Reform Movement Leader Shows Support of Stricter Gun Laws

In advance of the interfaith day of advocacy around gun control today, The Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs sent a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urging Congress to pass stricter gun laws.

Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

Nearly four decades ago, in 1975, the Union for Reform Judaism recognized the need for legislation that would limit and control the sale and use of firearms. Since the adoption of that resolution, the URJ’s first calling for the regulation of firearms, more than one million Americans have been killed as a result of gun violence. The URJ has spoken out repeatedly and passionately on gun violence and continues to insist that gun regulation is a vital necessity.

Continued after the jump.
As president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the membership organization for nearly 900 Reform synagogues and 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America, I follow in the footsteps of my predecessors and urge you to support the comprehensive gun violence prevention package before Congress (S.649 / H.R. 137), which not only will require enforceable background checks, but also will curb gun trafficking and enhance school safety, making America safer while keeping the Second Amendment secure. Congress also must ensure that the bill is enforceable by requiring private sellers who sell crime guns to produce a background check — just as dealers are required to do. There’s no question that the two minutes it takes to pass a background check is a wise investment in saving lives.

I ask, too, that you support the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (S.150 / H.R. 437), which will ban these weapons of war that have no place in our schools or on our streets. These weapons — frequently used in police killings and mass shootings — dramatically increase the number of lives lost and the damage done.

Jewish tradition mandates tikkun olam, “repair of our fractured world” — and this country’s background check system is broken indeed. This flawed system, which does not require “private sellers” to conduct background checks, easily puts weapons in the hands of the vast majority of gun criminals. It is time to fix this broken system with passage of S.649 / H.R. 137, which will extend the current background check requirements to private gun sales, with dealers conducting the checks and keeping records the same way they have done for more than 40 years. Passage of these bills is the single most meaningful step you can take to stop senseless violence, honor all who have been lost to gun violence, and bring solace to survivors. On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism and its members across North America, I urge you to support these critical pieces of legislation.

Just as the prophet Isaiah exhorts the people of the earth to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” so too do I urge you to vote for comprehensive and enforceable background checks and to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. As elected officials, it is your moral imperative to work to solve society’s problems. This is holy work and we are counting on you to do it, helping to shape a better and more hopeful world for us all. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Rick Jacobs

Bust the filibuster already

When Harry Reid blames Republicans for obstruction, he neglects to mention that the Democratic majority in the Senate enables it by allowing the filibuster to persist. Now that Democrats kept their majority on Nov. 6, it is long overdue to curtail the power of the filibuster.

More after the jump.
Many factors contribute to our current economic misery — Republican abuse of the Senate filibuster, GOP control of the House of Representatives, President Obama’s inexperience and an overwhelming mess that nobody could fix in four years.

It still boils down to Harry Reid and his merry band of Senate Democrats, or some of them. Tom Harkin, Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall rate credit for attempting to rein in a historically dumb and destructive legislative mechanism.

Some weeks before Obama’s re-election, the Senate majority leader was on television relaying the latest filibuster count — 382 filibusters since the Democrats seized control of the Senate six years ago. I groaned as I listened to Reid whine: “They’ve conducted filibuster after filibuster blocking one bill after another. They’ve blocked judge after judge after judge.”

All true.

“The party trying to defeat President Obama has tried to make the president look bad.”

So far, so good.

Then, standing in the well of the Senate, Reid baldly lied: “For him (an unnamed Republican senator) to come and say the Senate is not working because of the Democrats is a big lie.”

Reid compounded this fib by adding: “Republicans are complaining about a result that they caused.”

No question that Republican behavior pre-Nov. 6 was disgusting. They employed the filibuster to block sensible legislation that they once supported…before they opposed it. Guess who handed them this kind of power, or at least allowed them to hold onto it.

Democrats had three opportunities to eliminate or curtail the power of the filibuster since they were elected to the majority in 2006. A majority of the Senate can change the body’s rules on the first day of the legislative session in early January, though some may dispute this. Democrats could have attempted such a move in 2007 and 2009, and some made a spirited effort in 2011.

Even if it was successful, the 2011 bid probably would not have worked because of Republican control of the House then. However, action against the filibuster in 2007 and 2009 would have likely made a difference then since Democrats also held the majority in the House.

Two of the most prominent measures — tax cuts for the wealthy and the “public option” for health-care reform — were blocked by the filibuster; an independent and a Democrat were among the opponents.

