"Working together for a free Cuba"




Key role for Miami lawmaker.
By Oscar Corral

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart is poised to become vice chairman of the pivotal House Rules Committee, boosting his influence in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, R-Miami, will become the next vice chairman of the House Rules committee, giving him considerable power over every piece of legislation that goes before Congress, including Social Security and the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

As the next in line to become chairman, Díaz-Balart, 50, has reached one of the most influential posts ever for a Cuban-American member of Congress.

He and his Republican colleagues see it as major step toward regaining the power in Congress that defined the era of the late South Florida congressmen Dante Fascell and Claude Pepper, who was chairman of the Rules Committee when he died in 1989 at age 88.

''Being chairman of the Rules Committee is why Pepper was the extraordinary institution that he was,'' Díaz-Balart said in an interview. ``No law change can go to the floor while I'm there. To have a position of that responsibility is very important for our community.''

The Rules Committee acts as the traffic cop of the House. It decides whether a bill will go to the floor, how long it will be debated and if amendments can be offered. In another day, the committee was the burying ground of civil rights legislation.

Díaz-Balart's unexpected ascent into the position means the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba will receive a boost Jan. 25, when the position becomes official. Besides the embargo, Díaz-Balart said he will also closely monitor legislation involving Social Security and Medicare reform, Everglades restoration and immigration, all of which can deeply affect South Florida.

As the second in command on Rules, Díaz-Balart will have the power to determine legislation to send to the House floor for a vote, giving him the ability to kill any attempts at loosening the embargo before they even come to a vote. He said he has already flexed his muscle as a Rules member for anti-embargo legislation.

''That's why they never get to the floor,'' Díaz-Balart said of bills that try to relax the embargo. ``Why do you think the Cuba debates here are limited to amendments in appropriations bills?''

Kevin Hill, a Florida International University political science professor who has worked on the campaign of Lincoln's brother, Mario Díaz-Balart, said that economic sanctions against Cuba will now be practically airtight.

''There's a lot of Republicans who want to loosen the embargo,'' Hill said. "That is dead. Lincoln will never let that stuff come to the floor.''

Pepper was the last South Florida congressional member with such power on the Rules Committee. He became chairman when he was 82. Now a legend in Dade politics, Pepper skillfully employed his position to South Florida's benefit by becoming a congressional watchdog for the elderly and the poor.


''I consider him [Pepper] in many ways a role model of what a member of Congress can do for a community,'' Díaz-Balart said. ``I have to admit I idolize him.''

At their prime in the 1980s, three Democratic congressmen from Dade all held major House chairmanships -- Fascell at Foreign Affairs, Pepper at Rules and Bill Lehman at the appropriations panel on transportation. They collaborated to help fund major projects in South Florida, including Metrorail.

Today, a new generation of Miami-Dade leaders -- this time Republican -- is ascending the ranks in Congress. Ros Lehtinen is chairman of the Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee, and Mario Díaz-Balart, Lincoln's brother, is a member of the House transportation committee.

''The next move is to get Mario Díaz-Balart or Kendrick [Meek] into appropriations,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.

Chairmanships of most congressional committees are based on seniority, but the members of the Rules committee are appointed by the House speaker. Díaz-Balart's ascent to the vice chairmanship began early last year when the vice chairman at the time, Porter Goss, resigned to be the head of the CIA. But there were still two people ahead of Díaz-Balart -- Reps. John Linder of Georgia and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

But they both left the committee in the last few months -- Linder to become a Republican point man for tax reform and Pryce to chair the Republican conference, Díaz-Balart said. Rep. David Dreier, of California, has been Rules chairman since 1999 and was named to his fourth term in the position by House Speaker Dennis Hastert.


Dreier said he and Díaz-Balart see eye to eye on many issues, including immigration and Cuba, and he looks forward to working more closely with him.

''This is a very important new position that he has, and he is going to be very valuable to me and to our leadership team,'' Dreier said in a telephone interview.

Díaz-Balart already had power in the Rules Committee. For example, he said that last year, he stalled a bill that eliminated money for Everglades restoration until funding was restored.

One fellow Republican who has in the past tried to loosen the embargo, U.S. Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, said Díaz-Balart's new position on Rules is a testament to his popularity in Congress, not his position on Cuba.

''Lincoln is one of the best-liked members of the House. He is deeply convictioned on the Cuba issue,'' Leach said in a written statement.

"But his promotion relates principally to the respect with which his colleagues hold him.''

U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat who has worked for years to try to lift the embargo, said that Díaz-Balart will not hesitate to flex his new political muscle in that role.

''He will use that position in many ways, and one of them will be to stop any legislation coming to the floor that would allow the U.S. to have a different position toward Cuba,'' Serrano said. ``He'll make it a powerful position because he is that aggressive.''

Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state and President Bush's special envoy for the Western Hemisphere from 2001 to 2004, said Díaz-Balart's influence in this new position is in no means limited to the embargo debate.

''It affects all legislation, not just the embargo,'' Reich said. "He chose the Rules Committee precisely because it has such a pivotal role in determining what legislation gets to the floor and in what shape.''

Source: www.netforcuba.org
           January 22, 2005