Capitol Hill observer offers mixed report on Congress

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Jason Isaacson rolls his eyes when he hears the phrase "religious equality."

That's as in the "religious equality amendment," which would reinstitute spoken prayer in America's public schools. Introduced but not yet formally proposed by Republicans, such an amendment exemplifies what some Jews feared would happen after the nation shifted to the right in last fall's congressional elections.

But Isaacson, who is the American Jewish Committee's government and international affairs director, said other Jewish concerns about a Republican-controlled Congress haven't materialized.

"It must be said this Congress has been very supportive of Israel," he said in an interview during a recent visit to San Francisco.

And Isaacson should know. Based in Washington, D.C., he is paid to keep track of and try to influence any bills or trends that might affect Jews or Israel. He regularly keeps in touch with officials in the Congress, White House, State Department and Justice Department. He also deals with foreign diplomats.

One example of Republican backing for Israel that Isaacson cites is the overwhelming support for Israeli foreign aid despite an increasing trend toward isolationism in Congress.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed its annual Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, by a vote of 333-89. While the bill cut overall spending by 11 percent from last year, it kept intact Israel's $3 billion and Egypt's $2.1 billion aid packages. The bill has moved on to the Senate, and Isaacson expects the full Congress will keep Israel's aid intact.

Despite this apparent endorsement of Israel, Isaacson is still concerned that the cut to the overall foreign aid bill is a sign that the isolationist trend could ultimately threaten Israel's assistance.

He recalls a comment recently overheard on Capitol Hill that next year's appropriations bill should be called the "Aid to Foreign Jews Act."

In the current bill, aid for Israel and Egypt alone comprises about 40 percent of the total $12 billion package.

If Israel was someday the only country still receiving U.S. aid, he said, the spending would become much more difficult to justify.

"The best defense is a defense of American leadership in foreign affairs," he said.

He is less enthusiastic about another recent bill. Introduced in May by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the proposal calls for a 1996 groundbreaking for a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. It already has 56 co-sponsors.

Like many other mainstream Jewish groups, the AJCommittee has mixed reactions to the Dole bill. Though the organization has always supported moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, its leaders fear that turning the issue into a "political football" could harm peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

AJCommittee would prefer a negotiated agreement between the Clinton administration and the bill's supporters, Isaacson said. Yet he also understands why Dole's bill is so popular among members of Congress.

"They're really just trying to express their frustration. They want to see some action," he said.

Isaacson added that according to Dole's office, the bill is not on a fast track and might not come up for debate until fall. By then, Isaacson hopes an executive order, an amended bill or new legislation will prevent partisan politics from leading to rifts among Israel's supporters.

"I don't think anyone will benefit from a fight," Isaacson said.

Regardless of how the 104th Congress is treating Israel, Isaacson has serious concerns about the conservative Republican attitude toward church-state separation.

In 1962, the Supreme Court declared spoken prayer in public schools unconstitutional — a move that the vast majority of American Jews applauded. Isaacson calls the recent push for a constitutional amendment "the gravest threat we've faced to our view of church-state" since before that 1962 decision.

He is pleased that earlier this month President Clinton began a campaign to try to head off support for a constitutional amendment permitting spoken school prayer. Declaring that some schools have gone too far in banning religious activity, Clinton ordered the Department of Education to issue guidelines clarifying students' religious rights.

Students, for example, are allowed to privately pray, read the Bible and say grace before eating. And student religious clubs can and should be treated like any other student groups, Clinton announced.

Despite Clinton's rallying against a religious quality amendment, Isaacson believes Christian voices protesting such a proposal must grow louder in order to finally defeat it.

"It can't just be a Jewish campaign against the forces that would Christianize America," he said.