New Bind For Jewish Democrats

New Bind For Jewish Democrats

Search for common ground with administration on key community priorities?

Speaking this week at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley referred to herself as “the new sheriff in town.” Getty Images
Speaking this week at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley referred to herself as “the new sheriff in town.” Getty Images

The Republicans’ failure to overhaul health insurance has triggered a debate among Jewish Democrats: do nothing and let the Republicans struggle to pass legislation on their own, or accept a White House overture to work together on legislation.

A bipartisan approach would give Democrats a chance to revise the administration’s budget proposal, which would gut or eliminate key health and human service programs so important to the Jewish community.

On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News that “it’s time to potentially get a few moderate Democrats on board” when the Trump administration revisits health care legislation.

The next day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that President Donald Trump would consider working with Democrats on such legislation. Asked if the president was serious about such a bipartisan approach, Spicer replied, “Absolutely.”

Susie Gelman, a longtime Jewish community leader from Washington, D.C., said she is very concerned about the proposed budget “in terms of how much harm it does to the people who need help the most, including a lot of people who voted for Trump. If something like this were to pass, a lot of them would be disappointed.

“To me, it is a very heartless budget. I do not think it is possible for the private sector to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be cut from government funding. NGOs and foundations can be strategic and address some of the issues, but we are talking of huge amounts of money that does not exist in the private sector.”

Former Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, chairman of Jews for Progress, said he would like to see Trump invite Democratic lawmakers to dinner at the White House because “it helps when people get to know each other.”

“But then they need to find common ground — it is not my way or the highway,” Klein said. “A budget that cuts Meals on Wheels and health care for the poor is not going to sell with the Democrats. … [And] the Jewish community really cares about a lot of domestic social service programs. Our values and teachings are all about healing the needy — and the proposed budget flies in the face of Jewish values and interests.”

B’nai B’rith International, for example, has for nearly 50 years helped local communities reach out to the federal government for the building and opening of Section 202 housing — the only one of its kind for low-income elderly, including the frail elderly — and ensuring that residents receive federal rent subsidies to make them affordable. Over the years BBI or local B’nai B’rith affiliates have sponsored the construction of 38 buildings in 27 communities nationwide that serve about 8,000 residents, according to Mark Olshan, director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services.

Evan Carmen, BBI’s assistant director for aging policy, said that the so-called “skinny budget” Trump released proposed cutting the Department of Housing and Urban Development by $6.2 billion, or 13.2 percent.

“What concerns us is where the cuts are going to come from,” he said. “The Washington Post got a hold of an internal document that said there would be potential cuts of $42 million from Section 202 housing. That hits us to the core and is unacceptable.”

Breana Clark, BBI’s senior program associate, pointed out that 16 percent of the residents in Section 202 housing are over the age of 83 — the average age is 79 — and that their income is below $12,000 a year.

Gelman noted that “former President Ronald Reagan understood there has to be a bipartisan effort if you want to accomplish your agenda. And I have heard some Democrats expressing a willingness to work with the Republicans to make things happen.”

But Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said he believes the Democrats will take a “hardline approach” when it comes to Trump’s legislative agenda.

“It is not clear what benefit there is for the Democrats to cooperate with Donald Trump, just as the Republicans did not cooperate with Barack Obama,” he said. “The party out of power doesn’t see much reason to help give the sitting president of the other party any political victories. It is possible that [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer himself might be open to at least discussing some matters, but when it comes to the Supreme Court and health care, it is not clear you are going to find any Democrats who are going to be inclined to support appointing a conservative justice after Obama’s pick [Merrick Garland] was held in limbo for most of 2016.”

Asked about Trump’s desire to reach out to Democrats to craft a new health care bill, Skelley said: “I don’t think you will find any Democrats who would be willing to undo the Affordable Care Act, which was Obama’s greatest accomplishment.”

On the other hand, Barbara Goldberg Goldman, chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council’s Women’s Leadership Network, said she is convinced that “progress is made when issues are not turned into political footballs. That goes for Israel and all of the other foreign and domestic issues with which we grapple.”

She added that success would come “if we work together. If not, millions of people will suffer because of the proposed budget cuts that directly impact the lives of Americans. … We believe affordable, decent and safe housing is not a luxury but a right, just as health care and education should be considered an inalienable right of all Americans.”

Schumer has said he would work in a bipartisan fashion with the Trump administration to improve Obamacare.

“He has a reputation for being one of the best deal makers,” said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J. “This is Schumer’s first term as leader and he wants to assert himself and show that he can lead. The 2018 election is coming down the pike and the Democrats have a lot of seats to pick up and hold.”

Another Jewish leader active in Democratic politics, New Yorker Peter Joseph, said the intransigence of the Republican Freedom Caucus demonstrated that moderates on both sides of the aisle are needed to pass legislation despite Republican control of both houses of Congress.

“Both sides in the moderate camps are people of principle,” he said. “There are plenty of areas where there is common agreement and that is what these people have to find. But Democrats should not give up their core principles.”

However, Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the group’s political arm, said he believes that if the Democrats don’t compromise their principles, it is “unlikely there will be common ground” because they oppose “taking health care away from the poor elderly and the disabled to pay for tax cuts. … The plan that just failed would have taken health care from 24 million people and destroyed Medicaid and resulted in massive tax cuts for the wealthy.”

In seeking common ground, Republicans and Democrats need look no further than the “swing suburban voter,” according to Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.

“With politics very divided along neighborhoods, it is the political and geographic middle ground of the suburbs where they have a chance to get together,” he said. “They are not anti-government, they vote for school budgets that tax them even harder when they think they are getting value for their dollar, they care about public education because they often moved to the suburbs for good schools – and the quality of the schools often determines the value of their homes. So talk about defunding public education programs does not play well with suburbanites.”

Longtime Jewish leader Seymour Reich of New York said it is “not clear to me that Trump is willing to reach out [to the Democrats] and make compromises. If he does, he should correct Obamacare and submit a new budget restoring money to the arts and Planned Parenthood and show a willingness to work across the aisle.”

A Democratic strategist who also doubts Trump’s willingness to reach across the aisle, Steve Rabinowitz, based in Washington, D.C., pointed out that it wasn’t until the Republicans’ health care bill failed to garner sufficient support among fellow Republicans in Congress that Trump voiced a desire to be bipartisan.

“We should always want bipartisanship and compromise because that is how good legislation gets done,” he said. “But lately with the Republicans, that has not been the way.”

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