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Ilena Ros-Lehtinen wants International Relations Committee chair

Posted September 27, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Americans.
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BY LESLEY CLARK | Miami Herald

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has set her sights on a leadership role—chairwoman of the House International Relations Committee—that would give her access to the inner circle.

As she campaigns to lead the influential International Relations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talks little about the issue with which she’s most often identified: Cuba.

Indeed, a package of materials the Miami Republican has prepared to make her case for why she’s best qualified gives Cuba scant mention.

Instead, the Cuban-born legislator touts her experience as chairwoman or vice chairwoman of almost every international relations subcommittee, 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.

image CARL JUSTE/HERALD STAFF

‘‘Cuba is more than the birthplace stamped on my passport. It defines me. But a lot of folks don’t understand that a lot of what I do is not tied to Cuba,’’ Ros-Lehtinen said. “I love to work on advancing the cause of freedom for Cuba. But I’m that and so much more.’‘

The point has not gone unnoticed in Washington, D.C., and it’s one of the reasons Ros-Lehtinen, 53, is said to be a leading contender for the chair, even though she’s not the most senior member of the committee.

‘‘she’s gone out of her way to nurse an image that’s more than just an antagonist of Fidel Castro,’’ said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Palm Beach Republican and unabashed Ros-Lehtinen supporter. “To her credit, she’s been very effective and holds a valued opinion on a diverse range of topics.’‘

GOP TEAM PLAYER

Committee chairmanships once were solely a function of seniority, but with House Republicans showing an interest in rewarding loyal Republicans, congressional observers suggest Ros-Lehtinen—first elected to Congress in 1989—has a chance at becoming the first Cuban American to chair a committee. They note that, at a time when Republicans are courting Hispanics, her gender and ethnicity are factors in her favor, as is her reputation as a GOP team player.

The decision, which will be made after the November 2006 election should Republicans hold the majority, is up to a 32-member steering committee largely dominated by the House speaker and majority leader.

RIVAL: DAN BURTON

Congressional observers suggest the race is down to two people: Ros-Lehtinen and Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, 67, a more senior member of the committee whom Ros-Lehtinen calls a “good friend.’‘

‘‘she’s in a dead heat with Dan Burton, who has more seniority, but she comes from a more global epicenter,’’ said Al Cárdenas, former Florida GOP chairman and a Washington lobbyist with close ties to GOP leadership.

“Burton may have the edge with seniority, but Ily has the edge on some of the tangibles. It’s going to go down to the wire.’‘

The opportunity for Ros-Lehtinen to ascend to leadership is prompting near swooning among her fellow Republicans. They suggest that her appointment to one of the nation’s most influential foreign policy posts could help usher in a new era of prominence for South Florida—an era like the 1980s, when the region was a powerhouse in Washington. At that time, senior Democratic congressmen such as William Lehman, Claude Pepper and Dante Fascell chaired major committees, put their stamp on legislation and steered money for projects to South Florida.

‘‘It could put Florida back on the map,’’ said Republican fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta, who heads up Florida’s effort to land the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Ros-Lehtinen, Arrizurieta notes, would be the first Florida legislator to chair international relations since Fascell held sway in the 1980s, overseeing Florida’s emergence as a gateway to Latin America.

INFLUENCE ON THE HILL

‘‘It would be great for Ileana, but what’s more, it would be a substantial win for South Florida,’’ Arrizurieta said.

What’s more, Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, is in position to ascend to the chairmanship of the powerful House rules committee and Rep. Clay Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, is in a competitive race to chair the House Committee on Ways and Means—a budget committee with major influence over legislation.

‘‘If all three are successful, we could be back in the heyday when South Floridians were in positions of great influence,’’ Cárdenas said.

All the bids are conditional upon Republicans retaining their hold on the House after the November 2006 election. That has the contenders campaigning furiously for the distinction, including raising money for other Republicans through political action committees. Fundraising prowess isn’t the only factor GOP leaders will take into account, but it helps, observers said.

As of the end of July, Ros-Lehtinen’s leadership fund had contributed $77,000 to the party and candidates for 2006. As of the end of June, Burton’s fund had contributed $43,000, according to campaign watchdog group Political Moneyline.

The money element makes it difficult to predict a winner: With candidates for chairs of 10 committees raising money to benefit other Republicans, GOP leaders are loath to tip their hand as to which candidates might have the upper hand.

Burton, elected in 1982, outranks Ros-Lehtinen in seniority and has experience chairing the Government Reform Committee. But some watchers note that his candidacy took a hit when Capitol Hill newspapers reported that he missed a vote on legislation dear to current International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde because he was playing golf. Burton has been keeping a low profile on his bid and declined comment.

PUSHING CANDIDACY

Ros-Lehtinen, in contrast, is eager to talk about her campaign. But she notes that she’s done pitching her peers. She said she has made her intentions clear, meeting with members of the leadership-stacked committee that picks the candidates and collecting endorsements from special interest organizations, including the influential American Jewish Congress.

‘I’m a very aggressive, Type A personality and I don’t want members to walk in a room, see me and figure, `Oh no, she’s going to lobby me again!’ ‘’ Ros-Lehtinen said, laughing. “I’ve made my splash. Now, it’s up to leadership to determine who is best for the job.’‘

But a lower profile won’t extend to fundraising: She and Gov. Jeb Bush will host a $2,000-per-person fundraiser for her leadership PAC in December—an event originally scheduled for this month, but postponed by Hurricane Katrina.

The committee chairmanship would give Ros-Lehtinen access to the House leadership’s inner circle and provide her with an enhanced position to influence U.S. policy relating to Cuba, including defending the Cuban economic embargo against efforts to weaken it.

But Ros-Lehtinen says she sees her role as a broader one on a committee that is “much more than a great debating society.’‘

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

The committee’s portfolio includes helping to set the agenda for American foreign policy—it’s the committee that grants the president the authority to use armed forces.

INDEPENDENT STREAK

In most cases, Ros-Lehtinen said, she’s likely to side with the Bush administration in its effort to promote “freedom and democracy around the world.’‘

Yet, Ros-Lehtinen has an independent streak. She broke with the party to urge the Pentagon to allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the military.

‘‘I don’t like to make trouble for the administration,’’ she said as she explained her position, ‘but this `Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is unworkable. We’re losing good men and women who want to serve.’‘

She remains a staunch defender of the war in Iraq, though, despite her stepson’s deployment and polls that show faltering public support for the effort.

‘‘The theater of operations happens to be in Iraq, but it’s a war against extremism,’’ she said. “We could just as well be fighting this war in New York.’’

Member Comments

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On September 27, 2005, publisher wrote:

“As she campaigns to lead the influential International Relations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talks little about the issue with which she’ most often identified: Cuba.”

Hmmm, I wonder if that’ because she has been a closed minded, political hack and failure for her entire career? Maybe that would have something to do with why her history of Cuba policy is not high on her resume.

Perhaps she will be as patient waiting for this job as she has been with her Cuba policy waiting for that to work.

Any year now Ileana, any year now.

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On September 28, 2005, abh wrote:

” ‘It could put Florida back on the map,’ said Republican fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta.”

Is he kidding?  My goodness.  Yeah, I really hope they suceed in putting Florida back on the map.  Jusucristo de mi vida.

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On September 29, 2005, jesusp wrote:

“Cuba is more than the birthplace stamped on my passport. It defines me”. I respectfully disagree with you Rep. Ros-Lehtinen,
Cuba, its history and its people are a lot better than that.