Commentary: Congressional changes won't lead to 'fortress America'

The Miami HeraldNovember 7, 2010 

The Republican landslide in Tuesday's mid-term elections is likely to lead to across-the-board budget cuts that will affect U.S. programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, and result in tougher congressional anti-immigration stands. That's not going to resonate well in most of the region.

But on the positive side, it is likely to lead to congressional approval of long-stalled U.S. free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

Let's examine these and other issues:

• Foreign aid: Judging from what I hear from well-placed congressional sources, the most immediate regional impact of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives -- and the party's expanded presence in the Democratic-held Senate -- will be a strong push to cut foreign aid, economic and anti-drug programs.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, told me that ``when you have a Republican Congress that is talking about cutting 25 percent of the budget, there will be a huge pressure to cut foreign aid,'' which could include anti-drug programs such as Plan Merida for Mexico and Central America, Plan Colombia and aid to earthquake-devasted Haiti.

``That makes me nervous,'' Engel said. ``It would be a big mistake because, at a time when countries such as Brazil and Venezuela are flexing their muscles, the worst thing we can do is cutting foreign aid and appear to be disengaging from the region.''

A Republican congressional source close to the party's leadership conceded that ``We are going to make cuts across the board in domestic and international areas, and I don't think there will be any sacred cows.''

The source added, ``I would expect some cuts even to Plan Merida.''

Another well-placed Republican, Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who is likely to replace Engel as chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, told me that ``everything will have to stand up to scrutiny. We need to make sure that we spend every dollar wisely.''

• Immigration: The next Congress will be more anti-immigration than the current one. Chances of passing comprehensive immigration reform that would give an earned path to citizenship to the more than 11 million undocumented foreigners living in the country are now greatly diminished.

``I'm not sure that there has been a Congress since 1924 -- and certainly not in the last 50 years -- that had a membership more interested in reductions in overall illegal and legal immigration than the one that was elected yesterday,'' says Roy Beck, head of Numbers USA, a group that defines itself as ``for lower immigration levels.''

About 36 legislators who support an earned path to citizenship for undocumented U.S. residents as part of comprehensive immigration reform have been voted out of Congress.

The next Congress will have only 170 members supporting a conditioned legalization of undocumented immigrants, far from the 218 majority that would be needed to pass such a measure, according to Numbers USA estimates.

• Free trade: The pending trade deals with Colombia and Panama have much better chances of passage, among other things, because the likely new House Speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, is a strong supporter of approving them.

The pending trade deals with Colombia and Panama are ``likely to come up and pass'' in the new Congress, Mack said.

• Venezuela and Cuba: The new Congress will be more outspoken in its criticism of Venezuela's authoritarian President Hugo Chávez and Cuba's military dictatorship. But, barring surprises, it is unlikely to pass new sanctions against either country.

My opinion: The Republican legislators who won Tuesday are not homogenous, and some of their most daring proposals face opposition within their own party.

Mack, for instance, favors including Venezuela in the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, but the likely new head of the House foreign relations committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- who supported the idea years ago -- is now against it, arguing that it would hurt her Venezuelan constituents in Miami.

In addition, the Democratic-held Senate will help maintain a system of checks and balances in Washington.

Cooler heads will prevent budget and immigration isolationists from creating a ``fortress America.''

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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