Jewish leaders vie for key committee positions in Congress

washington | After a lengthy pause for the presidential election, Congress is preparing for an ambitious legislative session that is expected to touch on many of the Jewish community’s domestic and foreign policy priorities.

Jewish policy analysts are busy looking at who will head key congressional committees and what effect the staffing may have on some of the community’s legislative priorities.

Many eyes are on Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is slated to head the Senate’s Judiciary Committee this year.

The appointment was seen as a boon by Jewish community professionals, who have had a strong working relationship with the Jewish lawmaker and support his pro-choice, moderate views on many issues.

But Specter ran afoul of some conservatives late last year by suggesting that Bush’s choices for federal court vacancies would not have enough support in the Senate. Efforts to dislodge Specter as committee chairman were unsuccessful, but he pledged he would support Bush’s nominations, and therefore may not have the leverage to speak for moderate Republicans, some Jewish advisers said.

The first test for the committee will be the confirmation hearings of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, which began last week.

Jewish officials already are pushing Specter to remain true to his moderate views. Eight Philadelphia rabbis who met with Specter this week called on him to question Gonzales about the legality of torturing terrorist suspects in order to gain information in the war against terrorism.

The battle will intensify further if any Supreme Court justice steps down, as is anticipated, and a replacement comes before the committee.

Jewish professionals also will be looking at Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Enzi replaces Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who will head the Budget Committee.

Gregg was a supporter of faith-based initiatives — which endeared him to the Orthodox community — and he supported hate-crimes legislation that was touted by several liberal Jewish organizations. He also backed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which was supported by a wide range of Jewish groups.

Enzi, however, does not have the same relationship with Jewish lobbyists. He did not support the hate-crimes legislation and has not traditionally been engaged in church-state issues in the Senate.

The addition of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the committee is expected to add some conservative heft.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, many eyes will be on Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the incumbent chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. That post is expected to put Sensenbrenner in the middle of several strong debates in Congress this session, including disputes over gay marriage and the separation of church and state.

Jewish groups also oppose Sensenbrenner’s views on immigration reform, where he wants local law enforcement officials to have a greater role in policing borders.

Several other changes are being eyed by Jewish leaders:

• Social Security reform is expected to be at the top of the Republican domestic agenda, but the Democrats lost one of the strongest advocates for reform Saturday when Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) died. Two Jewish lawmakers — Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) — are considered possible replacements for Matsui as the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security subcommittee.

• Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has left the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but is expected to be named the next chairman of the Helsinki Commission. The committee, which includes both House and Senate members, fights anti-Semitism in Russia and the Ukraine.

• Israel advocates are looking at several new pro-Israel lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, including freshmen Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who advocated strong U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Illinois state Senate, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

• Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will take over the Senate Appropriations Committee. He formerly chaired the Homeland Security Subcommittee and signed off on federal funds to secure Jewish sites and other high-risk nonprofit institutions. It’s not clear who will chair the House Appropriations Committee.