Sequester cuts White House Jewish heritage reception

The White House will not hold a Jewish History Month event this year because of the sequester.

A White House official confirmed to JTA that the reception, which usually takes place toward the end of May, would not take place this year because of the congressionally mandated across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in last month.

Congress passed legislation creating Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006, and President Obama hosted the first reception commemorating the month in 2010.

Jewish invitees usually include luminaries in the arts, sports and sciences, lawmakers, armed services personnel and the Israeli ambassador, as well as organizational leaders and political supporters of the president.

Citing the sequester, Obama also has cut White House tours and his own salary by 5 percent.

Sequester cuts to Israel expected to be $155 million

The sequester is expected to cost Israel $155 million in defense assistance.

A senior staffer on the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee told JTA that defense assistance to Israel would likely be cut by 5 percent, or between $150 million and $160 million of the $3.1 billion Israel was to have been allocated this year, under the sequester, the across-the-board cuts mandated by 2011 legislation.

A pro-Israel official confirmed the number as $155 million.

An Israeli official said the country's government expected assistance to be affected by the cuts.

The congressional staffer said that missile defense programs, funded separately from the defense assistance, also likely will be affected. They include the Iron Dome anti-missile system that Israel said deflected more than 80 percent of rockets fired at the country during its operation in the Gaza Strip last December.

Pro-Israel groups plan to push back against the Israel cuts specifically and foreign assistance funding overall.

Maintaining assistance at current levels has been a centerpiece of lobbying this week by thousands of activists who attended the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

Among the legislative items on their agenda was a bill in the House of Representatives and the Senate that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” a one-of-a-kind label, and keep funding at current levels.

Israeli officials have said they are worried about the cuts, but have added that they don't expect to be exempt from them.

At AIPAC confab, sequester looms large

Imminent threats threading through the rhetoric at AIPAC conferences is hardly new, but this year’s alarm raising had a unique wrinkle: In addition to the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the other danger AIPAC targeted was domestic — sequestration.

The message hammered home throughout the March 3-5 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference was that looming spending cuts mandated by the 2011 sequester could endanger Israel and America’s leadership throughout the world.

The showcase for the message was legislation introduced Monday night by two Floridians — Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat — that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” a one-of-a-kind definition.

One of two initiatives that AIPAC's 13,000activists are taking with them to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the legislation enshrines much that is already in existence, including $3.1 billion in annual defense assistance to Israel and missile cooperation programs. But that redundancy is precisely the point.

At a time when the president and Congress are considering how best to distribute across-the-board 8.5 percent spending cuts, AIPAC wants Congress to keep funding to Israel as is.

Citing “the growing instability in the region and the mounting threats on Israel's borders,” Ester Kurz, AIPAC’s top congressional lobbyist, told the activists just before they headed for the Hill that, “despite growing budget pressure, it is critical that Congress fully funds this aid.”

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, cast it as a matter of life and death, in his traditional Tuesday morning pep talk.

“You see, when in a few moments we depart this convention center and make our way to Capitol Hill, it is vital that we carry with us these stories,” he said, referring to a battery of presentations on how Israeli innovation is improving lives worldwide and how American funding for missile defense has allowed Israel to flourish. “We must understand that we are not lobbying today for legislation. We are lobbying for life. “

The other legislation backed by AIPAC would sharpen Iran sanctions and call on the president to back Israel should it feel “compelled” to attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

AIPAC's effort to exempt Israel from the chopping block comes after weeks in which Republicans and Democrats, caught up in marathon budget negotiations, have made Israel and the Iran threat a talking point. John Kerry, in one of his first acts as secretary of state, warned Senate appropriators that aid to Israel could be affected by the sequester.

On Feb. 27, freshman Jewish Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), attending what was supposed to be a bipartisan tribute to the Iron Dome missile defense system, made an urgent appeal to the Jewish leaders assembled in the stately Russell Building conference room.