A health-care bill authorizing some form of a government-run health care system, a.k.a. as a “public option,” passed the House in 2009, but could not make it through the Senate.

Without the filibuster, Congress would no doubt have passed far more of its legislation aimed at combating the recession. If those measures succeeded to an appreciable degree, maybe Republicans would have had no substantial issues with which to incite voter wrath – and Democrats would not have lost control of the House in 2010.

Team Udall entered the fray in January 2011 when they proposed that any senator threatening a filibuster must present their arguments on the Senate floor. Not enough takers, even among Democrats.

Behind the scenes, Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell reached a deal allowing the Republicans to keep the filibuster so long as they did not abuse this power. The rest is history.

Reid himself liked the filibuster at the time, along with some other Democrats. Yet he reversed himself last May when he vindicated Team Udall’s quixotic bid to curtail the filibuster’s power. He was mad when Republicans blocked a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, Politico reported.

“If there was anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rules, because it’s been abused, abused, abused,” Reid declared on the Senate floor.

A few days later, Common Cause announced a lawsuit to declare the filibuster unconstitutional because the Constitution “envisioned majority rule except where specifically stated otherwise.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 13, a New York Times editorial urged measures to curtail the filibuster’s powers when the next Senate convenes in early January.

Short-term, the filibuster may not be problematic because the election has left Republicans in a more cooperative, and humbled, mood. Still, the GOP can feel emboldened to filibuster any time, without warning, if the tide turns again.

There is nothing like the rule of law to stop bad behavior dead in its tracks. Please go for it, Sen. Reid.

Bruce S. Ticker of Philadelphia is author of the e-book George Costanza Goes to Washington which describes fault lines in the political system. Ticker can be reached at [email protected].

GOP Convention, Night Two: Repelling the American Jewish Vote

— by David Streeter

Despite all claims to the contrary, meeting on the second night of its shortened convention in Tampa, the GOP appeared tonight to be doing everything possible to drive away every last American Jewish voter who might be watching. National Jewish Democratic Council President and CEO David A. Harris noted:

Tonight, American Jews saw an over-the-top tribute to one of the greatest opponents of the U.S.-Israel relationship on Capitol Hill — Rep. Ron Paul — with Republican official after Republican official, up to and including Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), singing his praises. Then Jewish voters, whom the GOP claims to prize, got the privilege of hearing from his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who shares so many of his father’s policy positions albeit with less baggage. If they can stay tuned long enough, they’ll have the pleasure of seeing vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, whose social safety net-gutting budget was so widely scored in the Jewish community &jmdash; and who holds so many positions at odds with the values of so many American Jews.

If this is the Republican Party’s idea of Jewish outreach, I can only hope they keep trying.

Video of Rand Paul at the Republican National Convention follows the jump.

Sen. Mitch McConnell Blocks Iran Sanctions Vote

— David A. Harris

The actions today by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block a vote on new Iran sanctions represents the Republican Party’s latest failure to take sanctioning Iran seriously. First it was Republican House members voting repeatedly against amendments that would have closed loopholes and strengthened sanctions. Now, McConnell is saying that the Senate GOP needs more time to study the legislation because he and members of his party want a clear declaration over the use of force.

The President and his Administration have repeatedly been crystal clear that military force is on the table to stop Iran. Perhaps McConnell missed that our Ambassador to Israel broadly said the military option is ‘ready’ and ‘fully available’ during a recent interview.

With all due respect, I must ask Senator McConnell — what kind of message does blocking a vote on strengthening sanctions send, particularly with negotiations rapidly approaching? We know how gridlocked the Senate is; why push this critical legislation back?

Reuters report follows the jump.
Reuters reported:

U.S. Senate Republicans blocked new economic sanctions on Iran’s oil sector on Thursday, saying they needed more time to study revisions, a surprise move that drew anger from Senate Democrats who had expected unanimous approval ahead of Iran talks on May 23.

‘I feel I’ve been jerked around,’ Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor after the Republican objection.

But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his staff did not receive a draft of the bill until late on Wednesday night, and needed more time to make sure it was as strong as possible.

‘There is no reason in the world why we can’t resolve whatever differences we have and move forward,’ McConnell said. ‘We certainly don’t want to take a step backward, and there are members on my side of the aisle who are concerned that the way the measure is currently crafted could actually be a step in the wrong direction,’ McConnell said….

