It’s a rare organization that has enough influence to draw the president and most of the Republican presidential candidates to its annual conference, particularly when the meeting takes place in the same week as Super Tuesday.
Yet it’s the norm for AIPAC, more formally known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
With an annual budget of more than $60 million, AIPAC is the powerhouse of U.S. organizations lobbying for close ties with Israel.
Its agenda includes opposition to nuclear weapons in Iran, military aid to Israel and closer cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on security issues.
Its annual policy conference, which took place this week in Washington, attracts thousands.
President Obama spoke to the group on Sunday, saying he would not tolerate nuclear weapons in Iran but warning against “loose talk of war.”
“For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world,” he said, “now is not the time for bluster.”
Unnamed but obvious targets were the Republican contenders who would later appear before the group. Three of the four candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich addressed the conference. Santorum appeared in person, while Romney and Gingrich spoke via video feeds.
All three criticized Obama for not being tough enough on Iran – a complaint likely to find a sympathetic audience at the conference.
Why do politicians care so much about pleasing AIPAC?
One reason is that party loyalty appears to be in flux among Jewish Americans. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last month showing that the percentage of registered Jewish voters identifying with the Democratic Party had dropped from 72 percent in 2008 to 65 percent in 2011.
Yet Jewish voters make up just 2 percent of the U.S. electorate, a percentage that has declined over the past decade.
Few would say the same about the reach of AIPAC.
The organization spent $2.1 million on lobbying last year, which was less than the three preceding years, but still significantly higher than 1998-2007 expenditures.
AIPAC does all its own lobbying, relying on 11 registered lobbyists rather than contracting with outside firms. (A list of legislation lobbied by the group appears below.)
A related organization, the American Israel Education Foundation, funds congressional trips to Congress. The education foundation is not registered as a lobbying client.
AIPAC says it does not accept financial assistance from Israel, nor does it maintain a political action committee or make campaign contributions.
However, some of its supporters do.
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the financial lifeline for the Newt Gingrich super PAC, was long a big donor to AIPAC. However, as the New Yorker reported in 2008, Adelson was enraged by the group’s support of a congressional letter urging the Bush administration to increase economic aid to the Palestinians.
Adelson may still be contributing to AIPAC personally, but tax returns filed by his family foundation shows no grants to the organization in the past three reporting years, spanning 2008-2010. (AIPAC donors are not listed in its public tax returns.)
Adelson has given millions in recent years to other groups, including Birthright Israel Foundation and the Zionist Organization of America.
Winning Our Future, the super PAC supporting Gingrich’s presidential run, has reported $11 million in contributions from Adelson and his family members.
Legislation lobbied by AIPAC in the fourth quarter of 2011:
112 H.R.1540: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012
112 H.R.1905: Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011
112 H.R.2055: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012
112 H.R.2463: Border Security Technology Innovation Act of 2011
112 H.R.2583: Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2012
112 H.R.3116: Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012
112 S.1048: Iran, North Korea, and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act of 2011
112 S.1253: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012
112 S.1426: Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013
112 S.1601: Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2012