Jewish groups dont get all they want from Congress

WASHINGTON — Jewish groups got few of the key things they were lobbying for during the first session of the 106th Congress, but activists say much of the groundwork has been laid for next year.

"The legislative highway is littered with more failed legislation than successes," Matthew Dorf, director of governmental and public affairs at the American Jewish Congress, said last week following the end of the session.

Among issues pushed by activists this session: hate crimes, religious liberty and gun control.

Jewish groups did win a major battle on one of their top priorities: securing $1.8 billion in aid to fund the Wye agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led a lobbying blitz to ensure that the funds were included in the $385 billion budget approved by the House and Senate late last month.

But on their other top priorities, Jewish groups were not as successful.

Tougher hate crimes legislation was dropped during the final days of negotiations over the budget bill.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would have given federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. It would have also made it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

President Clinton vetoed an earlier piece of legislation because Republican leaders took the hate crimes provisions out of the bill. Activists then lobbied to have the provisions included in the final catch-all spending bill.

However, Republican leaders opposed the measure because they say it would designate special classes of citizens, particularly gays and lesbians, who are already protected under existing state laws against violence. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League's Washington counsel, said his group will push for the measure again when Congress comes back in January.

Legislation to allow people to practice their religion free from government intrusion, which initially was backed by every major Jewish organization, also became stuck.

While the proposal, known as the Religious Liberty Protection Act easily passed the House, it was never considered by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had announced last month that he put the legislation on a "short list" of bills for the Senate to consider during the closing weeks of the session, but it was never brought to the floor for a vote.

Some Democratic lawmakers and some Jewish groups, which pulled their support for the bill in its current form, expressed concerns that the legislation could be used to justify violations of state and local anti-discrimination laws.

Activists who are backing the legislation said language is being worked on to allay those concerns and hope the Senate will consider the bill next year.

Here are pieces of legislation that passed:

*MIAs. President Clinton signed into law a bill directing the State Department to investigate the cases of three Israeli soldiers missing since 1982. The legislation signed late last month directs State Department officials to raise the issue of the missing soldiers, including Zachary Baumel, an American citizen, with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

*Holocaust assets. The U.S. commission investigating the fate of Holocaust-era assets that came under the control of the United States was given more time and money to complete its work.

Congress passed legislation late last month giving the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States another year to finish its work. An additional $1.7 million for the commission was included in the omnibus budget bill.

Here are pieces of legislation that were introduced and will most likely be worked on again next session:

*Workplace Religious Freedom Act. This bill, which has been introduced in the last four Congresses, would require a private employer to "reasonably accommodate" the religious needs of an employee unless doing so would impose "undue hardship" on the employer. The bill was introduced in the Senate.

*Iran Non-Proliferation Act. This bill unanimously passed the House but has yet to be acted in the Senate. The legislation, which is being pushed by AIPAC, is aimed at Russian entities providing assistance to Iran's weapons programs and gives the president authority to sanction those found helping Iran.

*Jerusalem. Language intended to have the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which Jewish groups have sought for a number of years, was dropped from legislation included in the final budget bill passed by the House.

The provision would have instructed the American consulate in Jerusalem to report directly to the U.S. ambassador rather than the State Department and required the State Department to change its documents, including passports, to refer to Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The administration had threatened a veto if that provision was included, saying it would upset the Middle East peace process.

*Gun control measures that were pushed after the spate of shootings that targeted Jews and other minorities this summer did not pass.