Democrats wanted to pass the proposed penalties ahead of talks between world powers and Iran next week, and had support from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

But Republicans sought a stronger statement in the bill that the use of U.S. military force was an option.

GOP Protects Millionaires From Being Taxed Like Commoners


Today is Tax Day when Americans pay their share to support our country. Of course, some of the wealthiest Americans are not paying their fair share and the Senate Republicans voted last night to make sure that continues to be the case.

Statement by President Barack Obama

Tonight, Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule, choosing once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class.

The Buffett Rule is common sense. At a time when we have significant deficits to close and serious investments to make to strengthen our economy, we simply cannot afford to keep spending money on tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and didn’t ask for.  But it’s also about basic fairness – it’s just plain wrong that millions of middle-class Americans pay a higher share of their income in taxes than some millionaires and billionaires.  America prospers when we’re all in it together and everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

One of the fundamental challenges of our time is building an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  And I will continue to push Congress to take steps to not only restore economic security for the middle class and those trying to reach the middle class, but also to create an economy that’s built to last.

The Final Day At AIPAC

Today is the final day of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Defense Sec. Leon Panetta and three of the four top GOP candidates addressed the conference’s 13,000 supporters. Presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) (right) appeared in person while Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) appeared via satellite.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American’s Ambassador to the United Nations made remarks to the group and addressed the current state of the Israel and Iran.

On Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres and US President Barack Obama addressed the conference hall. Obama said his policy toward Iran is not one of containment but of preventing the nation from developing a nuclear weapon.  He also defended his policies toward Israel and stated the U.S. commitment to preserve Israel’s security.

In a side conversation, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met Monday morning to discuss the status of the U.S.-Israel alliance.  The president reiterated that the U.S. did not want the possibility of nuclear weapons “falling into terrorist’s hands” and said there is a still a window that allows some negotiation. Pres. Obama also said he continues to reserve all options in dealing with Iran.

Other speakers included:

The policy conference is the largest gathering for America’s leading pro-Israel lobby, which works with both major parties to secure public policy that strengthens the U.S.-Israel relationship.

AIPAC has announced that up to 14,000 people are attending this year’s three-day conference, a crowd nearly twice the usual size.

Mr. Costanza goes to Washington…and keeps the filibuster

Part 7 of American Vision by Bruce Ticker

“This is how they negotiate in the Bizarro World’
– Jerry Seinfeld to George Costanza, and perhaps to Harry Reid

Harry Reid negotiates the George Costanza way, as they do in Seinfeld’s Bizarro World.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, reached an accord with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Jan. 27, 2011, to retain the filibuster power that Republicans earlier employed to block any kind of government-run health-care system and persist with tax cuts for the wealthy.

Reid and Mitchell’s pact allows Republican senators to submit nearly all the amendments they want to a given measure, and in return Republicans will limit their use of the filibuster.

More after the jump.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said, “There is nothing that touches the impact of the filibuster on amendments and nothing that touches the impact on bills, so we still may see the same obstruction we’ve seen before.”

Merkley’s fears were realized on Tuesday, May 17, 2011, when Democrats proposed ending tax breaks for five major oil companies accused of unfairly padding industry profits, according to The New York Times. The measure would have passed if a majority vote was sufficient, but the 52-48 vote fell short of the 60 votes required to end debate.

Even more deplorable developments swiftly came to light. Senate Republicans have blocked the confirmations of a wide range of presidential nominees, prompting two of them to withdraw their nominations. The same GOP senators also refused to reauthorize a 46-year-old economic program which they automatically supported in the past.

On the day after the oil subsidy vote, Reid issued a fundraising e-mail distributed for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in which he complained: “It’s a no-brainer: Big Oil doesn’t need taxpayer subsidies. After all, the five largest oil companies raked in profits of $32 billion in the first quarter of 2011 – while Americans are paying four bucks a gallon at the pump. And yet, they continue to collect billions in tax dollar handouts at a time when we need to cut spending.

“It’s unfair, and MUST stop. But last night, Republicans derailed a Democratic bill that would end this double-fisted cash grab and save $21 billion.”

Another “no-brainer”: Big Senate doesn’t need a filibuster. Four months ago, Reid “derailed a Democratic bill that would end this double-fisted” power grab and save us all lots of aggravation.

Merkley was joined in January by Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico in a bid to “to end this double-fisted” filibuster power

Any senator can filibuster, or threaten to filibuster, proposed legislation without taking to the floor to make their case, as James Stewart did in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Senate needs 60 votes to end a filibuster, not a plain majority of 51 votes. The process is called cloture.

The trio pressed for a resolution to require that all senators who invoke the filibuster must address the legislation on the floor. Most Democrats voted for the measure, but it could neither get past the 67-vote barrier nor even a majority vote.

On a typical day, you can compare just about any antics in the Senate to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bizarro World. Seinfeld fans should recall that George spoiled their talks with NBC to produce a show about “nothing” because he was aggrieved that their $13,000 offer fell way short of Ted Danson’s package.

Once the magnitude of his blunder dawned on him, George begged for reconsideration. NBC offered $8,000 this time.

Jerry explained to George that the idea of negotiations “is to get your price up, not down. This is how they negotiate in the Bizarro World.”

Or how Harry Reid negotiates in the Senate.

Reid has worked hard to press for legislation that would benefit the public, but how does it help anyone to hand the Republicans a decisive weapon like the filibuster?

Why? Reid in the past defended the filibuster when Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democratic senators feared losing this device if they return to the minority. Democrats also might have feared that they would be demonized by the Republicans if they curbed or ended the filibuster.

Democrats might have sustained some political damage in the short term, but they would have ensured themselves a level playing field if they took decisive action against the filibuster.

Reid’s negotiating style reflects the operational patterns in the Senate, which can also be known as Bizarro Washington World. You cannot pass a measure with a majority vote, but 41 votes – or 41 percent – can be allowed to obstruct legislation?

When Harkin, Merkley and Udall sought to revise the filibuster rule, three of their GOP counterparts intent on retaining the filibuster proved that Jimmy Stewart’s legacy for his classic, fictitious filibuster is safe.

The day prior to the debate, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander recited a quote from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at a Heritage Foundation function on Jan. 4, 2011, that the filibuster gives a senator “the right to talk your head off.” Alexander lied his head off when he claimed that the Affordable Care Act was “rammed through” the Senate in March 2010. Obama and congressional Democrats repeatedly reached out to Republicans and watered down the law in hopes of ending their filibuster.

Alexander contended that a 60-vote threshold to end debate allows for a “consensus” among senators so that legislation has more broad-based support. The price for this consensus is weakening laws so they provide minimal aid to average citizens and give business interests hefty concessions.

Many jobless citizens received unemployment pay for the next 13 months because Obama acceded to Republican demands in December, 2011, to continue tax cuts for the wealthy another two years.

Both Alexander and former Sen. John E. Sununu (New Hampshire) suggested that the Constitution’s framers created the filibuster. As Harkin pointed out, the Constitution authorizes each chamber to make its own rules, not establish the rules itself. Their suggestion was made during Alexander’s televised remarks and a Boston Globe commentary written by Sununu.

Also on television, Pat Roberts of Kansas rambled on for several minutes, recalling that Democrats opposed filibuster adjustments when Republicans controlled the Senate. That must mean that two wrongs make a right.

John Cornyn of Texas crowed that anyone who tries to change Senate rules is “playing with fire.”

The filibuster issue surfaced in the public consciousness as Republicans employed the filibuster to obstruct Democratic legislation, particularly the health-care plan and elimination of tax cuts for the rich.

Earlier in 2010, hearings on the filibuster rule were held before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Had Alexander, Roberts and Cornyn followed the proceedings, they would have learned much about the history of the Senate where they have served for a combined 30 years.

Next excerpt: A Burr (as in VP Aaron Burr) in the Senate

Delaware Governor Highlights Jewish Political Leadership Luncheon


Delaware Governor Jack Markell (center) was featured speaker at the recent Jewish Leadership Series luncheon.  Hosted this time by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, the Jewish Leadership Series brings together professionals interested in politics and elected officials.  Seen here with Governor Markell are (left to right) Michael Bronstein, the organizer of the event, and Israeli Consul General Daniel Kutner.

— by Bonnie Squires

The latest in the Jewish Political Leadership Series luncheons, organized by Michael Bronstein, featured Delaware Governor Jack Markell, with the law firm of Cozen O’Connor hosting the event.

A bi-partisan group of Jewish leaders, including the Israeli Consul General Daniel Kutner and several elected officials in Philadelphia and the suburbs were among the attendees.