“With the sequester looming and deep defense cuts coming, Congress must act,” he said. “My colleagues must come together once again and protect funding for critical programs such as this.”

It’s a message that has resonated in Israel, where Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that potential cuts had him “very worried.”

Republicans have cited the Iran threat in charging the Obama administration with reckless defense cuts in the name of the sequester; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called last month’s recall of an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf “catastrophic.”

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military defense chief, said at the conference that he was “quite concerned” that removal of the carrier reduced the credible threat of a military strike should Iran advance toward a nuclear weapon.

In an interview, a top congressional Republican aide said that such politicking was par for the course, and would not affect AIPAC’s profile on the Hill. Lobbies advocate for their cause and are not expected to take into account Democratic arguments for increased taxes and Republican arguments for spending cuts.

“Both sides can list off the bad things that come from sequestration,” the aide said. “Throwing Israel into it is a red herring.”

Hagel to meet Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak in D.C.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is scheduled to be the first foreign defense minister to meet with newly confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The two men will meet at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official.

The meeting will take place following Barak's speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, which begins Sunday and ends on Tuesday.

The two defense chiefs, who have known each other for more than a decade, will discuss the Iranian threat during their meeting, according to Reuters. It is also expected that they will talk about cuts in U.S. assistance to Israel due to sequestration. It is not known yet exactly how much those cuts will amount to, but the figure could be as high as $300 million and affect the Iron Dome anti-missile system. 

Barak will soon leave his position, since he did not run for reelection and other parties who will join the new government will want the position for themselves.

A gridlock bypass in Congress?

A remarkable thing happened in Washington, D.C., last week. National leaders of business and labor hammered out an outline on immigration reform. This might not only give a major boost to a new immigration policy; it might also show a path around the gridlock that has driven the nation into budgetary face-offs month after month.

The key to the deal is agreement on a guest-worker program, which labor has long opposed. The idea is to create a new program of immigrant worker visas, based on estimates of labor need as determined by a federal bureau. Business accepted the concepts of a variable labor pool, and, even more important, that the workers would not be tied to a single employer. Labor was adamant that workers not be subject to deportation for not getting along with their bosses.

While the details are important, the politics, both symbolic and real, may be even more significant. Each in their own ways, both business and labor have been struggling to get back into their party’s strategic calculations, and they may have found a way to do so together.

Since President Barack Obama’s re-election, House Republicans have thrown the country into one budget crisis after another in order to derail the president’s agenda. The business community has been unhappy with threats against paying for the nation’s debt, fiscal cliffs and now the sequester. But business had been largely unsuccessful in its struggle to move the House Republicans and a number of Republican senators, most of whom represent safe conservative districts or states whose Republican primary voters favor confrontation with the president. Not surprisingly, a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22) criticizing the business role in the deal: “The chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible.” The Times article also noted, however, that Senate bipartisan negotiators were delighted with the deal, and even the No. 2 House leader, Republican Eric Cantor, was upbeat.

Labor has had its own frustrations with the Democrats. Unlike in California, organized labor is weaker in Washington, D.C., and in their dealings with the White House, labor leaders have sometimes felt like outside agitators fighting against what they see as too much conciliation toward Republicans. By helping in a big way toward a major administration goal, and by engaging with a business sector that might yet be able to have some clout with Republicans, labor has proved its value. 

Further, Democrats will need a big labor push in 2014 to avoid the off-year low turnout calamity that brought the Tea Party to Congress in 2010. The same could be said about business with its constituency. Many in business fear that the isolation of the Republican Party will eventually hurt them both economically and politically, and they have been pushing the party to be more moderate and less reflexively anti-government.

