By TED MONOSON | Lee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – In an effort to get action on legislation to permit Americans to travel to Cuba, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., plans to stall Senate confirmation of President Bush’s nominee for senior U.S. diplomat in Latin America.
The Baucus plans to place a “hold” on the nomination of Robert F. Noriega to serve as Department of State assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere until the Senate has an opportunity to vote on a bill that would prohibit the president from directly or indirectly blocking travel to Cuba.
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower responded to Fidel Castro’s nationalization of the property of U.S. companies by imposing an embargo on Cuba that is still in place.
In 1958, Eisenhower banned travel to Cuba. After the Supreme Court ruled the ban was unconstitutional, Eisenhower banned Americans from spending money in Cuba. That ban, like the embargo, remains in place.
Baucus’ spokesman said the senator does not object to Noriega’s nomination but is simply using it to pressure Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to act on the bill permitting travel to Cuba.
The spokesman said Baucus would not place a hold on the nomination if the Cuba travel bill is brought up.
Baucus is the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation eliminating restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Senators are not required to disclose when they have a hold on a nominee or bill. Holds and other political tactics have prevented a Senate-approved nominee from filling the State Department post for the last four years.
“Max is putting his shoulder to the wheel because opening trade with Cuba will create jobs and boost Montana’s economy,” Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who is a lead co-sponsor of the legislation permitting travel to Cuba, is still evaluating Noriega’s qualifications, his spokesman Coy Knobel said.
The Wyoming lawmaker is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held a hearing on Noriega’s nomination and must vote on it before the full Senate takes action. Baucus cannot place a hold on the nomination until the committee votes on it.
“Sen. Enzi is still evaluating the nominee’s answers and will cast his vote accordingly when a vote is held in the committee,” Knobel said. “Should Mr. Noriega’s nomination pass the committee, then Sen. Enzi will take another look at his options. Sen. Baucus is free to exercise his rights under Senate rules as he sees fit.”
Noriega is the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, which seeks multinational efforts to do such things as increase trade to fight illegal drugs and poverty.
The bill permitting travel to Cuba has 16 co-sponsors and could win the support of a majority of the hundred senators if it is brought up for a vote.
Members of the Bush administration have said that the president would block any bill permitting travel to Cuba.
Castro’s recent imprisonment of about 75 dissidents and execution of three men who hijacked a ferry as part of an attempt to defect has hardened opposition to lifting the travel restriction against his country.
Baucus and other supporters of removing the travel restrictions say it will lead to trade between the United States and Cuba.
They say that interactions between citizens of the United States and Cuba would weaken Castro’s grip on the Caribbean nation.
Baucus made the same argument when he led the successful effort to permanently establish normal trade relations between the United States and China.