Governor Markell expressed concern about the state government budget cuts in education, contrary to the initiatives and philosophy of the Obama administration.  He pointed out previous working relationships at the federal level, where President Reagan worked with Democrats to pass legislation, and where Bill Clinton worked with Republicans to further his administration’s objectives.

More after the jump.


Cozen O’Connor attorney Gerald Riesenbach (right) welcomes Delaware Governor Jack Markell to the Jewish Leadership Series luncheon.


Among the elected officials attending the luncheon to hear from Delaware Governor Jack Markell were Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer (left) and Montgomery County Treasurer Jason Salus (right).

He also expressed concern that the minute Obama was elected, Senator Mitch McConnell voiced the lone goal of the Republican party: to defeat President Obama.  He called this “awful awful awful.”

Governor Markell said that education is one of the most important reasons that businesses can thrive in his state or any other state.

Governor Markell is currently the only Jewish governor in the country. He has an impressive national profile and is the former chair of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and currently serves as the National Governors Association (NGA) vice chair, slated to become chair in July.

He also has broad experience in the private sector, helping lead the wireless technology revolution as the 13th employee at Nextel (a name he coined), where he served as Senior Vice President for Corporate Development. His other prior business experience includes a senior management position at Comcast Corporation in Philadelphia, working as a consultant with McKinsey and Company, and as a banker at First Chicago Corporation.

He was elected Delaware State Treasurer in 1998, winning three consecutive terms, including his last re-election as treasurer in November of 2006 with an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote.  As State Treasurer, Governor Markell worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Delawareans through innovative programs aimed at cutting spending and improving fiscal responsibility.  He has been recognized in Delaware and across the country as a leader in promoting policies to help all people achieve their economic potential.

Photos: Bonnie Squires.

Sen. Paul Call to End “Welfare” to Israel Rejected by Senate Dems

— David Streeter and David A. Harris

A group of Senate Democrats has sent a letter to Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, rejecting Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) proposal to cut foreign aid to Israel. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Robert Casey (D-PA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proclaimed in the letter that Paul’s “remarks are alarming and aim to weaken the decades-long bipartisan consensus on U.S. support for Israel.”

This is the second time in as many weeks that Paul has advocated this dangerous and irresponsible policy. This time though, Paul went further and ludicrously claimed that American assistance to Israel is nothing more than ‘welfare.’

American assistance to Israel is certainly not welfare. For decades, the U.S.-Israel relationship has paid significant dividends for America’s national security and has helped Israel to become America’s greatest democratic ally in a difficult and dangerous neighborhood. This is not welfare; helping our democratic ally Israel helps America on so many levels.

Some may claim that Paul speaks only for himself. But if that truly is the case, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Republican leaders must immediately speak out loudly and clearly to condemn the reversal in U.S. foreign policy that Senator Paul continues to advocate. They must do so before Paul’s disturbing and now weekly appeals for an end to American assistance to Israel become dogma among certain segments of the Republican Party’s base, threatening the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The text of the letter from Senate Democrats follows the jump.
February 1, 2011

Dear Chairman Rogers and Chairman Ryan:

We write in light of recent statements that demonstrate the intent of certain Senators to eliminate foreign aid funding to the nation of Israel. Recently, Republican Senator Rand Paul suggested that the United States should “halt all foreign aid including its financial aid to Israel.” These remarks are alarming and aim to weaken the decades-long bipartisan consensus on U.S. support for Israel. Both Republicans and Democrats are committed to reining in the federal deficit, but assistance to Israel is not a matter of “pork barrel spending” – rather U.S. foreign aid to Israel demonstrates America’s rock-solid commitment to ensuring Israel’s right to exist.

Israel is the only democratic nation in the Middle East and one of our most trusted allies. A stable and secure Israel is strongly in our national security interest and has been a cornerstone of our foreign policy for over half-a-century. Using Congress’s bipartisan commitment to reining in government spending as a reason to abandon Israel is unacceptable and should be immediately rejected.

At a time when U.S. foreign aid is being utilized to strengthen our partnerships around the world, particularly in the Middle East where our relationships are more important than ever, we urge you to commit to maintain full foreign aid funding to Israel.  As members of the United States Senate, we will work aggressively to prevent any attempts to abandon one of our most trusted allies. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Senator Stabenow

Senator Nelson

Senator Menendez

Senator Cardin

Senator Brown

Senator Casey

Senator Whitehouse