Several pieces of legislation are in the hopper and letters criticizing the administration’s position are flying down Pennsylvania Avenue, but lawmakers who threatened to strip away the president’s authority to waive penalties under the original Jerusalem Embassy Act have apparently decided to hold their fire.
Meeting with Jewish members of Congress last week, Barak said a decision to force the embassy move now could have implications for the peace process he is trying to revive.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) asked directly if that meant Barak didn’t want any congressional action on the subject. Barak replied that it’s a matter of U.S. policy, and that it’s not Israel’s place to offer advice.
But members of his delegation bluntly told Lieberman and others that while the new government wants all foreign embassies to be located in Jerusalem, any action by Washington to move its embassy now could upset Barak’s peace moves.
That apparently spooked key leaders in the congressional effort to force the administration’s hand. Late last week Lieberman and co-sponsor Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced only part of their long-promised legislative response to President Bill Clinton’s June waiver. The revised measure holds back some State Department money until the president declares that U.S. policy recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and until the secretary of state certifies that ambassadorial functions are taking place at the consulate in Jerusalem.
And, concerned about seeming to go against Barak’s wishes just after his successful visit, Lieberman and Kyl tried to slip the measure into the Commerce, State and Justice Appropriations bill without any debate.
But Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a long-time adversary of pro-Israel forces, insisted that the measure be debated openly.
Kyl and Lieberman then withdrew their amendment. Other supporters of strong congressional action toned down their language, as well.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “believes strongly that the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem and he will working with the Barak government and his colleagues in the Senate to determine the best time to move forward with this legislation,” said a spokesperson for the lawmaker, reflecting a step back from confrontation by the pro-Israel leader.
This week Kyl and Lieberman sent their long-awaited letter to Clinton criticizing his failure to move the embassy by the May 31 deadline set by the 1995 law, or even to start the wheels turning for a move.
Some 84 senators signed on — but the letter, toned down from earlier drafts, did not threaten new legislation to eliminate the waiver authority that Clinton used last month to short-circuit the original law’s penalties.
Congressional sources say Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) played a pivotal role in moderating the tough tone of the original letter.
Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), an Oslo opponent, has introduced a measure to remove the presidential waiver authority. But mainstream Jewish groups are keeping their distance, preferring instead to see if the administration responds to the Kyl-Lieberman overtures.
“The focus has shifted from confronting the administration head-on over the embassy to nudging them forward a few inches,” said a prominent pro-Israel lobbyist here. “There’s been a shift back to the Moynihan approach.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), one of the earliest congressional backers of an embassy move, wrote to Clinton urging a series of public gestures to avert a confrontation over a presidential waiver. The Moynihan approach is evident in several proposals now before Congress.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn), Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.) and others have introduced a bill designed to provide symbolic recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The measure would bring the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem under the direct supervision of the ambassador in Tel Aviv and require official U.S. documents that list countries and their capitals to identify Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The measure would also require that U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem have “Jerusalem, Israel” listed as their birthplace on their passports.
One more measure, introduced by Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-Buffalo), authorizes $50 million for construction of an embassy in Jerusalem, as well as the consulate and passport provisions of the Weiner act.
In general, the emphasis has shifted from confrontation to persuasion, said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Barak wants to move the peace process forward, and he wants the maximum freedom of maneuver. He’s looking for Congress to give him the room he needs.”
Faith-Based Political Boom
The 2000 presidential contest is beginning to look a little like a tent revival meeting, with top candidates in both parties increasingly sermonizing about “faith-based” solutions to the nation’s social ills.
Last week Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner, used his first major policy address to tout religious groups as the centerpiece of his “compassionate conservatism.”
Bush promised big tax incentives and direct federal funding for church and community groups that provide services to needy populations. Only such groups can “put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives,” he said.
He also said that “in every instance when my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based institutions, to charities and to community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives.”
Jewish Democrats were surprised by the scope of Bush’s proposals — but they were hardly in a position to criticize, since Vice President Al Gore last month proposed a “new partnership” between religious groups and government.
