The recent passage of a long-stalled bill to appoint a State Department envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East has Capitol Hill insiders heralding the arrival of what they say is a powerful new pro-Israel lobby.
The House last week overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring the State Department to appoint a special envoy to defend religious minorities in tumultuous countries such as Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, where violence against Christians and other minorities has spiked in recent months.
Lawmakers voted on Friday 402 to 22 to pass the bill following a large-scale lobbying effort by Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a pro-Israel advocacy group that has quietly boosted its profile on Capitol Hill in recent months, according to insiders.
The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it died in 2011 after the State Department and some lawmakers expressed opposition.
CUFI has promised to put the weight of its more than one million member strong organization behind the effort this time in an effort to ensure its passage.
"It’s hard to move legislation in Washington when there’s no real constituency for it," said David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, who was on the Hill this week to meet with lawmakers.
"Now, this constituency that is troubled by the persecution of Christians and minorities has organized and spoken up," Brog said.
CUFI urged members on Tuesday to email senators’ offices urging a quick passage of the religious envoy bill, which could encounter opposition in Congress’s upper chamber.
"This is a human rights emergency of the first order, and no one is talking about it," Brog said, referring to the scores of Christians and other minorities who have been attacked by hardline Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern nations.
Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protestors in Egypt have burned and vandalized churches over the past several months and 85 Pakistani Christians were murdered on Monday during a suicide attack on a church.
Yet the Obama administration has failed to take the issue seriously, dispensing only bland statements condemning the violence generally, Brog said.
"When Christians are targeted because of their faith, it’s anti-Christian violence and we have to recognize it as such," Brog said. "The administration has been very much focused on labeling hate crimes at home. I wish they’d apply the same clarity to hate crimes abroad."
Other human rights groups have quietly been expressing similar complaints about the administration on Capitol Hill, sources said.
"The general sentiment among a lot of groups is that the administration was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government [in Egypt] and religious freedom and human rights protection wasn’t on the agenda," said one congressional aide familiar with the legislation.
The idea of appointing a special envoy to monitor and actively combat the anti-Christian violence was first proposed last year by Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), who has long advocated on behalf of embattled minorities.
The bill successfully made its way through the House but stalled in the Senate when former Sen. Jim Webb (D., Va.) placed a hold on it, effectively killing the legislation.
The State Department also expressed opposition to the measure, claiming that it would infringe on its right to create new positions internally.
"We oppose the bill as it infringes on the secretary’s flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions," the State Department wrote in a 2012 position paper issued to lawmakers. "The bill is unnecessary as it duplicates a number of ongoing activities at the department being managed at the highest levels."
The State Department has not publicly commented on the bill this time around and did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment. Congressional sources say there is no reason to believe that its position on the bill has changed.
"As a general rule, the State Department doesn’t really like Congress telling it what to do," said the congressional aide quoted above.
"Bureaucrats are pathetic, petty little people and hate it when outsiders tell them how to do their jobs," added one former Capitol Hill staffer who works on these issues.
Advocates of the special envoy bill say that the Obama administration’s ongoing inaction in the face of growing violence is proof enough that a new approach is necessary.
Some Republican proponents of a smaller central government have also hinted that they might oppose the bill on the grounds that it would increase the federal bureaucracy and cost too much money.
The legislation would not add any money to the federal budget, advocates point out.
Those who would oppose the bill for fiscal and bureaucratic reasons are not taking their jobs seriously, Brog said.
"It’s fiddling while churches burn," he said. "There should be outrage."
CUFI, which was formed in 2006 and is chaired by Pastor John Hagee, has long been a presence in the pro-Israel community. Yet it has just begun to earn clout in Congress, where its members are often spotted lobbying representatives on issues critical to the group.
While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) remains the nation’s premier pro-Israel lobbying group, CUFI is uniquely positioned to go to bat on hot button issues, insiders said.
"CUFI has raised its profile on Capitol Hill and is now in position to successfully push issues of concern to their membership," one former AIPAC official told the Free Beacon.
"Their recent achievements show they are willing to go against the grain when need be," the source said. "They don't get pushed into organizationally uncomfortable positions, as AIPAC did with Syria, and equally is not being pushed around by isolationist elements within the GOP like [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul."
CUFI recently went toe-to-toe with Paul over controversial comments he made about pro-Israel Christians that CUFI deemed both offensive and inaccurate.
The group also garnered attention in July after it launched a full-scale lobbying offensive in support of tighter Iran sanctions.
CUFI first showed that it is not afraid of a political fight in January when it publicly pushed against the controversial nomination of current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
As the group works to ensure that the Senate passes the religious envoy bill, Capitol Hill insiders say that lawmakers will be listening to CUFI’s pitch.
"Establishing a special envoy to combat the widespread discrimination against religious minorities throughout the Middle East and South Central Asia is a huge step in the right direction," said one senior congressional aide. "Last week’s overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of this important legislation is a testament to the tremendous efforts of organizations like CUFI."