Proposed budget draws praise, concern


WASHINGTON — How President Bush’s proposed federal budget looks to the Jewish community depends on which way you happened to be facing when the $3 trillion plan was released earlier this month.

Outward — toward Israel — the budget is reassuringly steady. Inward — on domestic policy — Jewish lobbyists have identified cuts they say could devastate medical assistance and poverty programs that traditionally have been the focus of Jewish advocacy.

Any presidential budget is merely a proposal — Congress ultimately determines spending — but the budget is a sketch of the president’s priorities. What follows is drawn from analysis by lobbyists for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for Jewish federations, and pro-Israel lobbyists.

What’s in:

Israel would get $2.4 billion in defense spending, $60 million more than last year, per the 10-year-old aid restructuring program. Economic assistance, which has been reduced by $120 million a year under the restructuring, disappears in this budget, making 2008 the first year in decades that Israel does not receive non-defense assistance.

The exception is $40 million that the Jewish State continues to receive for refugee resettlement, originally slated to help hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The money now is used mostly for Jews arriving from Ethiopia.

Not all of the requests for Israel’s defense come through foreign assistance. Some are for collaborative defense projects that are considered investments because they develop weapons used by the U.S. and Israeli militaries.

Bush asked for $84 million to develop the Arrow anti-missile system, which has performed successfully in practice runs. That includes $7 million for a shorter-range system aimed at the rockets Hezbollah used against Israel in last summer’s war in Lebanon.

Congress traditionally boosts funds for the Arrow project: Last year, for instance, it upped Bush’s request from $77.2 million to $135.6 million.

There also are requests of $70 million for the development of an anti-anti-tank missile currently being employed by the United States in Iraq, as well $35.6 million for unmanned aircraft also used in Iraq.

It’s not often publicized that the pro-Israel community lobbies not just for assistance to Israel but also for the entire foreign-assistance package, partly as a way of building alliances with other ethnic communities and the foreign-aid lobby.

The news there was good, too. Bush wants $36.19 billion for international-affairs funding, including $24.34 billion in foreign aid, an increase of about 12 percent. The biggest increase was for HIV/AIDS assistance, from $900 million to $4.15 billion.

The assistance request for the Palestinians dropped from $150 million last year to $63.5 million, none of it directly to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in the final days of 2006, bans such assistance until the Hamas-led government renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel.

Instead, the money will be administered through the U.S. Agency for International Development to nongovernmental organizations, with some exceptions for the office of Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate P.A. president from the Fatah movement.

Aid for other Middle East nations remained steady. Egypt would garner $1.3 billion in military aid and $415 million in economic aid, while Jordan would get $264 million in economic aid and $200 million for military aid.

Bush asked for $42 million in economic aid for Lebanon and $10 million in military aid in 2008. That’s just a fraction of the $280 million in military assistance and $300 million in economic assistance Bush has asked for in a supplemental request for disbursement this year. That money is aimed at bolstering Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as he takes on Hezbollah in the wake of the war the terrorist group waged against Israel last summer.

Domestically, one bright light is Bush’s request to extend rules beyond 2007 that allow up to $100,000 in tax-free rollovers from individual retirement accounts to charity. The UJC estimates that the measure brought in $10 million to federations last year.

Another plus is that Bush wants to extend supplemental-security income beyond a congressionally mandated seven-year cap for refugees. The income supplement goes to the elderly, the blind and the disabled who have little or no income.

Immigrant groups, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, maintain that some elderly refugees from the former Soviet Union are unable to learn enough English to earn U.S. citizenship, which would free them from the time limit.

UJC is waiting to see whether some of the $36 million that Bush wants for “Choices for Independence” for the elderly will go to two programs the federation umbrella group has innovated: Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, which allow the elderly to live close to family and friends, and Community Innovations for Aging in Place, which streamlines services for families who care for their elderly at home.

Individual lawmakers’ earmarks have funded the programs until now, but such spending has been criticized as “pork,” and UJC wants funding for the program federalized.

What’s out:

Last year Bush and Congress cut $40 billion from Medicaid, the treatment program for the poor. This year Bush is asking for $70 billion in cuts from Medicaid and its companion program for the elderly, Medicare.

UJC says these cuts would further pressure hospitals and nursing homes, institutions that it says in an internal memo “are already operating on razor-thin margins.”

Also affected would be the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Under Bush’s guidelines, a family of four, for instance, would earn a maximum of about $41,000 per year for their children to qualify for the subsidized health insurance.

Elderly living conditions also would be affected by proposed cuts to Housing and Urban Development spending. Funds for independent living would drop from about $747 million to $575 million, while funding for group homes for the disabled would drop from $240 million to $125 million.

Bush also proposes major cuts to the block grants that go to states and communities for discretionary spending on social services. One set of block grants that funds what the UJC says is “everything from adoption services to refugee assistance to care for the elderly” would drop to $1.2 billion from $1.7 billion, down from a high of $2.8 billion in the 1990s.

Of two poverty-targeting block grant programs, one would be slashed from $4.178 billion last year to $3 billion in 2008. Another, for $630 million last year, would be cut completely.

Bush and Congress agreed on $25 million to fund security measures for nonprofits in 2005 and 2006. Most of the 2005 money was used on Jewish nonprofits, and the 2006 money has yet to be disbursed.

Last year, Bush stripped the money from 2007 funding. Senior administration officials suggested it might return in the 2008 budget, but it has not.