WASHINGTON — A historic Republican sweep of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday has propelled Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, to the verge of becoming the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. political history.
“We are excited for Eric Cantor to become the next House Majority leader,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The highest ranking Jew to ever serve in the House!”
Cantor, however, remains the exception: The fortunes of Jewish politicians in the United States for decades have risen and fallen with the Democrats, and Tuesday night was no exception.
The Republican sweep, picking up at least 60 House seats — the greatest swing since 1948 — and sharply reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate, drove at least six Jewish lawmakers out of office, with one of them a congressman losing his bid for the Senate.
The night’s Jewish losers included Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the Senate’s most dogged civil libertarian, beloved by liberals for his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War and expansions of government powers of interrogation in the wake of the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks.
Feingold, in his concession, quoted another Great Plains Jew, Bob Dylan, who contemplated in “Mississippi” a difficult life well spent: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” Feingold then punctuated the lyric with, “On to the next fight!” to cheers from his supporters.
All told, Jewish representation in Congress dropped from 44 to 39, with 27 Jews in the House and 12 in the Senate. One loss in the Senate was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who had been defeated in the primaries. Additionally, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who by Wednesday morning appeared to be on the cusp of a narrow re-election victory, does not list a religion but notes that his mother is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor.
The defeat of five Jewish incumbents, however, just hints at what this election could mean for Jewish access in Washington.
Since a sweep by Democrats in 2006, lawmakers with strong ties to the Jewish community had chaired some of the most powerful committees in the House. Committee chairmen, by determining agendas, hold almost unchallengeable power to advance or kill legislation.
With Republicans having taken the house, those lawmakers, all Democrats, lose their chairmanships. They include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who heads the Banking Committee; Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Commerce and Energy committee; Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
Furthermore, Jewish groups — most but not all of which are bound up with Washington’s liberal-Democratic establishment — will see several veteran lawmakers with whom they have built years-long relationships exiting Congress. The most pronounced example is Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), who chaired the Budget Committee, which works with the White House to set spending priorities. Spratt’s office had an open door for Jewish social service lobbyists.
The benefit of such access often is subtle but valuable. Berman, for example, was a loyal Democrat who kept Iran sanctions at bay for as long as the White House hoped to coax Tehran into dialogue. As soon as the White House gave the green light, however, Berman was ready with a far-reaching bill that targeted Iran’s energy and banking sectors, and that was shaped in part with counsel from the pro-Israel community.
Such access will hardly disappear in a GOP Congress. Berman is likely to be replaced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has cultivated close ties with the pro-Israel community and was a leader in advancing pro-Israel legislation when Republicans previously controlled the House. Jewish social service officials say Cantor has been a sympathetic ear on their issues. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader poised to become speaker, has deep ties with his state’s active Jewish community.
The certainty of such access, however, is less clear in a Congress shaped to a great degree by the Tea Party movement and its agenda of across-the-board budget cutting. Cantor already has said he intends to end earmarks, the discretionary funding derided as “pork” but favored by Jewish groups as a conduit for funding programs for the elderly.
Cantor and Boehner also have vowed to repeal the health care reform enacted this year.
“I believe that when we take majority in January, I hope that we’re able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that’s what the American people want,” Cantor told CBS News after the victory.
Republicans are not likely to overcome a presidential veto, but the threat is bound to make uneasy a Jewish social service establishment that sees in the legislation, however cumbersome, reforms critical to bringing down health care costs.
Cantor and Boehner are now set to ride a conservative tiger energized by the greatest midterm victory in decades, and spurred by leaders such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who already on election night was urging the new lawmakers to challenge the Republican “establishment.”
“These Republicans know one thing,” DeMint told supporters at his victory party in Greenville, S.C. “If they don’t do what they say this time, not only are they out, but the Republican Party is dead, and it should be.”
In the face of such sentiment, it is unclear to what degree the GOP leadership will be willing to countenance Jewish organizational urgings to tread softly on budget matters.
A bright spot for the Jewish community was the election in Illinois of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to the open U.S. Senate seat. Kirk not only has been a leader on pro-Israel issues, he is an increasing rarity, and one beloved by Jewish donors who hanker for bipartisanship: a Republican moderate on social issues.
Pro-Israel officials already have fretted about Cantor’s proposal to pull Israel’s $3 billion in defense assistance from the foreign operations package. Such a separation, the officials fear, will make Israel vulnerable to charges of special treatment and could make the generous package a matter of debate. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican elected Kentucky’s senator, already has said he will seek cuts in defense spending.
It has yet to be seen how a GOP-led Congress will affect the peace process or efforts to get Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Foreign policy traditionally has been the prerogative of the president, but Congress is able to play an obstructionist role by exacting tough oversight on foreign spending.
Cantor in a pre-election interview told JTA that $500 million in spending for the Palestinian Authority would be subject to new scrutiny, and could depend on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
In the House, four Jewish Democrats were defeated: Reps. Alan Grayson and Ron Klein of Florida, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin and John Adler of New Jersey. Grayson, who won in 2008 against an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, represents a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.
Since his election he had emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the Republicans, accusing the party of wanting the uninsured to die. Outside groups poured money into negative campaign ads taking aim at Grayson.
Klein, swept in with the Democratic majority in 2006, lost a swing seat to Allen West, an Iraq War veteran. Klein was a leader on pro-Israel issues, particularly related to Iran sanctions.
Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) lost his bid to win his state’s open U.S. Senate seat; so did another Jewish Democrat, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.
Jews did pick up a few seats. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general and a Democrat, won the Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Democrat David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., won the House race to succeed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who also is retiring. Cicilline brings to three the number of openly gay Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill, joining Frank and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) appeared set to keep her Tucson area seat. Giffords, married to Mark Kelly, the first astronaut to join his twin, Scott, on a space station, beat back a challenge in part by distancing herself from Obama’s more liberal immigration policies.
Another Republican who won a seat in upstate New York, Nan Hayworth, has told friends she is a “Jew by choice.” She is married to a Jew, although it is not clear if she converted.
Pro-Israel money helped incumbent friends of Israel pull off narrow victories. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, rallied against tough challenges, and by Wednesday morning it appeared that Bennet and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were on their way to winning as well.