The Orthodox organization that backed an extreme position on a proposed state health bill says it is pleased with a compromise announced last week.
Agudath Israel of America last year joined Catholic groups in calling for the insertion of a “conscience clause” into a women’s health and wellness bill that would, among other things, require employees and insurers to pay for birth control. The clause would allow a religious organization to opt out of that requirement if it contradicts the organization’s beliefs. The Republican-led Senate has already passed bills allowing such an exemption, while the Democrat-led Assembly has balked at it.
Agudah’s position infuriated Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker who considers the clause a “poison pill” that renders the bill ineffective.
This week Senate leaders announced a compromise
in which only religious institutions whose employees are predominantly of the same religion may be exempted. That provision would likely apply to organizations such as Agudah or the Catholic Church, but not to hospitals or other institutions run by religious groups.
While key Democrats remain skeptical of the bill, the compromise represents the best chance for passage of a health care package in the three years that the issue has been debated in Albany.
“The compromise shows some movement in this area,” said David Zwiebel, Agudah’s vice president for governmental relations. “We would have been happier if there was a broader religious exemption, but this is something that makes sense.”
The Republican compromise is seen as an attempt to influence the closely watched Feb. 12 race for an East Side Senate seat between Republican Assemblyman John Ravitz and Democrat Liz Krueger. Krueger has made the health bill a central campaign theme, faulting Senate Republicans for holding it up. GOP leaders have credited Ravitz for pushing the issue and would likely give him credit if it passed.
Silver passed a separate bill in the Assembly on Monday, advocated by Orthodox Jewish groups, that would require insurers to pay for infertility treatments. He has said a conscience clause inserted into the women’s health bill would all but guarantee a similar clause in the Senate version of a fertility bill.
Zwiebel said that while the organization did not, per se, object to fertility treatments or birth control on religious grounds, it was addressing a larger principle.
“Even if this bill is not offensive to us, the next one might be,” he said.
Marc Stern, the American Jewish Congress’s expert on religion and law, said intractability on both sides had obscured legitimate concerns. “The pro-choice groups have persistently denied that religious institutions have rights,” said Stern. “On the other hand supporters of religious exemption sometimes blind themselves to the [impact] on third parties who may be in a religious institution but don’t share their beliefs.”
A pending City Council resolution dealing with a sensitive Middle East topic may prove to be a bellwether of Jewish power in the drastically reconfigured body.
Proposed by Bronx Councilman G. Oliver Koppel (D-Riverdale), the resolution calls for a sense of the 51 Councilmembers that the Palestinian Authority’s United Nations offices in New York should be closed because the PA is a terrorist organization. Like all such resolutions, the measure would have no teeth and simply send a message to policy makers and, not least, pro-Israel voters.
But Koppel, who represents heavily Jewish Riverdale, believes the measure is an opportunity for the Council “to show that we are rightly concerned about the presence of an office of a terrorist organization in this city.”
Before the election of 38 new members last year, including a new speaker, such resolutions came and went with the frequency of alternate-side parking suspensions. The former speaker, Peter Vallone, often introduced the resolutions himself, and with his imprimatur they were raised for immediate consideration — without committee hearings — and unanimously passed.
Rather than allow a quick vote the current speaker, Gifford Miller, referred the bill to the committee on cultural affairs, libraries, and international and intergroup relations. No hearing is scheduled.
Koppell said he was “nervous” that the bill might be considered too controversial at a time when the State Department is desperately trying to get Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks. He said he would gladly cancel the resolution at the first sign of progress between the two sides.
The committee chairman, Jose Serrano Jr. of the Bronx, could not be reached for comment.
There are currently nine Jewish councilmembers of the council, down from 12 last year, and thus far they have made no move to join together as a caucus. During the Dinkins administration, the Jewish caucus played a role in fighting plans to reallocate social service contracts from Jewish groups to minority neighborhoods.
# “I think everyone in the Council right now is busy setting up shop,” said freshman Simcha Felder (D-Borough Park). “Many members don’t even have phone lines.” He said he believed the members would become more cohesive “on issues of mutual importance” once they were settled in.r
The former chair of the Council’s Jewish caucus, Herbert Berman — a Brooklyn Democrat — has been named a special assistant to Gov. George Pataki.
Berman was forced by term limits last year to give up his seat on the City Council representing Canarsie, Mill Basin and other areas of southern Brooklyn. He joined forces with consultant Martin Begun last month, but now says he’s putting that job on hold to work for the Republican governor.
“I’ll be helping them with the budget, economic development and community outreach, particularly in the Jewish community,” said Berman.
As chair of the finance committee, Berman racked up thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from leaders of Jewish community councils and community centers in his failed bid for city comptroller against William Thompson. His appointment may set up a pitched battle for Jewish support among the candidates for governor.
Silver, who is popular in the Orthodox community, announced his support of Democratic state comptroller H. Carl McCall’s bid for governor on Monday. McCall already has two employees, David Luchins and Wolf Sender, advising him on Jewish issues and doing other liaison work.
Political consultant Josh Isay said he, along with Rhoda Glickman and Matthew Traube, would be at the center of Jewish outreach for Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s campaign.
Berman’s appointment comes at a time when Pataki is hoping to collect the support of a range of Democrats, as Rudy Giuliani did in his successful 1997 re-election bid. Pataki has already corralled Ed Koch, who likes to call the governor a “mensch.”
Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said Berman was filling a vacancy created when Jonathan Greenspun left the community affairs office to become commissioner of the city’s Community Assistance Unit, after working on Mike Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign.
“Given the fact that Herb has such a breadth of experience, we want to take advantage of that and give him additional responsibilities,” said McKeon. The cost to the taxpayer has yet to be finalized, he said.
A Marist College poll on the governor’s race in December showed neither Democrat with an advantage among Jews: Cuomo and McCall were each running neck and neck with “undecided,” at 33 percent each.
But although Pataki has won widespread support among Jews, and has a 62 percent approval rating in the community, either Democrat is favored, according to those polled. In a match-up against Pataki, Cuomo won 52 to 38 percent, while McCall won 49 to 39 percent.