This business-labor agreement points to a larger shift in the thinking of the Obama White House about how to get a second-term agenda accomplished. For a long time, Obama has had faith that he can persuade conservative Republicans to accept his agenda because it “makes sense.” It was always hard to see why that would be a compelling argument to politicians, even those not gripped in a Tea Party ideology. And by constantly negotiating and seeking deals, he elevated the power of those who keep manufacturing the crises that seem to require negotiating. The wiser move is to isolate the recalcitrants by building a larger and larger block of interests that coalesce around the White House agenda. We are already seeing this strategy emerge, as Republican governors begin to accept Medicaid expansion under the new health care law because of pressure from hospitals in their states, and as those same governors signal to their fellow Republicans in D.C. that to go through with sequestration would have devastating consequences back home.

A better strategy has now emerged, one that meets the needs of the administration to make progress and even of conservatives to show that they are opposing him. If House Republican leaders continue to poke holes in the Hastert Rule, which dictated that nothing can be brought to the floor of the House without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus, then conservatives can still go on record in full-throated opposition without the Republican Party being blamed in full for blocking progress. Immigration may be a big test of this approach, should the combination of a bipartisan team in the Senate and the business-labor alliance create a large enough power bloc to make progress in the House inevitable. 

In any case, a business-labor agreement on anything must be seen as good news for a struggling American government.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Just say no: Sequestration hurts families

The sequester principle  that a sword of Damocles hanging over Congress and the White House would produce good public policy that reasoned debate could not — never made any sense. It hardly matters who thought of it at this point. The good news is that it is a man-made disaster for which a man-made solution is ready at hand — just say “no” to the across-the-board cuts contained in the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act. Repeal them and start over.

If the sequester provisions are not repealed, the consequences are indeed dire, even if they take effect slowly. Yes, it is true that the day after the sequester occurs (March 1), the sky will not fall. It will just begin falling. Over the next seven months alone, the cuts will reduce defense spending by $55 billion and nondefense discretionary spending by $27 billion. At stake is a slowdown in economic growth that could cost up to 1.4 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office and an increase in the unemployment rate that would bring that figure back up from 7.9 percent to 9.1 percent.

But the most vulnerable among us would be the most drastically affected. That's what happens when cuts are applied across the board. And they aren't really across the board — some programs are cut entirely while others escape relatively unscathed. The rich and the poor may each experience a cut of some sort. But for the rich, the impact is inconsequential; for the poor, it is catastrophic. An analysis of the cuts translates the dollars into people, and it is clear the impact spreads far and wide.

It starts with children. Education would be cut $2.3 billion. Title I grants to local education agencies would serve 1.2 million fewer students. Cuts to special education would end funding for nearly 296,000 children with special needs and result in jobs losses for up to 7,200 teachers and staff. Early-childhood education will be reduced by nearly $600 million, including $425 million less for Head Start, cutting enrollment by 70,000 preschoolers. Block grants to the states that help fund childcare would lose $121 million, dropping 30,000 to 50,000 children from child care assistance.

More than $350 million will be cut from child-nutrition programs. About 600,000 of the nine million low-income mothers and their children who get supplemental food and health care assistance from the Women, Infants, and Children program would be dropped.

Reduced funds to state block grants for maternal and child health would deny help to 4.58 million children, women, and families, while the $243 million cut to children's health programs would be reduce the number of children vaccinated by 144,000.

Other cuts are also deeply harmful. Reductions to housing assistance will take more than 110,000 families off Section 8 housing vouchers that help pay most of their rent. More than 100,000 homeless people will lose access to housing and emergency shelters as a result of a cut of $100 million in housing assistance. Low income heating assistance will be cut by $285 million. Those with AIDS will lose housing assistance and access to benefits from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Seniors will receive four million fewer home-delivered meals. A description of the chaos of the sequester could go on and on.

Congress must come to its senses before the country suffers a completely self-inflicted grievous wound that weakens our economy and imposes gratuitous hardship on the least fortunate. The federal budget — how we choose to allocate the resources we hold in common — is a moral document. It reflects our priorities, and those priorities must reflect our values. The government must first provide for the women, children, and families among us that desperately need our help. To let the budget process break down so badly, with such immoral implications for so many, is a stain on our country and a bludgeon to our future.

Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council for Jewish Woman, and for 20 years served as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston.