Bush Nominee in Political Slugfest

The White House and the Senate are deadlocked over the State Department's top Latin American position, nine months after President Bush first proposed Otto Reich for the post.

Senate Democrats, led by Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, refuse to hold a confirmation hearing for Reich, whom they consider unqualified. The White House won't withdraw his name, saying he is the victim of a smear campaign.

Any attempt to pull back Reich's nomination probably would upset Cuban-American leaders in Florida -- an important base of support to both President Bush and his brother, Jeb Bush, who will seek re-election as Florida governor next year.

Reich's supporters have urged Bush to bypass the Senate and give Reich a one-year appointment during Congress' recess. But Bush advisers say that is not being considered seriously.

A recess appointment would be seen as an affront to Senate Democrats at a time the administration is stressing bipartisanship against terrorism.

Moreover, a recess appointment may not be an option. Lawmakers are considering skipping the recess planned for this month because of the war on terrorism. Some Republicans say Democrats may be trying to prevent the possibility of recess appointments -- including Reich's.

Without a recess appointment, Reich's nomination as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs is stuck. It's up to Dodd, chairman of Foreign Relations' Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, to schedule a hearing.

"That nomination's not going anywhere. That's the end of it," Dodd told The Hartford Courant in November.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell has continued to push for a hearing. He has called Reich the most important among State's unconfirmed nominees.

"He has done nothing -- nothing at all -- in his career in government that should be seen as disqualifying for this job," Powell said recently. "He has been looked at, he has been investigated, we've been over all of those investigations, and Otto Reich is an honorable man."

Dodd and other opponents of Reich have criticized his work in the 1980s as a State Department official heading an office accused of putting out illegal domestic propaganda against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

They also suggest that Reich, as ambassador to Venezuela in the Reagan administration, tried to help a Cuban exile suspected of bombing a Cuban plane enter the United States. And they question whether his work as a lobbyist for companies involved in Latin America presents conflicts of interest.

The Bush administration and Reich's other supporters strongly reject accusations of wrongdoing and say he should be given a hearing to defend himself. They say Reich, a Cuban-American, is being punished for his political views, particularly his strong criticism of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, said he doesn't expect White House support to waver.

"We've never heard anything other than a firm commitment to Ambassador Reich," he said.

Dan Fisk of the conservative Heritage Foundation said the White House "should be willing to support him to the extent that he wants to hang in there."

Reich has declined interviews since the White House announced plans to nominate him in March. He has left his lobbying firm and is working without salary at the State Department.

Bernard Aronson, the State Department's top Latin American affairs official in the first Bush administration, said U.S. relations with the region are hurt by the lack of an assistant secretary backed by both the president and the Senate, someone who can keep Latin America high on the political agenda.

"Historically, the United States has failed to pay important sustained attention to the region on a regular basis and that is usually when we've gotten in trouble in the region," he said.