A strange thing happened on the way to House passage of the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) last week:
Most Jewish members — once among RLPA’s strongest supporters — voted no, although every major Jewish group, along with representatives of numerous other religious faiths, supported the measure.
The list of opponents included Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), one of the original authors of the measure, which seeks to make it harder for state and local governments to infringe on religious practices, even inadvertently.
The proposal replaces the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, overturned by the Supreme Court two years ago.
But several leading civil rights and gay rights groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — pulled out of the RLPA coalition after analysts said
a series of recent court decisions might allow the new law to “trump” civil rights protections.
As an example, they predicted that landlords might be able to discriminate against homosexuals by citing religious beliefs as a reason for refusing to rent to them.
A Nadler amendment protecting anti-discrimination laws from assault under the measure failed in a largely party line vote.
Lawmakers were caught in a squeeze between Jewish organizations that overwhelmingly supported RLPA — and long-term allies in the civil rights community, including the ACLU.
“There are clearly abuses that could occur under the law,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who voted for the Nadler amendment — but when that failed, voted for the bill anyway.
“But there are abuses of religious freedom today. Jerry Nadler had a legitimate concern, but it was not strong enough to stop passage of a bill that is vital for protecting religious freedom.”
But most Jewish lawmakers spurned RLPA, swayed by the ACLU and the gay rights groups.
“This could be a first — the Jewish members going against a measure strongly supported by almost every Jewish group,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America.
Cohen joined Jewish activists from across the spectrum in praising House passage of the religious liberties measure.
But they also predicted tough going in the Senate, where another key sponsor — Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — has indicated he will not support the measure without the kind of changes demanded by the ACLU.
Good Deal On F-15s?
Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s trip to Washington was full of important sidebars — including the long-expected announcement that Israel will purchase 50 F-16s for a cool $2.5 billion.
That ended a long-running battle between Lockheed Martin, manufacturers of the F-16, and Boeing, which produces the costlier, more capable F-15.
The fight featured dark warnings that a decision by Israel not to buy the Boeing jet could contribute to layoffs at the St. Louis factory and cause new problems for the U.S. Air Force, which wants to keep F-15 production going.
But wait: this week there were rumblings that Israel might be able to get both.
Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader who just happens to represent the St. Louis area, is working with other lawmakers and pro-Israel lobbyists to give Israel a too-good-to-pass-up deal on some F-15s on top of the cheaper F-16s selected by Barak.
Foreign Aid Frolics
Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton’s diplomatic love-in this week resulted in an administration promise to push the $1.2 billion supplemental appropriation promised as part of last year’s Wye River agreement.
The money is intended to help Israel carry out the new West Bank withdrawals without jeopardizing its security. Barak indicated he will begin implementation soon. Clinton may have a harder time fulfilling his part of the bargain. Congressional Republicans want the money offset from other parts of the budget — and not from U.S. military spending, as the White House once proposed.
Also on the aid front, some congressional Republicans had some sour words over what they see as a too-powerful Israel lobby on the eve of Barak’s visit.
Last week the House Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee approved $12.8 billion in foreign aid that includes Israel’s regular assistance package.
But that came only after members beat back a proposal by Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chair of the important subcommittee, to end the policy of “early disbursement.”
Other countries get their aid money paid out over the course of the fiscal year. Israel gets its aid up front, allowing it to earn interest on the big chunk of change.
Callahan has never liked it, but this year he was especially incensed because the administration had requested a similar concession for Egypt. He termed that “stupid foreign policy,” and blamed it on the “Israel lobby.”
Rep. C.W. Young (R-Fla.), the Appropriations Committee chair, said that “the perception is growing as to who controls this Congress.”
Other members swung into action to prevent a new blowup over aid. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), himself no fan of the early disbursement program, argued that with Prime Minister Ehud Barak coming to town and a new window of opportunity for peace opening a crack, it is not the time to meddle with the U.S.-Israel status quo.
On Tuesday, as Barak made his rounds on Capitol Hill, the full appropriations committee approved the measure.
Hadassah, Protesters Coming To Town
More than 2,500 members of Hadassah, which bills itself as the nation’s biggest Zionist organization, are due in town next week for the group’s 85th national convention.
The gathering will feature the usual Washington glitz — and an unusual measure of controversy for the mainstream group, thanks to a small band of protesters incensed by Hadassah’s decision to give its top award to first lady Hillary Clinton.
The convention will feature a lobbying blitz on Hadassah’s core issues — including genetic testing, hate crimes, domestic violence and aid to Israel — and briefings from administration policymakers.
The meetings will open with a session honoring the five Jewish women members of Congress — a reflection, a Hadassah spokesperson said, of the theme of empowerment for Jewish women that will underline the meetings.
But the real highlight will be a Tuesday session at which Clinton, now an all-but-official candidate for New York senator, will receive Hadassah’s Henrietta Szold award, named after the group’s founder.
Hadassah sources say the decision to give Clinton the award is popular with members despite agitation by several outside groups, including the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel.
At a Tuesday session, Ms. Clinton will be honored by two young people helped by Hadassah programs — including Ziv Hazanovsky, who put himself between a suicide bomber and a busload of school children in 1998 in Gaza. It was a Hadassah hospital that put Hazanovsky back together again after an explosion that doctors said should have killed him.
Clinton will also appear that night at a National Jewish Democratic Council fund raiser honoring Steven Grossman — the former chair of the Democratic National Council, an early supporter of the Jewish Democratic group and a past president of the pro-Israel lobby.
The Democrats narrowed their deficit in the House by one member this week with the defection of Rep. Mike Forbes, a Long Island lawmaker who had a falling out with the GOP leadership. Forbes, a major water carrier for hard-line pro-Israel groups since his arrival with the Republican class of 1994, blasted his old party for abandoning the political center.
His Long Island district tends to vote Republican, but Forbes has proven popular. He won his last race with some 64 percent of the vote.
Forbes participated in the unsuccessful putsch against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He allied himself with Gingrich’s anointed successor, former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) — who had to step down after acknowledging having an affair.
With Livingston headed for the speaker’s chair, Forbes was a GOP-comer; with Livingston out and Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in, he was a party has-been.
In announcing his decision to cross the aisle, Forbes said that “the national Republican Party in Congress no longer speaks for Suffolk County Republicans.”
His staff didn’t agree. Virtually all his aides in Washington and at the district office in New York quit, complaining that he was abandoning the principles that voters sent him to Washington to advocate.
How will the change affect the pro-Israel agenda in Congress?
“Not much,” said Charles Brooks, executive director of the National PAC, a pro-Israel funding group. “He was frustrated because he wasn’t given a leadership role. But he will continue to play a pro-Israel role. That’s the one issue on which people know exactly where he stands.”