WASHINGTON — Promising to play "hardball'' with "rogue regimes'' and press for cuts in foreign aid, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, moved rapidly Wednesday to put her mark on U.S. foreign policy as the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Havana and and grew up in the Cuban exile world of Miami, signaled she'll challenge the Obama administration and press for tougher sanctions on U.S. enemies, including Iran and North Korea.
"Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball,'' she said. "I pledge to do all that I can to isolate U.S. enemies while empowering and strengthening our allies, and I will not make apologies for doing either.''
Ros-Lehtinen, 58, becomes the first South Floridian to lead one of the nation's most influential foreign policy posts since the 1980s when Democrat Dante Fascell became a national figure and advisor to presidents. He used the position to help Miami's Cuban exiles win congressional approval for Radio and TV Marti, supported the Nicaraguan contras and was a chief House sponsor of the resolution authorizing the first Iraq war.
Ros-Lehtinen's ascension likely scuttles any efforts to ease sanctions against Cuba. It's already drawn fire from Latin American leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
But Ros-Lehtinen, who will officially assume the chair of the committee in January, says she isn't interested just in Latin America.
She promised aggressive oversight of U.S. foreign policy, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a review of foreign aid with an eye toward cutting costs.
"I know no State Department official or anyone involved in international affairs wants to hear that, but that's the sad reality of our economic state,'' she said in an interview at the Capitol. "We're tightening our belts domestically, and we must do so internationally as well.''
For example, she is targeting aid to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the Obama administration rejoined after the Bush administration had shunned it because its membership included Cuba.
"They either reform the way they do business or why contribute our dollars?'' she said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley sidestepped a question of whether the agency is worried about potential cuts: "We look forward to engaging the new chairwoman of the committee and we think we have a strong case to make,'' Crowley said. "We believe that there are compelling reasons to support the civilian component of a balanced national security strategy that we think is in the national interest.''
Foreign policy analysts expect Ros-Lehtinen to pressure the administration with hearings and investigations, in contrast to Fascell who largely steered away from ideological confrontation and sought to find common ground with Republican presidents.
Ros-Lehtinen has been critical of the administration's efforts to engage some countries. Strongly pro-Israel, she has criticized the administration for pushing Israel to make concessions and supports cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority. She favors stepped up sanctions against Iran and North Korea and greater scrutiny of U.S.-Russia policies.
"There's tremendous pressure when the White House is held by the same party as the House or Senate not to be critical of administration policy,'' said Randy Scheunemann, a onetime committee staffer who served as top foreign policy adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "What this means is the State Department is going to be spending a lot more time preparing for contentious hearings.''
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that Ros-Lehtinen's committee doesn't control any purse strings and that the majority of foreign aid goes to Afghantistan, Iraq and the Middle East.
"Frankly, it's a lot easier to make ideological statements than it is to chair,'' Cordesman said. "It's very easy to be against the foreign aid you aren't spending anyway.''
With Republicans controlling the House in January Ros-Lehtinen said House Speaker John Boehner has asked his committee chairs to focus on oversight and she plans to be "more aggressive.
"We have not taken it upon ourselves to really look at what has been going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with what have been the successes and the failures of our foreign aid budget,'' she said.
Her appointment drew criticism even before it was official: In a November column, Castro called Ros-Lehtinen "loba feroz,'' (fierce wolf) and a "symbol of hatred of and resentment against Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia ...''
Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S. wrote a blistering commentary in Foreign Policy magazine this week, calling Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow Florida Republican, Rep. Connie Mack, who will likely to chair the committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee, "throwback Latin American cold warriors, catering to their Cuban-American constituents with belligerent policies toward any neighboring government that seeks independence from U.S. influence.''
Ros-Lehtinen met the criticism with cheery nonchalance, tweeting: "BINGO: 1st Evo Morales slams me, then Chavez calls me bandit + now Fidel says I'm Loba Feroz...''
Other critics have questioned her suitability for the post, pointing to an episode in 2006 in which a video Ros-Lehtinen appeared to suggest she'd welcome Fidel Castro's assassination.
"If I don't have critics then I'm not doing my job as well as I could be,'' she said. "I make no apologies for being a person who stands up for human rights and freedom, and democracy.''
Ros-Lehtinen, who has not been afraid to go against her party on several issues, including backing the repeal of the ban on gays serving in the military, said she will push for a nonpartisan approach to the committee.
"I'm not saying they're overjoyed that Republicans have taken over Congress,'' she said of the administration. "But they understand that foreign policy should be a bipartisan and a nonpartisan agenda item and I hope that it will be.''
Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who has been on the committee since Ros-Lehtinen arrived in 1989, said that while he'd rather see Democrats retain control of the House, "if I had to pick a Republican to chair the committee, it would be Ily.
"In this day and age where collegiality seems to diminish and diminish by the day, I think with Ileana it will be enhanced,'' he said. "She has her strong views and she will press, but she'll also give members a chance to speak their minds and be heard.''
Ros-Lehtinen has said she doesn't want her chairmanship to be defined by Cuba, the issue with which she's most closely identified. But she noted her ties to the country in a statement she released announcing her appointment.
"When I first came to this country with my family as a young girl, we were fleeing from oppression and seeking an opportunity to live in freedom,'' she said. "In Cuba, human rights activists are condemned to the gulag and denied every basic human right and dignity. In America, I am privileged to serve in Congress and to stand up against those who seek to destroy freedom.''