The good news for American Jewish groups that lobby Congress on an array of domestic and foreign policy issues is that the insurgents who forced the retirement of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the wake of last week’s GOP election debacle may bring a more bipartisan, pragmatic approach to the GOP leadership.
But that’s also the bad news.
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), Gingrich’s heir-apparent, may be more effective in promoting legislation Jewish groups have vigorously opposed, including measures promoted by the Christian right groups that were among last week’s big losers.
And the incoming House speaker has what even supporters call a mixed record on Israel and a limited interest in foreign policy in general.
But the soul of the 106th Congress will depend on more than Livingston
as the Republicans sort out the lessons from last week’s vote.
“Livingston is organizationally more sophisticated than Gingrich,” said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. “He may bring a measure of order to the Republican caucus, and help them prepare better for 2000.”
But the real question, he said, is whether the new leadership team can balance the electorate’s desire for moderation — a clear message from voters last week — with the demands of the far right, which still controls much of the party machinery.
“The new leadership will have to persuade the Christian right to settle for less than they want — or the party will face a major defeat in 2000,” he said.
Other analysts say the religious right forces will be weaker but angrier — and in a better position to win limited legislative gains than in the 105th Congress, which was gridlocked by the partisan, confrontational style of the Republican leadership.
“The irony is that you may see the [Republican] leadership pick a handful of issues that are very important to the Christian conservatives — like late-term abortions — and push really hard, while not moving on school prayer, gay rights and other issues,” said University of Akron political scientist John Green, who studies the religious right. “That will leave the Republicans free to focus more on issues like taxes and the budget, which are closer to mainstream American politics.”
He defined the central irony of the nascent 106th Congress: “The religious right took a bad defeat in this election — but they could actually benefit from changes in the leadership. It would be a major mistake to write them off.”
Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, agreed that Livingston will allow less of the Christian right’s agenda to get to the House floor.
“Bob comes from the same ideology as Newt, but you’ll see less legislation of that kind advanced,” he said. “There will be more focus on Social Security, on taxes. Some of the Christian right issues will come up under Livingston, but that won’t be his primary focus.”
A number of top items for Jewish groups that were stalled amid the partisan food fight of the 105th Congress may get addressed quickly by a leadership eager to shed the do-nothing earned by lawmakers this year.
“The Religious Liberty Protection Act, the Patients’ Bill of Rights, campaign finance reforms, hate crimes legislation, genetic nondiscrimination in health insurance measures, all of these things that got stalled this year will probably be brought up quickly,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
Livingston and his team “will probably carve out a few issues where they can help the religious right, like school vouchers, but the first items on their agenda will be on the issues they can win and the issues the American people really care about,” she said.
But Price warned that the pragmatism of the new GOP leadership will be a two-edged sword for Jewish groups because they may force the religious right to pursue more realistic legislative goals — and because Livingston, unlike Gingrich, is ready to find ways to compromise with the Democrats to advance his agenda.
Other prospective members of the GOP leadership team, including Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) — Largent, a former pro football player, is running for majority leader, and Watts for head of the House Republican Conference — are much closer to the Christian right, and will produce strong pressure on the new leadership not to stray too far from their social agenda.
On the Middle East front, the prospects for a new, Livingston-led House are unclear — but alarming to many Jewish activists.
This week, the National Jewish Coalition, a partisan Republican group, distributed a document touting Livingston’s support for foreign aid to Israel and his vote against the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia in 1981.
Conspicuously absent were some of his less favorable actions — including his angry outburst last year when Israel was unable to return a suspect in a Maryland murder until extradition proceedings had spun out under Israeli law.
Livingston and Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, threatened to hold up Israel’s aid until Samuel Sheinbein was returned.
Livingston’s interest in foreign aid is much more limited than Gingrich’s, Capitol Hill supporters say, focused mostly on narrow national security questions and on his longstanding desire to reduce the overall foreign aid program.
King said that Livingston is getting a bum rap as a neo-isolationist whose foreign policy rarely strays from finding ways to slash aid. “I’ve always considered Livingston to be very pro-Israel,” King said. “He may not have as much interest in the subject as Newt, but he is a real internationalist. I’m confident he will be very supportive of Israel and of the U.S playing an active, assertive role in the world.”
But Democrats painted a much bleaker picture.
“Whatever else you say about him, Gingrich was a friend of Israel,” said Stephen Silberfarb, associate executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a group that has found precious little to praise in Gingrich over the years. “You can’t say the same about Livingston.”
Silberfarb, who described Livingston’s domestic record as “right in the middle between right wing and extreme right wing,” pointed to the legislator’s frequent complaints about aid to Israel, his support for across-the-board foreign aid cuts and his burst of temper against Israel in last year’s Sheinbein affair.
“There’s a wait-and-see attitude,” said a leader of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “His voting record isn’t bad, but it’s not the best, and he’s definitely not a leader on the issue like we had with Gingrich.”