(photo credit: AP)
Democratic victories in the House of Representatives will shift control of that chamber next year, but major shifts in US policy on Middle East hot spots are less certain.
Supporters of Israel are expected to lean heavily on the party's incoming House Democratic leadership to vocally counterbalance any negative comments about Israel that might come from some within their caucus. Concerns have been raised in recent weeks about some senior liberal House Democrats, including some likely incoming committee chairmen, who are seen as problematic on support for Israel.
More Jews in Congress than ever before
House Democrats are already fighting back, saying their caucus has always been supportive of Israel and the pro-Israel community needs to acknowledge that.
"There has been an outrageous smear campaign against Democrats and Democratic leaders that went largely unanswered in the pro-Israel community," said Matt Dorf, a Democratic strategist who advises the Democratic National Committee on Jewish outreach. "Democrats take the second seat to no one in their support for Israel."
Democrats picked up at least an additional 28 seats in the House of Representatives which will allow the party to take control of the chamber for the first time since 1994. The leadership of the Senate remained unclear Wednesday, with Democrats and Republicans each holding 49 seats - including two independents expected to caucus with the Democrats. At press time, the race in Virginia was too close to call and likely heading towards a recount.
Democrats said Tuesday night that the election was a mandate for change.
"And nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than in the war in Iraq," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will likely become the first female Speaker of the House. "'Stay the course' has not made our country safer, has not honored our commitment to our troops and has not made the region more stable." One Democratic congressional aide said Wednesday that he expected the victory to have a real effect on the country's policy in Iraq.
"There will be a push in the House and the Senate for a real plan from the president about what our strategy and commitment will be," said the aide.
He said Congress's actions on issues related to Israel are likely to be less dramatic than under a Republican majority, where leaders were quick to put through resolutions in support of the Jewish state.
"I think you'll find more of a focus on policy and less on politics," the aide said. "I don't think you'll see the leadership leaning on Bush from day one to bring the parties to the table. But there will be more inclination to push Bush in that direction."
Sources said the pro-Israel community is expected to look to Pelosi and other caucus leaders, most of whom are strong backers of Israel, to set the party's policy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and keep in line any House Democrats that may seek a more even-handed policy.
"You've got to start at the top," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of United Jewish Communities. "Nancy Pelosi has a longstanding, friendly relationship with the Jewish community."
Republicans are also disputing the notion they have been painting Democrats as bad on Israel.
"We raised some legitimate concerns about the impact of certain Democratic leaders and officials and illuminated troubling concern about erosion of support for Israel," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "We never painted a broad brush and said there wasn't bipartisan support."
The number of Jews in Congress increased in both houses Tuesday. The Senate gained two new Jewish members, bringing the total to 13. Both of the new faces are current congressmen: Representative Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland and Representative Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who ran as an independent in Connecticut after losing the state's Democratic primary, also won handily.
In the House, at least six new Jews are expected to take office next year, bringing that contingent to 30. One race, pitting Gary Trauner, a Jewish Democrat, against incumbent Representative Barbara Cubin (R) for Wyoming's only House seat, remained too close to call Wednesday.
American Jewish leaders said Wednesday that they were excited to work with the new Democrat leaders, particularly on domestic issues. The Democratic Party is seen as more supportive of the views of the majority of the Jewish community on domestic policy, including the separation of church and state and stem cell research.
"It makes it possible to move forward on several initiatives that we couldn't move forward on under Republican leadership," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Jewish groups have been pushing in recent years for comprehensive immigration reform and an increase in the minimum wage, both of which will likely receive a better reception under a Democratic House. And Democratic control of at least one part of the legislative process means a lot of the issues a majority of Jewish groups have been fighting to block, from same-sex marriage bans to school vouchers, are not likely to come to fruition.
While control of the Senate remains unclear, the Jewish community lobbyists said their issues have always had a better bipartisan reception there and even if the House stays Republican, they expect domestic policy initiatives that pass that chamber to have a chance of seeing the light of day.
Matthew E. Berger is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.