GOP victory Tuesday would likely end Congress' efforts on easing Cuba sanctions

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 28, 2010 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is poised to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee if Republicans take control of the House in November, effectively quashing congressional efforts to ease restrictions on Cuba.

Ros-Lehtinen didn't want to discuss the possibility, noting that ``the elections haven't happened,'' but congressional observers suggest she's a lock for the job -- if the GOP wins the 39 seats required to gain the House, as a number of analysts predict.

``My sense is that it would take an unexpected event for that not to be the case,'' said Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman and a Washington lobbyist with close ties to GOP leadership. ``We're all optimistic.''

Also in line for a powerful position in a GOP-led House: Rep. John Mica, an Orlando-area Republican who would likely be named chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which writes legislation to oversee the nation's roads, bridges, highways and skies.

Both Republicans also need to win releection to their own seats, but are considered safe bets.

Mica, too, declined to talk about the possibility of becoming a committee chairman, but, like Ros-Lehtinen, as the panel's top Republican, he is considered the likely choice.

The chairmanship would give Ros-Lehtinen access to the House leadership's inner circle and provide the pro-embargo legislator with an enhanced position to influence U.S. policy on Cuba.

``It makes a big difference whether [current chairman and California Democrat] Howard Berman, a longtime advocate of reforming Cuba policy, or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fierce defender of sanctions against Cuba, is chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee,'' said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and a founder of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba campaign.

EXECUTIVE ORDER

But Stephens and other advocates who support relaxing the travel ban to Cuba contend that President Barack Obama could change the policy through an executive order.

Advocates for lifting the ban, however, were already frustrated by Berman's decision not to bring up the travel ban before Congress left town for the November election, and some have pressed for a vote in a post-election, lame-duck session of Congress.

Ros-Lehtinen as chair, ``would certainly put a chill on efforts to go through Foreign Affairs to repeal the travel ban, for example,'' said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council. ``But you don't necessarily need to go through the committee to change Cuba policy.''

Advocates for a hard line against Cuba are so pleased with the possibility of a Ros-Lehtinen chairmanship that they point to it while campaigning in South Florida.

``Ileana is a leader when it comes to foreign policy and there's no doubt that allies of the regime must be very worried about what her leadership would represent,'' said Ana Carbonell, a Republican strategist and consultant to Republican state Rep. David Rivera's congressional campaign.

Carbonell has mentioned Ros-Lehtinen's possible role during radio spots for the Miami-Dade Republican Party, noting her chairmanship would benefit the hemisphere.

Ros-Lehtinen said in a 2005 interview when she was campaigning for the chairmanship that she sees a role beyond Cuba.

``Chairs need to be faithful to their convictions but aware that, as a leader, they're representing a myriad of interests,'' she said at the time. ``I may have a particular interest, but you can't use the gavel to speak for yourself.''

The committee's portfolio includes helping set the agenda for American foreign policy.

Ros-Lehtinen campaigned for the job in 2005 -- when Republicans were hopeful they would retain control of the House -- and sought to downplay Cuba, the issue with which she's most closely identified.

Instead, the Cuban-born legislator touted her experience as chairwoman or vice chairwoman of several foreign relations subcommittees, her staunch support for Israel, her work to aid human rights groups in Syria and her drive to tighten sanctions against the government in Iran.

This week, she sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to back reinstating Honduras to the Organization of American States.

``I love to work on advancing the cause of freedom for Cuba,'' Ros-Lehtinen said in 2005. ``But I'm that and so much more.''

Ros-Lehtinen, first elected to Congress in 1989, would be the first Cuban American to chair a committee. The decision, which will be made after the November election and only if Republicans take the majority, is up to a 32-member steering committee largely dominated by the House speaker and majority leader.

MONEY LEFT OVER

A prolific fundraiser, Ros-Lehtinen had $1 million to spend at the close of the last fundraising quarter and contributed $50,000 to the national party. The influential post could help further fundraising efforts: Ros-Lehtinen last April asked participants to join a foreign affairs advisory council -- for a $2,500 campaign contribution -- promising that ``when the GOP regain[s] the majority,'' Ros-Lehtinen ``would turn to you for advice on pertinent issues affecting our nation.''

She scrapped the idea after critics raised concerns.

Fellow Republicans note that no South Floridian has led one of the nation's most influential foreign policy posts since the 1980s, when senior Democratic congressman Dante Fascell chaired the committee, overseeing Florida's emergence as a gateway to Latin America.

``Dante Fascell became a national player in the process with that role,'' noted Republican fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta, who was active in Florida's effort to land the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. ``Ileana is a serious student of international policy and this is a unique opportunity for Ileana and for Florida.''

Mica declined to comment for this story, but did tell the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville that he would focus on cutting red tape and getting projects built quicker. He's considered pro-mass transit and a major champion of Florida's efforts to build high speed rail. He told The Miami Herald last year that he had spent considerable time trying to influence Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to look favorably on the state's request for nearly $2 billion to start construction on a link from Tampa to Orlando.

But Mica cautioned against looking for him to consistently steer dollars home -- as many powerful transportation committee chairs have done. ``I became the ranking member of this committee because my colleagues believe I'll be fair to everyone,'' he told the newspaper.

Mica, who graduated from Miami Dade College in 1965, is close with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who also serves on the transportation committee. Mica has seen the region's traffic woes first-hand with Diaz-Balart, and the two in 2008 donned hard hats and ducked out of the Republican National Convention to tour a bridge under construction in Minneapolis.

``For Florida, this is a huge deal,'' Diaz-Balart said of Mica's likely chairmanship. He noted that Mica has long been interested in addressing Florida's status as one of several states that receive fewer highway dollars than they send to Washington in fuel taxes.

``His chairmanship could be one of the more dramatic developments for Florida,'' Diaz-Balart said.

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