Clinton invites only backers to terror-bill signing

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jewish organizational officials had fantasized for more than four years about a White House signing ceremony for anti-terrorism legislation.

But when the day came April 24, several of these officials were not invited to the historic session, where more than 250 people watched President Clinton sign the bill into law at an elaborate, yet somber South Lawn ceremony.

"It was only for supporters," a White House official said of the ceremony.

Thus, only representatives from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council attended.

The question of who was and was not there highlighted a division in the Jewish community that erupted at the 11th hour.

Less than 24 hours before Congress passed the measure the week of April 15, three Jewish groups, which had been among the measure's loudest cheerleaders, pulled their support for the bill.

The law bans terrorists from entry into the United States, allows for expedited deportations of suspected terrorists and moves toward banning fund-raising by overseas terrorist groups.

But the measure also imposes sharp limits on appeals by death-row inmates, known as habeas corpus reform.

Although those limits were known to be in the final form of compromise legislation that had emerged from a House-Senate conference committee, the Reform movement's Religious Action Center waited until the day before the Senate was set to vote to issue a statement opposing the measure.

The American Jewish Congress followed suit the next morning as the Senate prepared to vote on the bill.

The American Jewish Committee waited until the Senate began a series of votes on the measure to announce its opposition.

The groups' late decisions to oppose the measure caught some at the White House off guard.

Staffers had prepared invitations for representatives from AJCongress and AJCommittee.

Only after being informed that the groups opposed passage of the legislation were the groups removed from the list of invitees.

The White House ceremony marked the end of a roller-coaster ride for Jewish officials, several of whom had worked since the end of the Bush administration to see these measures become law.

But the last-minute opposition by some Jewish groups has bruised relations with some of the measure's supporters in Congress.

"For 10 months anti-terrorism legislation included habeas corpus reform," a Capitol Hill aide said.

"We worked hard on this bill with their support and they jumped ship at the last minute. What happened?" the aide said.

Similar sentiment was expressed by some Jewish officials who supported the measure.

"Where were they?" said one such organizational official who had worked for passage of the legislation.

"They had one year to oppose the bill. At the last minute, they pulled the rug out from under members who were looking for support for their vote."

For the Religious Action Center, the answer was simple.

"We were always deeply troubled by these provisions," said Rabbi David Saperstein, RAC director.

He said his group's social action commission had gathered for a previously scheduled session in Washington the day before the congressional vote and decided to change its position on the issue.

Officials at AJCongress and AJCommittee say they changed their position after it became clear that there was no way to eliminate habeas corpus reform from the package.

"We would have been forced to oppose the bill no matter what the outcome would have been," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

But, he added, "in my personal view, I felt easier about it because it was going to pass anyway."

In the end, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body, hailed the legislation.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the group's executive vice chairman, said the conference had focused exclusively on the anti-terrorism provisions of the legislation.

"Habeas corpus is not an issue the Conference of Presidents dealt with," he said.

"All along, we addressed the issue of anti-terrorism. We specifically welcomed the provisions of the bill that deal with terrorism."

The Jewish community's other major umbrella group, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, took no position on the bill because of the opposition of AJCongress, AJCommittee and the Reform movement.

With the long quest for the legislation over, the work now begins on implementation.

"There will be regulations" that federal agencies have to write, said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the ADL.

"I think that none of us view this legislation as the final and ultimate answer to dealing with the problem of terrorism.

"We'll continue to look at other effective tools," he said.