WASHINGTON — Congressional partisanship claimed the legislative lives of two popular minority rights initiatives last week, dealing a major blow to Jewish groups that had long championed them, according to several Jewish communal officials.
One item would have repealed the long-standing “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military. The other was the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM, an immigration reform initiative that would carve a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who chose to serve in the military.
But on Sept. 28, a unified bloc of Republican senators and one Democrat obstructed a defense spending package, the Defense Reauthorization Act, from reaching the chamber floor for debate in a procedural rebuke that effectively slayed the two amendments.
Following the failure of the defense bill to garner the 60 votes necessary to place it on the Senate floor, Jewish leaders condemned lawmakers for pettiness and playing politics with the lives of scores of military men and women who have been counting on Congress to act on such issues.
“What we’re seeing is a time when the whole process has become very politicized and polarized, and when we have legislation” that’s widely supported by the general public, it’s becoming impossible “to move these things through Congress,” said Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee, which was part of a coalition of Jewish groups that long backed both the DREAM Act and the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.
“The challenge for us is in difficult [political] times to move these things forward,” said Foltin, whose group was aligned with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, among others, in working to pass the amendments.
Similarly, Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, another coalition member, decried the legislative setback as “a major disappointment to a community dedicated to civil rights.”
With midterm elections in November and the threat of a Tea Party revolution brewing, rancor between Republicans and Democrats appears to have reached a crescendo that is playing out on the once-deliberative floors of Congress, Ratzan said. The resulting political theater, she added, is putting the kibosh on bills that likely would have passed both chambers in less tumultuous times.
“It just reflects the halt we’re at right now in moving forward [with] change,” she said. “We seem to be at a particularly heightened time of partisanship and failure to be able to move forward policy. … It does seem more extreme than other times.”
The result of the political posturing, Jewish observers said, is that pivotal pieces of civil rights legislation — such as the DREAM Act and don’t ask, don’t tell — are failing to become a reality.
“We’re losing sight of good policy by getting stuck in the moment of politics,” Ratzan said.
Added Mark Pelavin, the Religious Action Center’s associate director, “It says something very frightening about the state of the Senate that we can’t even have a conversation about” nullifying don’t ask, don’t tell.
“It’s more than just campaign season politics,” said Pelavin, who penned a letter to senators before last week’s vote urging them to repeal the military ban on gays and lesbians. “I’m afraid we’ve reached a place where a minority is willing and able to block progress.”
Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for policy and programs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said that as the vote neared on the Defense Reauthorization Act, “it was obviously … doomed to fail from the get-go. We’re devastated by it, but not surprised.”
While HIAS does not take a position on the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, it has been a strong backer of the DREAM Act, which would grant permanent-resident status to undocumented minors who serve in the military or complete a college degree, as long as the person arrived in the United States before he or she was 16 years old and has lived in the country for at least five years.
Hetfield characterized the initiative as “the most obvious of the all immigration reforms,” as it concerns those “who came here not by their own choice but their parents’ choice.”
He added that during the Bush administration, several Republican senators — such as Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — publicly endorsed DREAM, but in the most recent vote walked back their support in favor of party politics.
But while the most recent failure likely shuts the book on both don’t ask, don’t tell and the DREAM Act for at least the rest of the year, JCPA’s deputy Washington director, Jared Feldman, believes the Senate vote wasn’t “a total failure on the part of the Jewish community.”
Feldman and others noted that a multitude of political factors was at play.
While the vote surely set supporters back, he said, “I don’t think this is the end.”