The Rocky Wake Of Resignation: Congress After Livingston
Rep. Bob Livingston’s stunning announcement on Saturday that he will not become the next speaker of the House, after all — indeed, that he will leave Congress sometime in the next few months — rocked a capital that was already reeling from the bitter debate over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and another round of military action against Iraq.
Livingston’s announcement came a day after a Capitol Hill newspaper revealed that the incoming speaker, who had already signaled his intention to vote to impeach Clinton for his sexual indiscretions, confessed to affairs with several women.
The unprecedented chaos in the House will add to the challenge facing Jewish and pro-Israel activists after the resignation of the current speaker, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an ardent supporter of Israel and one of the last of the GOP internationalists.
Jewish politicos were just getting used to the idea of Livingston — a veteran lawmaker with a spotty record on Israel, but also with a low-key style that many saw as a balm that might heal some of the partisan wounds caused by the impeachment battle.
Jewish groups have even fewer contacts with his likely replacement, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The six-term veteran has traveled to Israel several times with pro-Israel groups, but he has not had a conspicuous presence in the foreign policy debate.
Hastert is regarded as a consensus builder who works well with colleagues from both sides of the aisle. But he is also one of the most conservative members of the House, with near-perfect ratings from conservative groups and disastrous ratings from liberal and civil liberties organizations. He is also the choice of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), one of the most strident and partisan advocates of impeachment.
His biggest advantage, congressional sources say, is that he is one of Capitol Hill’s straightest arrows. But he has not been an out-front leader. It’s hard to find any legislation bearing his name or deals bearing his imprint.
“He has a good record on Israel, but he is pretty much unknown,” said Charles Brooks, executive director of the National PAC, a pro-Israel political funding group. “He hasn’t been on relevant committees, and he hasn’t been a foreign policy leader, but we see him as someone whose interest may increase as his responsibilities expand.”
A bigger concern could be the race to replace Livingston. The first Republican to announce his intention to run in the special election was David Duke, a familiar nemesis for Jewish political activists.
Duke, a former state legislator and Ku Klux Klan leader, was the GOP nominee in the race against former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Several other runs for statewide office garnered worldwide attention but not enough votes to win.
But in today’s overheated political environment, Jewish Republicans caution that it would be a mistake to write Duke off entirely.
How Jewish Members Voted on Clinton Impeachment
Saturday’s House vote to impeach President Bill Clinton — a sad constitutional duty, according to Republican leaders, a coup d’etat under a thin veneer of constitutional law, according to many Democrats, was an almost entirely partisan affair, and the Jewish delegation proved no exception to that rule.
The only two Jewish Republicans in the House — Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) —- voted with the GOP majority. The remaining 21 Jews, all Democrats, voted against impeachment.
This week, Gilman joined three non-Jewish colleagues who also voted for impeachment in asking senators to seek a formula for censure that would avoid a protracted trial.
One Jewish House member — Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) — had to register his vote in the Saturday tally using a proxy ballot. Later, when a number of House Democrats drove to the White House to express their support for the embattled president, Deutsch joined them — but he walked to avoid breaking Shabbat restrictions.
The experience was “demoralizing and depressing,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the most articulate critics of impeachment on the Judiciary Committee.
“It’s very disturbing to me how reckless these people are and how contemptuous they are of the Constitution, of the basic rules of evidence and of fairness,” he said in an interview. “It’s like talking to walls when you talk to the Republicans.”
He said that the GOP, at least in the House, is in the grips of extremists.
“It’s very clear a small, extremist minority are running the party at this point,” he said. “The moderates who were saying there was no case at all caved in to them.”
Asked what might stop a process that many see as spinning out of control, Nadler expressed the views of many Democratic colleagues. “I just don’t know. Perhaps if the Senate acquits the president after a trial, it might be cathartic — assuming there is a trial. But it’s going to be difficult.”
Nadler said that the Jewish community should be particularly alarmed by this week’s events.
“As a minority, we have to be particularly conscious of adherence to due process of law,” he said. “Insofar as Congress trampled due process in the rush to impeachment, it poses a threat to everybody — and particularly to minorities.”
