in the Senate if they win six or seven out of eight races in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Florida, Alaska, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana.
Such an upset, said one Jewish communal official, “would change everything for us” by leading to a reversal of legislation chipping away at civil rights and church-state separation, while improving the chances for increases in social-service funding.
With Republicans leading the way, the Senate confirmed several of George Bush’s more controversial judicial nominees, including those with conservative records on civil rights and church-state issues.
This 108th Senate was the first ever to impose federal restrictions on abortions by banning the procedure known as “partial-birth abortion.” It also approved a school-voucher program for the first time in years, in a move that most Jewish groups involved with the issue view as a violation of church-state separation.
As for the upcoming 109th session, the most important issue facing the Senate could be the Supreme Court, with the presidential winner and the next Senate likely to shape the face of the Supreme Court for the next generation.
“That is going to be the 40-year impact of this election, and it is one of our highest priorities,” said Nancy Kipnis, national vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women. Although a strong Democratic minority in the Senate could block some controversial nominees, its powers would be limited, as it was during the current congressional session, she said.
The addition of one conservative judge to the Supreme Court would jeopardize Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees the right to an abortion. Even if Roe would not be immediately rolled back by a new mix on the court, Kipnis said, “there will certainly be more infringement and more opportunity for states to impose limitations [on abortion] in a plethora of ways. It will be slipping away and eventually slip back. The danger is clearly there, not only to reproductive rights but also to other civil liberties and fundamental freedoms.”
Santorum painted a different picture of Republican legislative efforts, casting them as beneficial to the Jewish community. He noted that Senate Republicans attempted to pass faith-based legislation — blocked by the Democrats on church-state grounds — that could have increased federal funds to Jewish organizations and other nonprofit groups. He also cited the passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill as a groundbreaking measure that addressed Jewish communal concerns regarding health care for the elderly.
“On the foreign policy end,” Santorum said, Republicans have led the way on “protecting the state of Israel, standing beside and behind the state of Israel, on fighting terrorism around the world and fighting antisemitism around the world.”
Santorum pointed to his own sponsorship of the Syria Accountability Act, which, signed by President Bush, grants the White House the authority to impose sanctions on Damascus. He also has worked with Jewish organizations to craft a sanctions bill dealing with Iran. A fellow Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, spearheaded the Senate passage of a bill requiring the State Department to set up a special office to monitor and report on antisemitism throughout the world.
Bipartisan support for Israel and increased American efforts to fight antisemitism were strong during the current congressional session, but Jewish communal officials have credited Republican congressional leaders with placing high priority on these issues.
The importance of one party holding a majority in the Senate extends beyond the number of votes on any given issue, observers said. For example, the committee and subcommittee chairmanships go to the party in control.
“People often do not understand that it is not just who has the votes, but who controls the floor time and who controls the agenda,” said One Jewish organizational official. “If you have the majority, you decide which bill comes up and which does not,” said an official with one major Jewish organization.
If Democrats take the Senate, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts — regarded by many as the chamber’s most liberal member — will head the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, replacing conservative Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. On the Judiciary Committee, if Democrats win the Senate, Vermont liberal Patrick Leahy will preside over fateful discussions and procedural motions regarding nominees to the bench, replacing conservative Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. On the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, who voted against both the 1991 and 2002 Iraq wars, would replace chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican.