WASHINGTON – Even with Republicans in control of the Senate, the Bush administration could face another tough confirmation battle next year over Otto Reich, the State Department's top official on Latin America.
A prolonged fight over the position could further diminish U.S. attention to a region that has been wracked by political and economic turmoil but has not been a top priority for the Bush administration while it pursues international terrorists and considers a war against Iraq.
Reich was nominated by President Bush last year, but Democrats said he was unqualified and refused to consider his nomination. Republicans claimed the Cuban-born Reich was being punished for his conservative political views, particularly his hardline opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
In January, Bush bypassed the Senate and gave Reich a recess appointment as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. That appointment ends when Congress adjourns, which could be as soon as this week. It is not clear whether he could continue serving on an interim basis after that.
The Bush administration is expected to re-nominate Reich, though it has not said it would do so. Reich was traveling this week and could not be reached for comment.
Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for Reich's Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau, said Reich "still has the full confidence of the president and the secretary of state and he will continue to serve for as long as the president desires and for as long as the law allows.''
Reich's chances of being confirmed improved when the Republicans won control of the Senate in this month's elections. The likely next chairman of Foreign Relations' Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said he would hold hearings — something the current chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., refused to do.
But Dodd, Reich's main opponent in Congress, could still use a process known as a hold to prevent the full Senate from voting on Reich's nomination. Dodd said Tuesday he would oppose a Reich nomination, but didn't say if he would put a hold on it.
"Let's see first if he's sent up,'' Dodd said.
Even without a hold, it's not certain Reich's nomination would make it through the committee to the full Senate. At least one Republican member of the subcommittee, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, opposed Reich last year. Chafee, a moderate Republican, has not said whether he would support Reich, though he said he tends to back presidential nominees. The next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has not said whether he would support Reich.
"I'm not going to comment on my preference here,'' Lugar said in an interview last week. "I'm awaiting a decision that I presume will be made by the president with the counsel of Secretary (of State Colin) Powell and, to my knowledge, has not been made at this point.''
Reich has been in office during a chaotic time for Latin America. Argentina is in its worst economic crisis in its history and has defaulted on its debt. Brazil has also struggled economically and elected a leftist president critical of U.S. policies. Colombia's 38-year-old civil war has deepened. In Venezuela, a coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez failed in April, but tensions remain high between the government and the opposition.
Reich's opponents say the U.S. response to the coup attempt reinforced their view that he is not qualified. The Bush administration was criticized for seeming to acquiesce in the coup attempt — something it denies.
"If they go to put Otto up, they're in for a fight,'' said Bill Goodfellow of the leftist Center for International Policy.
Reich's supporters say he has done well under difficult conditions.
"He's proven he can handle the job,'' said Dennis Hays of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation. "He's brought some focus and attention to a continent that often gets pushed to the side.''