Jan. 4, 2007 0:48 | Updated Jan. 4, 2007 3:15
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
A record number of Jewish members will enter Congress Thursday, but more remarkable are the unparalleled positions of power they will hold on committees related to Israel, many local Jewish activists say.
Six new Jewish legislators will be joining 37 familiar faces as the 110th Congress convenes, making the total the highest-ever, according to Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC.
"It's unprecedented that there have been so many [Jews] in so many positions of leadership in both houses," Bloomfield said, using a Jewish simile for how that fact will affect support for Israel: Like chicken soup, it won't hurt.
Other political analysts went further, saying that congressional backing of Israel would remain at least as strong it has been, if not stronger.
Among the familiar House faces on key committees will be Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) as chairman of the International Relations Committee (HIRC) and Gary Ackerman (D-NY) is set to be chair of the HIRC Middle East subcommittee. Nita Lowey (D-NY) should be chairing the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. Ackerman's and Lowey's appointments are expected to be officially announced within the next few days.
In the Senate, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will head the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, while Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is expected to take over the Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee if unsuccessful presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass.) doesn't challenge her for the job.
Also, much of the Democratic leadership is considered strong on Israel, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois), head of the House Democratic Caucus.
And many Republican backers of Israel, who no longer head committees, still continue to serve in minority leadership roles.
Plus, Jews - who voted overwhelmingly Democrat in the November election (87 percent, according to exit polls) - often see more eye-to-eye with Democratic members on domestic issues and have strong personal relationships with them, according to Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Pelosi has outlined a list of legislative priorities for the first 100 hours of the congressional session, including raising the minimum wage; funding stem cell research; implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations; and energy reform.
The Orthodox Union's public policy director Nathan Diament, often more at home with Republicans on church-state issues but supportive of some of the Democrats' initial legislative efforts, such as stem cell research, also expressed satisfaction with the incoming leadership.
"It's certainly as strong as it's ever been [on Israel]," he said.
Forman said the incoming Democratic, pro-Israel leadership constellation was an opportunity for the party to rebut Republican charges during the elections that the Democrats were soft on Israel.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, however, maintained that Republicans still had the stronger record on Israel and that it remained to be seen how Democrats handle their new position.
Brooks also criticized one of the pieces of legislation expected to clear the House this week - a government reform bill aimed at preventing lobbyists from taking congressmen on trips abroad.
As a result, his and other Jewish organizations will have to leave their lobbyists at home on trips to Israel. Some groups will set up educational divisions as a way of enabling the visits. Brooks said it would hurt the value of these trips if some of the most informed members of organizations would be unable to come.