WASHINGTON (JTA) – The likely prospect of Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress has triggered broad speculation about the remainder of President Obama’s time in the White House, Republican bids for the presidency in 2012 — and the very course of the nation, if not the West.
The issues that preoccupy Jewish voters and groups have a narrower cast. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, along with the more remote possibility of a Republican Senate, could mean sharp turns in foreign policy and domestic spending. Here’s a glance.
The biggest Israel headlines of Barack Obama’s presidency have had to do with the renewed direct talks with the Palestinians and with the Obama-Netanyahu administrations tensions that proceeded them.
Such tensions have informed tight congressional races, where an array of Republican candidates have pledged to stand closer by Israel and painted their opponents as pawns of a president who is cool, if not outright hostile, to Israel.
In reality, the peace talks are not likely to be affected by a switch of congressional leadership. Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policy has been expressed through rhetoric and not any action. In fact, Obama’s main substantive shift has been to increase funding for Israel’s defense and enhance defense cooperation as an incentive to make concessions to the Palestinians — intensifications of the relationship a Republican Congress would likely embrace.
If there is a change, it might have more to do with politics than policy. An adversarial Congress may force the White House to tamp down public criticism of Israel ahead of 2012 presidential elections.
The single substantive policy a GOP House might influence is the massive increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority launched in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, from occasional spurts of $20 million in the early part of the decade to today’s $500 million annual expenditure, including half in direct funding.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the GOP whip, has suggested that continued funding could be contingent on PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Theoretically, putting a stop on such funding could threaten U.S.-backed programs, especially training for Palestinian security services.
In fact, such foreign policy funding confrontations in the past have rarely led to defunding. Instead the executive branch — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has dipped into approved funds to keep programs going while it works out new arrangements with Congress.
Congress also is less likely to defund programs favored by Israel. The Israeli defense establishment, while not as gung-ho as the Obama administration in praising PA nation building, nonetheless appreciates the increase in stability in recent years brought about in part by U.S.-led financial backing for the moderate West Bank government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Still, even the congressional threat of a U.S. cutoff of funds can inhibit growth and investment.
The more substantive possibility for change on Israel is in Cantor’s pledge to remove defense funding for the nation from the overall foreign aid package and place it elsewhere — perhaps in the defense budget.
In the short run, all this means is that Israel will continue to receive $3 billion in aid annually while the Republicans attempt to gut backing for nations they do not consider reliable allies.
Pro-Israel officials, speaking on background, have said they would work hard to beat back such a proposal because of possible long-term consequences. They see aid for Israel as inextricably bound with the broader interest of countering isolationism.
These officials are concerned, too, that elevating Israel above other nations might be counterproductive in an American electorate still made up of diverse ethnic groups. They also believe that such a designation would make Israel more beholden to U.S. policy and erode its independence.
Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s outreach to Iran and said he was too slow to apply sanctions.
Over the summer, however, Obama dialed back the outreach to the Islamic Republic and signed a sanctions bill. His Treasury Department already has intensified sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial sector. U.S. and Israeli officials say Iran is feeling the bite.
The principal U.S.-Israel difference remains timing, or what to do when: When does Iran get the bomb — and what happens then?
Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.
Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.
Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.
Social issues: abortion, church and state
The two Supreme Court justices more likely than not to uphold liberal social outlooks who were itching for a Democrat in the White House so they could retire — David Souter and John Paul Stevens — have done so. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan replaced them following smooth confirmation processes.
No other such resignations are imminent. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also tilts liberal in her decisions, is 77 and has battled cancer; Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, is 74; and so is Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote who tilts right more often than not.
In case one of them retires, don’t expect the smooth transitions that characterized Obama’s first two appointments. Republicans may not control the Senate, but they will likely have a stronger filibuster in January.
Republicans now control 41 seats — one more than is needed to keep a nomination from advancing to a full vote. After Nov. 2, more among their numbers are likely to be diehard conservatives and less likely to cross the floor to break a filibuster.
They will want Obama to tailor a judge more to conservative likings under those circumstances, especially if he is replacing Scalia or Kennedy.
The House’s GOP caucus imposed a yearlong moratorium on its own earmarks last March. An extension is likely, Cantor said, and a GOP majority will be able to enforce a moratorium on Democrats.
That prospect concerns federations and Jewish groups that care for the elderly and infirm. Earmarks, less lovingly known as “pork,” are the funds lawmakers attach to bills in order to help their districts. Such funds have helped spur forward the Jewish Federations of North America crown project, naturally occurring retirement homes, among other programs for the elderly.
Medicare, Medicaid and health care
No matter who wins next week, both parties have pledged cuts to entitlements like Medicare, the program that funds medical assistance for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides medical care for the poor. Jewish groups draw on both programs to help fund assistance for the elderly and provide the Jewish poor with kosher meals.
Targeting entitlements misses the point, say Jewish professionals whose expertise is elderly care. They say the real savings come from addressing burgeoning health care costs overall and not just entitlements.
“Let’s go after health care spending and health care costs and see how we can make the system more effective,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, the largest Jewish sponsor of senior housing in the United States.
The Republican leader in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said he will lead an effort to repeal the Obama health care reforms passed this year by the Democratic Congress. It’s not clear that Boehner has broad party support, and he likely would not be able to override Obama’s veto of such a bill.
Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.