Jewish activists unsure how Senate will shake out

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Critics say Bob Dole ran the Senate with his eye on political opportunism.

Supporters say the presumptive Republican presidential nominee skillfully shepherded the GOP agenda through the Senate in the face of sharp partisan skirmishes.

But virtually all agree that he ran Congress' upper chamber with an iron fist and an unparalleled grasp of the archaic Senate rules, enabling him to sway the body the way he wanted it to go.

Now, it is far from clear what impact his absence will have on pending legislative issues important to the Jewish community.

Although his overall 27-year record on Jewish issues is mixed, as Senate majority leader of the 104th Congress, Dole often moved toward rather than away from positions embraced by the organized Jewish community.

He twisted the arms of skeptical colleagues to support legislation important to the Israeli government, such as foreign aid and aid to the Palestinians.

On the domestic front, the GOP's agenda often put him at odds with many Jewish activists. But he prevented some of those proposals perceived as most Draconian from receiving an airing on the Senate floor.

"Dole is a great friend of Israel who hasn't helped us one scrap on domestic issues," said one activist, who asked not to be named. "But for the most part he hasn't hurt either."

Many Jewish activists, both Republican and Democratic, said they now fear that Dole's departure would lead to a lurch to the right in the Senate.

Before adjourning for the November elections, Congress is poised to consider a host of issues on the Jewish legislative agenda. Such issues include: welfare reform, the 1997 budget, health care reform, sanctions on Iran and perhaps a Religious Equality Amendment, which would formally change the Constitution to allow, among other things, prayer in public schools.

During his reign as Senate majority leader in the current Congress, Dole tamed many GOP skeptics of the Mideast peace process, endearing him to those activists supportive of the process.

For example, Dole convinced Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to drop his objections to U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority widely seen as a critical component of the peace process.

And when pro-life lawmakers held the foreign aid bill hostage until members would agree to new limits on funding for overseas population control programs that included abortion counseling, Dole stepped in to move the bill forward.

In a "Dear Mark" letter, to Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Dole made a personal, passionate plea that ultimately led to the bill's passage.

Israel, accustomed to receiving its $3 billion in U.S. aid at the beginning of October, lost tens of thousands of dollars in interest as the Jewish state waited until January to receive the money.

Dole's recent push for foreign aid contrasted with an earlier time in his Senate career, less than a decade ago, when he called for a cut in aid to Israel.

But now Dole will probably be best remembered in the Jewish community for spearheading the effort to pass legislation requiring the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Chastised as a "panderer" by some in the Jewish community and as a "hero" by others, Dole's effort culminated in the first congressional recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital that had the force of law.

On the domestic side, Jewish groups praised Dole for opposing a measure aimed at imposing sharp restrictions on lobbying by nonprofit organizations. The legislation would have severely restricted the ability of some Jewish organizations to advance their causes.

Using his power as majority leader, Dole prevented the measure, named after its sponsor, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), from coming up for a vote on the Senate floor until supporters had watered it down.

In the end, the measure that passed had virtually no effect on Jewish groups.

Many Jewish activists who worked closely with Dole during his recent term as majority leader have adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude for how the shakeup at the top of the Republican Senate leadership plays out.

Mississippi's Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran will face off for the right to succeed Dole when he leaves the post shortly after the Memorial Day recess.

Both Lott and Cochran are known for their pro-Israel positions and have received tens of thousands of dollars in pro-Israel PAC contributions during their careers.

But for the domestic agenda, the prospect of a Mississippi senator in the GOP's top seat has some worried.

"Mississippi ain't exactly Jewish country," said one Jewish activist who asked not to be identified.