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Wading into what has emerged as a major partisan fight, Jewish organizations in Washington are lining up with Democrats in offering strong support for the $819 billion economic stimulus bill.
Among those pushing hard for passage of the bill are officials at the United Jewish Communities, an arm of the North American network of local Jewish charitable federations, and the Jewish Council for Public affairs, an umbrella organization bringing together national organizations, the synagogue movements and more than 100 local Jewish communities.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is also pressing for the package, while the National Council of Jewish Women is backing a number of provisions in the bill.
The organizations are writing letters to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and urging members to contact their members of Congress. The UJC will bring 60 of its lay leaders here Wednesday, the day a vote is expected on the bill in the Senate, to lobby for its passage. The UJC delegation also will visit the House of Representatives to encourage support for the final version of the measure that comes out of conference committee.
President Obama has said he wants to sign the bill, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, by Presidents' Day, Feb. 16.
Most crucial to the Jewish organizations is the variety of assistance the legislation provides to low-income Americans, including more funding for food stamps and the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, an extension and modernization of unemployment insurance, and a boost in the funding of the Social Services Block Grant.
It also includes an increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Program, which would mean more federal dollars for state Medicaid programs, making health coverage more affordable for low-income families and providing vital funding for Jewish nursing homes and family services organizations. The legislation currently contains $88 billion in such funding, although UJC is lobbying to raise the sum to $100 billion.
Jewish groups in their backing of the bill also cited the funding of green, energy-efficient infrastructure projects and the hoped-for overall impact of the legislation in stimulating the economy.
"We as a country need to get out of this recession," said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of UJC's Washington office. "Hopefully this legislation can help turn the tide," and give Americans the confidence that Washington is seriously dealing with the issue.
"It is the top priority now, without any exception," said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the JCPA.
"Jewish values and Jewish interests are deeply bound up with the policy selections of what will be funded," said Rabbi David Saperstein, the Religious Action Center's director and counsel. "These are issues of core concern."
The stimulus bill passed last week in the House with no Republican support, and prospects for GOP backing in the Senate also appear bleak. Republicans say the bill contains too much in the way of spending and does not go far enough in terms of tax cuts.
In sharp contrast, the UJC and JCPA feel so strongly about passing the stimulus package that both organizations are endorsing the entire bill, as opposed to simply backing specific provisions. Such sweeping support for a wide-ranging spending bill is a first for JCPA, Susskind said.
"We did it because we think it's a good bill," he said. The legislation funds top priorities for JCPA and the organization decided that "we need to step up and say so."
Backing the bill "in its entirety strengthens the overall voice of the Jewish community," Susskind said, "because members of Congress want to hear a yes or no in order to know where their constitutents are. That clarity brings a lot of strength we don't always have."
Daroff said the UJC endorsement of the bill as a whole doesn't mean the organization supports every provision, but "in any piece of legislation that is thousands of pages long, there will be programs not agreeable to everyone."
"For us to have been part of the discussions from start to finish and not to be supportive of the inevitable compromises would be disingenous and bad politics," he said.
Saperstein said that Republican opposition does not seem to be aimed at the bill's social service provisions or greening initiatives, but at "macro issues."
"I find that encouraging," he said.
The GOP vote is "not about" the Federal Medical Assistance Program, Daroff said, but "about the Republican Party trying to find a strategy," having lost control of the White House and Congress.
UJC is urging Republican allies on the Hill to refrain from holding up the 90 percent of the bill that is "good public policy and good for the federation system" for the small percentage of the legislation with which they may have problems, Daroff said. At the same time, he added, the UJC would support setting aside less critical provisions of the bill if they proved too divisive, although Daroff declined to discuss specific examples.
The National Council of Jewish Women objected last week when the White House removed a provision allowing states to expand Medicaid family-planning coverage without a waiver from the federal government. NCJW issued a statement saying it was "deeply disappointing" that Obama had yielded to "anti-birth control forces." The Reform movement's Washington office also urged that the provision be kept in the bill, but refrained from criticizing the president.
Rather than endorse the entire bill, NCJW has come out in favor of specific provisions because the legislation includes items on which the group has no positions.
Sammie Moshenberg, director of its Washington operations, said NCJW was focusing its support on the boost in assistance to the Federal Medical Assistance Program, food stamps and unemployment insurance. Investments in education and health care are also important to her organization, Moshenberg said, because they will ensure that some of the jobs created by the package will go to women.