The tectonic plates of power underneath the nation’s capital are shifting radically in the wake of Vermont’s Senator Jim Jeffords’ announcement to leave the Republican Party, thus handing the Democrats majority status in the United States Senate. Everyone in Washington — from the White House to industry associations to public interest groups and labor unions — is assessing the fate of the issues they care about in light of the new lay of the land, and the Jewish community is no exception. The good news, regarding the issues that Jews care about, is that the shift from a de facto divided government to one that is institutionalized is just fine.
The Republicans control the White House and retain a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats will control the Senate’s committees and floor agenda. But even with institutional control, the Democrats have only a one-vote majority. This reality should cause both sides of the aisle to pursue a centrist agenda that can garner bipartisan support; an agenda that veers to the liberal left or the hard right will fail. In such an environment, a carefully considered Jewish agenda is safe.
Thankfully, both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill support a strong and secure Israel. The man who will now head the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, and the man who will head the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, both are longtime friends of Israel. They, along with their Republican colleagues, will ensure that strong U.S. support for Israel, so critical at this time, will continue.
On the domestic front, we have seen bipartisan tax and education bills negotiated in the Senate. While some have objected to aspects of both of these measures, they do support centrist Jewish values in important ways. The tax measure bolsters families by boosting the per-child credit (and benefits lower-income families by making it refundable) and reducing the “marriage penalty.” The tax bill also supports parental choices in education by expanding the uses of tax-free education savings accounts and making a portion of college tuition deductible. The education bill bolsters public education programs and, importantly, allows private and parochial schools to participate in some supplementary assistance programs.
Another community priority is religious liberty. A coalition of Jewish groups has been working for several years on securing greater protections for the religious needs of employees in the workplace through the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. While we have had success in securing bipartisan sponsorship from some liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans, big business’s clout with many Republicans has stalled this act’s progress. As Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts takes the reins of the relevant committee, ironically from Mr. Jeffords, this important measure may find new life.
On another religion-related matter, charitable choice [now known as the president’s “faith-based initiative”] has received bipartisan support. While many Jewish communal organizations oppose this initiative, they do not oppose either its basic assumption — that religious entities have a critical role to play in serving the needy — or its goal of bringing more help and care to the needy. It will take time, but centrist leaders who have supported this effort, such as Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, will work to craft an approach to this initiative that will allow it to pass Congress and let the helping begin.
Bipartisan measures also have been introduced in recent weeks to strengthen gun safety laws and to close the gun-show loophole (supported by, among others, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Charles Schumer of New York). Soon there will be one addressing the media industries’ marketing of unsuitable movies and video games to children. Each of these measures, being aimed squarely down the middle of the American political playing field, is consistent with Jewish community values and interests.
The events of recent days have reminded everyone involved in public policy never to take anything for granted, especially the possession of power. November’s narrow election should have impressed upon lawmakers the need to work together for the common good over partisan interest and to accept consensus and compromise over rancor and polarization. Mr. Jeffords’ reshuffling of the deck has reasserted this message. In the new political environment, the only thing certain is that it will soon shift again. Those who wish to work for the common good must work together or achieve nothing.