Jewish groups hoping to find common ground with new chair

WASHINGTON — A veteran representative not known for his expertise on the Middle East will head the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose domestic priorities have run up against a number of Jewish groups, will hold the chairmanship of a committee that is always closely watched by Jewish organizations.

But while Hyde may not be an expert on Israel issues, his voting record on aid to the Jewish state is strong. Plus, he supported funding for the 1998 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord reached at the Wye Plantation.

In 1992, Hyde urged then-President George Bush not to use loan guarantees to pressure Israel against building new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In 1995, he voted to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. However, a waiver in that law allowed President Clinton to postpone the move.

In the past year, he voted to penalize the Palestinian Authority if it unilaterally declared a state and blamed the Palestinians for the recent violence.

Hyde will be a quick study on the issues, predicts Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee's legislative director.

Foltin indicated Hyde was a fair and capable chairman of the Judiciary Committee and listened to diverse points of views.

"He's a mensch," Foltin said.

The AJCommittee expects to find more common ground with Hyde on international issues than it did on domestic issues.

Hyde was not granted a waiver to remain in charge of the Judiciary committee, a place where he was sometimes at odds with Jewish organizations on domestic issues, particularly abortion.

Hyde has met with local Jewish community organizations on issues related to Israel and had a cordial and open relationship with the community, according to Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and a former Jewish Community Relations Council director.

In 1996, Hyde chaired long and arduous hearings on anti-terrorism legislation.

"He navigated very difficult political terrain and did a good job balancing concerns of both parties," said Stacy Burdett, assistant director of government and national affairs office for the Anti-Defamation League.

Hyde is thought to be generally supportive of Israel, but his positions on Middle East issues are unknown, a House staffer said.

Hyde's chairmanship may mean that Middle East issues will not get a high profile on the committee, the staffer added.

There is still a chance that a Middle East subcommittee could be added. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), the former international relations chairman and a strong advocate for Israel, is thought to want to maintain a position of leadership on Middle East issues and could seek that role.

Gilman was forced to give up his chairmanship because the House imposed a six-year term limit on chairmen.

Another victim of term limits was Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), who headed up the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which decides on U.S. aid to Israel. Callahan worried some Jewish groups this past year when he threatened to hold up part of Israel's aid package because of a proposed Israeli sale of an airborne early warning system to China.

In the end, Israel canceled the sale.

Callahan's replacement will be Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). Like Hyde, Kolbe is thought to be generally supportive of Israel, but Middle East issues are not high on his resume.

Kolbe consistently voted for aid to Israel and against amendments to cut Israel aid packages. He, too, voted to punish the Palestinian Authority if it unilaterally declared a state.

"Neither individual has a tremendous amount of expertise in foreign affairs; however, now that they have been assigned these particular committees, we expect they will quickly immerse themselves in the details of the issues we follow," said Kenneth Bricker, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It is very common for a new chairman to have to learn the issues, Bricker added.

The ranking Democrats on the two committees are Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), both strong supporters of Israel.

Another chairmanship watched closely by Jewish organizations is the House Judiciary Committee, where Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) will soon take the helm.

Crossing Sensenbrenner's desk will be many issues that are important to the Jewish community, including hate crimes, separation of church and state, and immigration. Jewish groups, however, do not have that much to say about him.

Sensenbrenner was chairman of the Science Committee and Jewish groups have not had much contact with him.

Conflicts could arise, though. Sensenbrenner's conservative record includes support for charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts, and a constitutional amendment for school prayer.

Money for nursing homes and home health care goes through the House Ways and Means Committee, and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for local Jewish federations, is cautiously optimistic about that committee's new chairman. Rep. William Thomas (R- Calif.) has a background in health care issues and he supported legislation that allows elderly Jews enrolled in managed health care programs to return to their health care home community after hospitalization.

Meanwhile, in the Senate the fight for committee equality turned out to be something of a victory for Democrats, though the Republicans will maintain the majority and operating control of the Senate floor.

With a 50-50 split in the Senate, Democrats will receive equal representation on the Senate's 19 committees, but some guarantees were worked out so that Republicans could still have a voting advantage in case of a tie in committee votes.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) will maintain the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah) will continue to head the Judiciary Committee.