Israel lobby cheers as McConnell’s star rises

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), right, and Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, pose for a photo at a NORPAC event, sponsored by regional officers Jerry and Anne Gontownik and Stanley and Trudy Stern. Photo courtesy of NORPAC

After the Democratic Party’s stunning loss in the midterm election, Republicans will firmly control both houses in Congress and, come January, minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is most likely to become Senate majority leader. Jewish groups, which regularly deal with Congress on policies important to American Jews, will be closely watching the changes to see what it means for them. The answers to their questions depends on what the group’s focus is.

Speaking as part of a panel at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in National Harbor, NBC News political director and host of Meet the Press Chuck Todd predicted that the remaining two years of President Barack Obama’s administration would be focused on foreign policy – as he will have little chance of passing anything of whatremains of his domestic agenda.

Jewish organizations focused on domestic issues such as the Reform Action Center and Jewish Women International – which in the United States usually fall on the left side of the political spectrum – are likely to meet the same opposition from Congress’ new stewards as President Obama probably will. Federal legislation relating to restricting access to firearms, insuring contraception for women and raising the minimum wage would probably be nonstarters.

Meanwhile, Jewish groups focused on foreign policy and Israel – such as AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, and JINSA, just to name a few – will likely have a field day passing pro-Israel, anti-Iran bills through both legislatures in the absence of the ability of the Obama administration to mobilize Senate Democrats to vote against any congressional intervention in his foreign policy decisions.

One such bill, which has been waiting for its turn for a vote on the Senate floor since late last year, is the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (S.1881), known as the Menendez-Kirk bill. The bipartisan bill calls for tougher sanctions to be reinstated against Iran if no deal is reached in the ongoing P5+1 nuclear negotiations, which is quickly approaching its Nov. 24 deadline. If the president asks for another extension and negotiations continue into the next congressional session, the bill is likely to end up on his desk despite his objections and threats of veto.

Obama made his intention to veto the bill clear in his State of the Union. Together with further pressure with from administration officials and the State Department, the president rallied his party’s leaders in Congress to block it from even going to a vote. Since the Menendez-Kirk bill was popular even among Democratic lawmakers and the general public, Reid made sure the bill did not get to the floor to save Senate Democrats from having to decide whether to side with the president against the bill, and anger voters, or vote for the bill and anger the president.

Noah Silverman, congressional affairs director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, believes that under McConnell, the bill is likely to come up for debate and a vote on the Senate floor if the negotiations’ deadline isn’t reached.

“The idea is not that an outcome is guaranteed – although if you go by the number of co-sponsors and the number of new senators who support it – the outcome does seem pretty guaranteed,” Silverman said. “But again, when a piece of legislation has that much support, it’s only through extraordinary measures that it can be kept off the Senate floor and Reid did exercise extraordinary measures.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC – one of the United States’ largest pro-Israel campaign political action committees – agrees with Silverman, saying that actual votes for the bill if it comes to the floor will likely exceed the 59 co-sponsors it already has.

“You’re probably going to get 80 to 95 votes for it because it’s a good piece of legislation and people are not going to want to go on the record, generally speaking, as being against sanctions if the negotiations fail,” said Chouake. “Would it pass with a veto-proof majority? I don’t know but the reality is that most presidents don’t want to be embarrassed by a veto override and they’d typically only veto legislation if they are completely appalled by it or if they think that they can win.”

Members of the administration also lobbed tough words at the bill’s Democratic sponsors like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and author Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), calling them “warmongers.” With the new Senate, the president will probably be unable to use such strong-arm tactics.

“You pick your fights with Congress, and he’s not going to want this ongoing battle,” Chouake said. “Because once one of your vetoes is overridden, then [your veto] becomes much less effective and then the second veto override is easier. Then it becomes a regular thing.”

On other issues relating to Israel, both Silverman and Chouake say that McConnell has a spotless record when it comes to pro-Israel support in his 30 years in the Senate. Most recently, at the end of July and beginning of August, McConnell was essential in pushing through additional emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Chouake, whose organization has held three fundraisers for the minority leader just in this past election cycle – raising well over $100,000 for his campaign – called McConnell one of NORPAC’s favorite sons and a “true believer” in the pro-Israel cause.

“He is deeply committed to U.S.-Israel relations. Deeply committed,” said Chouake. “And not only is he personally committed, but when new members of his party [are elected to the Senate], he sits them down and tells them this is the way it’s going to be. Most of them, almost all of them are there already. But the ones that aren’t, he tells them, ‘This is the policy of the party and this is what we expect of you.’ This is an important thing for him personally.”

Since 2007, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has wielded his position’s power almost dictatorially. Reid expertly used procedural tactics to keep votes that would be risky for Democrats during an election year off the floor, blocked the GOP from proposing and voting for amendments on legislation and, near the end of last year, modified Senate rules to allow for a simple majority to override filibusters of presidential nominees. Now, some are wondering whether McConnell would do the same.

Throughout the year, in speeches and op-eds, McConnell made numerous promises of what Americans can look forward to in a McConnell-led Senate. Most recently, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) co-wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal laying out the reforms they look to put in place next year in an effort to break congressional gridlock.

“…[W]e won’t repeat the mistakes made when a different majority ran Congress in the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency, attempting to reshape large chunks of the nation’s economy with massive bills that few Americans have read and fewer understand,” they wrote. “Instead, we will restore an era in which committees in both the House and Senate conduct meaningful oversight of federal agencies and develop and debate legislation; and where members of the minority party in both chambers are given the opportunity to participate in the process of governing.”
To do this would require McConnell to restrain himself and the Senate Republicans, who are eager for revenge on Senate Democrats.

“The senators have to discuss how to proceed. I think that Sen. McConnell is an institutionalist and wants to restore a more deliberative process and a Senate that follows its own rules,” said Silverman. “The challenge will be figuring out how to not effectively reward the Democrats and create a double standard where the Democrats circumvent the rules and curtail debate when they control the Senate and Republicans don’t do those things.

“It’s a unilateral disarmament kind of outcome. So that’s a dilemma that senators have to work through.”

Chouake also looks forward to the possibility of more compromise coming from Congress now that the president will not be able to control the Democratic leaders and believes McConnell will go through with his promises.

“If he said it, I expect he’ll try; he’s a very honorable guy,” said Chouake. “I think if you believe in the Senate, and I think he does, and you think that’s the way it should be run, that’s what he’ll do it.
“I think Harry Reid made a mistake when he changed the rules because when you do that you really poison the well and you change precedent.”
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