Interview'If I were to vote now, I would support Biden'

Inside Nita Lowey’s surprise decision to retire from Congress

After 32 years on Capitol Hill, a pro-Israel stalwart says concerns over waning Democratic support for Israel are ‘overblown’

Rep. Nita Lowey, Democrat of New York., during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Rep. Nita Lowey, Democrat of New York., during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON — When Nita Lowey arrived in Congress in 1988, women made up less than seven percent of the House of Representatives. Today, they comprise 23 percent of the chamber (and a quarter of the Senate), the most ever in the history of Washington.

The Jewish New York Democrat has played no small role in female politicians’ ascent to positions of power and influence on Capitol Hill.

In the early 2000s, she was the first female chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 2019, she became the first woman to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which holds the so-called “power of the purse” and is in charge of passing the federal budget and approving official government spending — including on foreign aid.

Lowey’s perch enabled her to be a key player in negotiating an end to the nation’s longest ever government shutdown last year.

Yet at the peak of her career, she surprised many when she announced last month that she would retire from Congress after the next election cycle.

“It was over the Jewish holidays, actually,” she told The Times of Israel, when explaining her decision. “I was sitting in the synagogue for Yom Kippur and doing a lot of thinking.”

Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel of New York speak to AIPAC’s annual policy conference on March 25, 2019. (AIPAC via JTA)

Her departure also means something else for the halls of Congress: the exit of one of the most stalwart and traditionally supportive defenders of Israel. She has been a vocal and consistent advocate for increased military assistance to Israel, as well as a two-state solution.

“I’ve been in Congress a long time,” said Lowey. “It’s been a privilege for me to be head of the Appropriations Committee and to chair the subcommittee on foreign [operations], where I can work on Israel issues and other issues directly related to the security of Israel. But I just decided the time was right.”

“Frankly,” she added, “I never thought that I would be in the Congress for 32 years.”

A changing Congressional landscape

Lowey’s retirement comes at a tumultuous time in the nation’s history. US President Donald Trump is currently facing an impeachment inquiry over allegedly having pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his domestic political adversary, former vice president Joe Biden.

Lowey, for her part, supports impeaching the president. “Yes, based upon the information I have, I would vote yes,” she said.

But she wouldn’t say whether she thinks the House will ultimately approve impeachment and force the Senate to hold a trial.

“I have learned to deal with the reality of a vote and not predicting any results,” she said. “I wouldn’t do that, but I would hope there is a fair vote and that many Republicans would join Democrats in acknowledging that Donald Trump is not qualified to be the president of the United States. His behavior is an embarrassment.”

At the same time, her retirement comes as views and attitudes toward US-Israel policy appear to be shifting in Washington.

Three of the top four Democratic presidential candidates — Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have said they would consider leveraging US aid to Israel to pressure the country to roll back its West Bank settlement enterprise and enter peace talks with the Palestinians.

The current front-runner Biden, for his part, has called the idea “outrageous.”

Lowey expressed similar dismay regarding the proposal. “I am very concerned with not only Bernie’s comments but Elizabeth Warren’s comments,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember — and I remind my colleagues — that funding to Israel isn’t a gift or a charity.”

“A significant portion of the funding we provide comes back to the United States in purchases of American military equipment,” she continued. “The US and Israel partner to develop state-of-the-art missile capabilities that help both of our countries’ national security. So with tensions flaring in almost all parts of the Middle East, our relationship with Israel, in my judgment, is more important than ever.”

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a town hall meeting, October 31, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

While Lowey stopped short of offering a full endorsement, she said she currently favored Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

“If I were to vote now, I would support vice president Biden,” she said. “But I don’t have a dog in this hunt right now. I’m listening very carefully to all their positions, and cutting off aid is one that I would object to.”

Notably, she wouldn’t commit to supporting the Democratic nominee no matter who it is.

“I can’t make that decision,” she said. “I probably would. If it’s a choice between any of them — look I can get into the positives of Buttigieg and others, but let’s see where we go. One thing is clear: we’ve got to defeat President Trump for the good of the country, for the good of the world.”

Lowey acknowledged that she shares some of her fellow Democrats’ concerns that Israel is creeping toward annexing the West Bank — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements during the last elections — but said she did not believe reducing aid would be productive.

“I’ve spoken out against annexation,” she said. “Cutting off aid won’t help this, but diplomacy will.”

Some Democrats and progressive activists have suggested that Israel has been effectively driving drunk with settlement expansion — and that the US should act in its best long-term interests by taking away the keys.

Maj. Tom Scott, a commander of an Iron Dome missile defense battery, stands in front of one of the systems in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the interview, Lowey also sought to fend off the perception that the Democratic Party is moving leftward on Israel. The views of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, who each support the boycott Israel movement, are marginal, she said.

“Concerns over decreasing Democratic support, I think, are overblown,” Lowey stated. She cited a resolution that passed in July that condemned BDS and affirmed support for a two-state solution. Three hundred and ninety-eight members of Congress voted for it, including 209 Democrats.

The problem, she argued, was not that the Democrats are drifting away from Israel, but that Trump and the GOP are trying to politicize the country and use it to drive a wedge between Democrats.

“Since Donald Trump came into office, the White House and Republicans in Congress have continually used political tactics to turn Israel into a partisan issue,” she said, citing Trump’s repeated statements that Democrats “hate Israel and all Jewish people.”

“They risk a critical relationship that benefits both countries’ national security,” Lowey added.

What’s next?

The congresswoman said her plans for retirement are, essentially, to have no plans. Her husband, attorney Stephen Lowey, retired several years ago, and the two intend to travel and spend time with three children and eight grandchildren.

There is at least one issue, she said, with which she will still be involved: confronting the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, center, of the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation, is comforted after saying a prayer for the souls of the deceased during the one-year commemoration of the Tree of Life synagogue attack, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

According to the American Jewish Committee, nine out of 10 American Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem in the country, with widespread fear that it’s getting worse.

That survey come after the Anti-Defamation League found last year that anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 — the most recent year for which data is available — surged by nearly 60 percent from 2016. That was the largest single-year increase on record since the ADL started tracking such data in 1979.

It also came a year after Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life massacre, in which 11 Jews were murdered in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil.

Lowey, who created the House’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism with several of her colleagues in May 2015, said that she will remain committed to the cause, even if she doesn’t yet know how.

“I am very worried about the increase in anti-Semitism,” she said. “Whether it’s in Congress or not in Congress, I have always been very involved in this issue, and I am going to continue to work on it.”

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