Jewish Winners and Losers in the Stimulus Wars

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

The huge economic recovery act just passed by Congress, which President Obama will sign in Denver today,  could present some interesting twists for several Jewish members of Congress.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), right now the only Jewish Republican in the Senate (former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, remains in electoral limbo), was one of only three GOPers to support the Democratic package.  That gave Specter a role in shaping the legislation, unlike most of his party colleagues.

According to some talk on Capitol Hill, that could hurt Specter if the 79-year-old lawmaker who came to the Senate in 1981 chooses to run for reelection in 2010, since  many Republicans in his state say they are less likely to vote for him because of his position on the spending package, according to recent polls.

As one of the almost-extinct species of moderate Republicans,  Specter could face a primary challenge from the right, with his economic recovery package vote looming as issue number one.

But wait: hasn’t Specter survived all these years because he is seen as a moderate? With the exception of former Sen. Rick Santorum – who lost his seat in 2006 – Pennsylvania hasn’t been particularly enamored of the hard-right faction of the GOP.

So maybe his support for the stimulus plan is a political plus, then, right?  Sure, it will enrage staunch conservatives, but a lot of them don’t support Specter anyway.

A lot, of course, depends on whether voters perceive that the huge spending package helped or hurt the sinking economy. And 2010 is a LONG way away, in terms of economic developments.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat turned independent, continues patching things up with Democratic leaders who were peeved – to say the least –  that he actively supported Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign last year.

Lieberman was a strong and vocal supporter of the Democratic plan, and may have played a role in keeping the minuscule group of Republican moderates from bowing to  strong party pressure to vote no.

Was that a kind of thank-you to President Obama, who stepped in to keep Senate Democrats from stripping Lieberman of his committee posts as punishment for his defection to McCain?

Probably not, said a longtime Jewish lobbyist.

“Supporting the economic recovery act is consistent with Joe’s positions on domestic issues over the years,” the lobbyist said.  “Connecticut stands to gain a lot from the bill.”

But as they say in politics, it can’t hurt, either.

Oh yes, another Jewish lawmaker is getting some extra attention because of the economy rescue bill.

Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginian and the only Jewish Republican in the House, also happens to be the GOP whip. In that post, he was credited with preventing a single Republican vote for the bill, leading the New York Times to suggest the young, aggressive Cantor could be the next Newt Gingrich – the former House speaker who led the GOP out of the congressional wilderness in 1994.

“It is Mr. Cantor who is pushing the party in a direction that Democrats, and some Republicans, say is risky: almost lock-step opposition to Mr. Obama’s economic plan,” the Times reported.

The conventional political wisdom in Washington is that Cantor is gunning to be the first Jewish Speaker of the House; his meteoric rise through the GOP leadership ranks and his fierce partisanship could help him attain that goal if the Republicans retake the House.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.