Liberal Jewish groups fear the faith-based boom will erode safeguards regulating how religious groups use government money. Orthodox groups say such proposals will lead to more responsive and efficient services.
For the Democrats, the sudden injection of faith into politics is a matter of infiltrating traditional GOP territory, said presidential historian Allan J. Lichtman of American University. For Republicans, it’s a way of easing concerns about the social service budget cuts that are likely because of tight budget caps and proposed tax cuts.
“Everybody knows we’re going to be in a big hole,” he said. “We have this wonderful economic bubble, but once it bursts, nobody knows what will happen with the bottom fifth of the population, who have been the recipients of most government cutbacks.”
The growing talk of faith-based solutions, he said, reflects both a genuine belief in the power of religious institutions to do good in communities — and political trickery “designed to throw a bone to this lowest fifth — and a very cheap bone, at that.”
Jewish groups reacted predictably. “The magnitude of what he’s suggesting is staggering,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It’s a wholesale abdication of government responsibility for the social welfare of the country. And Bush talks about mobilizing armies of compassion. I’m very much afraid his armies of compassion will lay siege to the walls of church-state separation.”
The new bipartisan focus on faith-based solutions, he said, “has shifted the entire debate. This wasn’t mainstream stuff four years ago.”
That’s fine with Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.
“We’re very pleased Gov. Bush has put this on the national agenda,” he said. “It’s clear he’s not interested in using faith-based organizations for creating a religious revival, but because they are effective institutions for social services.”
Quietly Quaking Over Tax Cuts
Speaking of government spending woes, Jewish groups are quietly quaking at the prospect of a Republican-backed $800 billion tax cut over 10 years — or even a $300 billion cut that President Bill Clinton has signaled he might accept.
But publicly, Jewish groups are not speaking out about the tax cut proposals because of the partisan rancor surrounding the debate.
“We don’t have a position on tax cuts,” said Reva Price, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “The concern is about the combination of budget caps and tax cuts, and what this does to a number of programs we care about. This combination will have a huge impact on domestic spending programs of all sorts.”
Even without a tax cut, she said, discretionary spending cuts are almost certain because of the refusal of Congress to lift caps imposed by the 1997 budget agreement.
House Republicans are trying to get around the caps by creating numerous “emergency” spending provisions, but the bookkeeping trick is unlikely to do much more than just postpone a day of fiscal reckoning over social and health programs. Tax cuts will only increase the budgetary pressure, Price said.
But because of the partisan nature of the tax cut fight, most are concentrating their efforts on getting Congress to lift the 1997 budget caps.
“Both parties are advancing a dream world view of the budget,” said an official with one major Jewish group. “Our view is that it is critical to get them to lift the budget caps as a first step in bringing some rationality back into the process. If that happens we believe the idea of a big tax cut will become less attractive.”
INS Split Feared
There’s growing momentum behind a move to break apart the troubled Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). But Jewish activists fear the plan, if approved by Congress, will just make matters worse.
And that could be bad news for thousands of Jewish immigrants on long waiting lists for naturalization because of INS backlogs, said Diana Aviv, the United Jewish Communities vice president for public policy.
“There is huge frustration in Congress with the unsuccessful efforts of INS to reform itself,” she said.
“The feeling seems to be that it’s better to just blow it up than do the same-old-same-old with changes. This measure is an expression of extreme frustration.”
The measure would split the INS into two competing agencies — one dealing with enforcement, the other with immigrant services.
But that would just add to the costs and the bureaucratic delays, Aviv said, and foster even fiercer competition between the agencies sometimes-conflicting functions. Since the agency providing immigrant services would be smaller, it could “starve the service side,” she said.
UJC — the successor agency to the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal — doesn’t usually get involved in debates over government reorganization, Aviv said.
“But this would directly affect many of the people our agencies deal with. It could have a very damaging impact on the entire immigration program.”
Hearings on the Immigration Reorganization and Improvement Act were scheduled in the House this week. On the Senate side, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), head of the immigration subcommittee, is readying his own proposal. Aviv said it is not yet clear if he will also propose dividing the troubled agency.