Will Impeachment Boost The Christian Right?
A leading scholar who studies the Christian right agreed that last week’s House vote to impeach President Bill Clinton, the first impeachment resolution passed in 130 years, represented a big victory for the extremist groups that were his earliest and most vociferous detractors — at least in the short term.
“They’ve clearly pulled the Republican party in the direction they want,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “They gained credibility, although that will depend on how the president’s problems play out.”
It is not just the Christian right, he emphasized; instead, he sees “a coalescence of the hard right and the religious right” as a result of the successful impeachment drive.
The new alignment includes adamantly pro-gun, anti-tax and conspiracy-oriented groups, as well as religious organizations such as the Christian Coalition, which lobbied hard for impeachment.
“The real fire for impeachment comes from these hard-right activists, who have an intense dislike of Bill Clinton that goes far beyond reason,” he said. “In the short term, they gained credibility and influence.”
The fringe players intimidated moderate Republicans, he said; many of the moderates, fearful of challenges from the right, voted for impeachment “as a way of defusing the hard right.”
But there are dangers ahead for the GOP rightwingers, he warned. “There’s a disconnect between the party leaders, who understand the costs and benefits of this strategy, and the activists who just dislike Bill Clinton and want to remove him from office, no matter what the cost.”
Palestinian Aid Backlash?
Opponents of U.S. aid to the Palestinians heaved a big “I told you so” after last week’s anti-American rioting in Gaza and the West Bank.
Pro-Israel hardliners had expected a tough fight in their effort to beat back the administration’s plan to give an extra $400 million to support economic development in the new Palestinian “entity” — especially since the money was linked to an additional $1.2 billion for Israel to help with the costs of the Wye River redeployments.
But video footage of Palestinians burning American flags just days after waving them to welcome President Bill Clinton to Gaza is getting heavy play on Capitol Hill.
State Department officials went out of their way to downplay the Palestinian protests and to point out that Arafat himself did not directly criticize the U.S. actions.
But other top Palestinian authorities did. And the riots by enraged Palestinians produced indelible images that will be effective ammunition for aid opponents when Congress takes up the administration’s request in the spring.
“The administration already faced an uphill fight to get the Palestinian aid through Congress,” said the top aide to a Jewish congressman. “A lot of people who were on the fence are now going to have a very hard time voting for this money.”
Not clear yet is what will happen to the Israeli portion of the aid if Congress decides to punish the Palestinians — or if the implementation of the Wye River agreement remains frozen.
Russian Skid Worries Jewish Leaders
The sharp deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations as a result of last week’s Anglo-American air attacks against Iraq — President Boris Yeltsin recalled his ambassador to Washington to protest the military strikes — could complicate efforts by Jewish groups here to protect Russian Jews from a tide of anti-Semitism.
And by most measures the tide is rising rapidly, thanks to the resurgence of the communists, the continued deterioration of the Yeltsin government and the Russian economic collapse.
“We’re watching the disintegration of a once-great power, and we’re watching an incredible backlash,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “This is what happens when you have an economy still spiraling out of control, and almost no political leadership.”
That combination of factors, he said, has multiplied the power of the Russian communists who blame the entire mess on the Jews.
NCSJ and other Jewish groups are pushing President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to step up their intervention on behalf of Russian minorities.
But the U.S.-Russian diplomatic crisis precipitated by the military action in Iraq and the increasingly urgent effort to stop the transfer of dangerous Russian military technologies to the Middle East will make it harder to keep the administration focused on the anti-Semitism problem, Levin said. And the unexpectedly harsh Russian reaction to the U.S. air strikes may undercut this country’s diplomatic leverage on the issue.
Soviet Jewry groups are particularly upset by statements by Viktor Ilyukhin, head of the parliament’s security affairs committee and a communist, who accused Yeltsin and his Jewish associates of waging “genocide” against real Russians. The comments came in hearings of a parliamentary committee considering Yeltsin’s impeachment.