Washington Watch: GOP Senate and the Jewish agenda

The best hope is that both will want to go into the next election showing they can be productive, so they may try an unaccustomed tactic: cooperation and compromise.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Barack Obama meet in the White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Barack Obama meet in the White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The domestic legislative agenda of the mainstream American Jewish community could run into big trouble if, as many polls suggest they will, Republicans gain control of both the Senate and the House in the November 4 elections.
The Democratic-run Senate has been a graveyard for many of the bills sent over by the Republican-led House under the heavy influence of Tea Party followers and hardline conservatives who reject compromise as betraying their ideology.
There were over 40 attempts to repeal Obamacare, plus several draconian budgets that would have shredded the social safety net for poor and elderly Americans, as well as a plethora of ultra-conservative measures on “social values” issues. Many were passed simply to score debating points, in the knowledge they were going nowhere except into campaign commercials.
A Republican Senate will be inclined to pass many of those bills and send them to the president for a certain veto, which they can use in 2016 to accuse the Democrats of being obstructionists. Republicans have been telling voters that they were obstructionists because they didn’t control the whole Congress, but that given the chance they’ll show they can govern.
Democrats may in turn adopt the Republican tactic of filibustering anything they dislike. Each party will try to show the other can’t govern – a bipartisan formula for legislative failure. It is understandable that some Republicans will see their new power as payback time for what they feel has been the heavy-handed leadership of Sen.Harry Reid (D-Nevada).
The best hope is that both will want to go into the next election showing they can be productive, so they may try an unaccustomed tactic: cooperation and compromise.
But with the parties and the electorate so polarized, especially at their base, this will prove difficult, if not impossible.
The Republicans’ biggest problem may not be Obama and the Democrats, but the internecine rivalry between their own Tea Party and Establishment wings.
The Republican leadership will have to worry whether Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who sees himself as the leader of the Tea Party wing, will try to impose his own agenda. He is running for president and not for popularity in the Senate GOP caucus, and he relishes being a bomb thrower.
He pushed the House to force last year’s government shutdown, which he considered a success, and may try for a reprise.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), if he wins reelection and Republicans control the Senate, has also threatened to shut down the government if Obama doesn’t bend to his demands in a budget showdown.
Being in the majority means chairing committees.
That’s where the power, the staff, the budget and the subpoenas are. Look for a Republican Senate to resemble the House in a surfeit of grandstanding investigations.
The Judiciary chair will likely pass from the liberal Pat Leahy to the conservative Charles Grassley, and arch-conservatives like Cruz, Mike Lee (Utah) and Jeff Sessions (Alabama) will get subcommittees. Don’t expect them to renew and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, a priority for Jewish organizations.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will likely go to Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), who not only opposes increasing the minimum wage but favors eliminating it altogether.
The possible next chair of Environment and Public Works could be James Inhofe (Oklahoma), who called global warming a hoax. He has said he wants to block all new EPA regulations and get rid of a lot of old ones.
With Republicans controlling the tax-writing Ways and Means committee in the House, their legislation will no longer go to the Senate graveyard. Look for a Republican Congress to pass more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and pay for them by cutting benefits for those at the other end of the economic spectrum, who, not coincidentally, tend to vote Democrat.
Republicans killed immigration reform, long a priority for many Jewish groups, in this Congress, and don’t expect resurrection in the next. They have insisted that the way to deal with the issue is to focus on border security and that legalization of those already here will have to wait until they’re satisfied our borders are hermetically sealed. In other words: never.
That is a conundrum for the GOP. It may work in many conservative House districts but, as the Republican National Committee conceded after the 2012 election, that won’t help the party repair relations nationally with Hispanics and other minorities that comprise a growing force in electoral politics.
Republicans won’t be able to repeal Obamacare because the president will veto it, but they will try to make some changes. If they try to repair the law they can expect some Democratic support but only if they can resist the temptation to fricassee the whole thing.
Another topic where Republicans can expect Democratic votes is approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The White House is under great pressure from environmentalists to kill it, but has avoided taking a position.
Deregulation is high on the list of Republican priorities.
Using the power of the purse they will try to neuter if not kill the Consumer Financial Protection bureau and roll back regulations governing the environment, automobile emissions, banking, natural resources and exploiting federal lands. What they can’t repeal they will try to starve by cutting funding.
There will also be a move to shift control of programs – education, welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, transportation – to the states in the name of shrinking the federal government. The ideologues may be delighted but not the governors who’ll be getting the responsibility but not the cash they’ll need.
There may be another push like the one by George W. Bush in 2004 to privatize Social Security, but it failed then and it will fail again.
Look for Republicans to try to attach anti-abortion amendments anywhere they can.
Republican homophobia has been weakening in the wake of the popularity of same-sex marriage and court decisions upholding it, but here’s another issue that plays to that hard conservative base, so expect some efforts to remove jurisdiction from the federal courts and let the states, where the Right has more sway, decide for themselves.
If Democrats lose their majority, they will try during next months’ lame-duck session to push through the large backlog of appointments to diplomatic, judicial and federal posts blocked by Republicans. The GOP wants to force Obama to pick nominees more to its liking and keep empty as many judicial seats as possible for a Republican president in 2017 to fill them.
A leadership shift will bring broad changes but don’t expect a new era of cooperation and compromise to replace the usual partisan jockeying for position for the next election. And a shift to GOP control will effectively kill the legislative priorities of most centrist Jewish groups and open the doors wide to legislation they will oppose.
If you’re unhappy with the outcome but don’t vote on November 4, you’ll be surrendering your right to criticize and complain because you are the real culprit, not the politicians.