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Jewish groups, Senate Dems talk Iran and budget

WASHINGTON (JTA) – There was common ground on Iran and preserving the social safety net at a meeting between Democratic senators and Jewish community leaders, although subtle tensions on both issues emerged.

In the back-and-forth on Capitol Hill, the senators pushed back against the notion that the Obama administration is not wholly committed to keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. And in a refrain familiar to such exchanges, senators urged Jewish groups to lobby not just for spending but also for tax hikes.

Most of the Jewish organizational speakers at the May 23 event began by praising the Senate for passing the latest round of Iran sanctions, which would tighten existing bans on dealing with that country’s energy sector.

At least 25 senators — just under half the 53-member Democratic caucus — attended the meeting convened by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee and led by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who chairs the outreach committee.

Such meetings take place every year to year-and-a-half. Senate Republicans once convened similar meetings, but they have fallen off in recent years.

Seventeen Jewish groups were represented at the off-the-record event. JTA spoke with seven particpants, three of whom took notes.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader and the first senator to speak, said a nonbinding resolution defining an Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon as a “red line” would soon be passed. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed similar legislation.

For years the U.S. government “red line,” signifying an actionable threat, has been Iran’s acquisition of a weapon. The moves in Congress aim to bring the United States closer to Israel’s red line, which is capability.

Richard Stone, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while the Obama administration insisted that it opposed merely “containing” a nuclear Iran, it was not clear on how it intends to prevent such an outcome. Stone had been present May 21 at a meeting convened by the White House with Jewish leaders in a bid to reassure them that the administration was committed to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has acted as a surrogate for the Obama administration on foreign policy issues, said he was closely involved in discussions of the Iran matter, and that the Obama administration was ready to act if necessary.

The concern, he said, was that Israel would act alone.

“There is tension in Iran at the top levels of leadership with a group of people who want Iran to be attacked, who hope it will be attacked by Israel to enhance Iran’s standing,” Kerry said, according to notes provided by a participant. “If we must act, we should act together.”

Michael Kassen, the new president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, expressed concerns that sequestration — the term for Congress’ mandated fund cutting in the absence of agreement on how to handle the deficit — would adversely affect defense assistance to Israel. Reid is resisting Republican calls to allow a vote that would bypass sequestration for defense spending, with the majority leader making such a vote conditional upon Republicans first working with Democrats to raise revenue sources through taxes.

A number of other speakers also raised concerns related to potential cuts to federal programs.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella, spoke of poverty and hunger relief. Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, noted the threats of cuts to social services. And Jerry Silverman, the president of Jewish Federations of North America, also voiced support for sustaining social services, focusing particularly on a program that would enhance assistance for aging Holocaust survivors.

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) urged the Jewish groups to make the case for raising revenue when they lobby for spending.

“Sequestration will have a devastating effect across the board both on social service, and foreign and defense spending,” Levin said, according to notes from one of the meeting’s participants.

“We need help from the other side of the aisle,” Shaheen added.

This is not the first time in these meetings that Democrats have asked the community to press harder on raising revenue. A number of Jewish groups, including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and B’nai B’rith International, advocate for tax increases, while others are less inclined to make the case, seeing it as so partisan that it would alienate Republicans.

The meeting also had some lighthearted moments.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) thanked those who attended, and in a sly reference to the heavy Jewish representation in the Democratic caucus — 13 of 53 members — he added, “I’d especially like to thank my gentile colleagues for being here.”