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Bush recess appointment may be path for Reich

By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 23, 2001

WASHINGTON -- President Bush may use Congress' winter vacation to push through the diplomatic appointment of a Cuba hard-liner whose nomination has been stymied in the Senate.

The president in March nominated Otto J. Reich, a figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

A native of Cuba, Reich enjoys broad support within the Cuban exile community, as well as the backing of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats.

Some Senate Democrats, however, led by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, have refused to hold a confirmation hearing for the 56-year-old Reich, insisting that his work in the Reagan White House makes him unfit for the job.

In the 1980s, federal investigators accused the office Reich once directed of engaging in "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" in the United States designed to discredit the Marxist government of Nicaragua. He was never charged with a crime.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Dodd has sat on the nomination.

On Thursday, Dodd reiterated his opposition to Reich, who also would oversee Cuba policy. Asked if Reich would get the job, the senator said, "I don't think so."

Even if Dodd were to let his name out for a vote, Sen. Nelson said Reich is not a shoo-in. Nelson serves on the subcommittee with Dodd, as well as on the full Foreign Relations Committee.

Referring to Reich's future, Nelson said: "It doesn't look good, because I am told by the chairmen of both the full committee and the subcommittee that he does not have the votes in the committee. And, although he would have my vote, apparently there are a number of Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee that would not vote for him."

In October, Sen. Jesse Helms, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, requested a straw poll on Reich during a committee hearing. Three Republicans declined to raise their hands in support.

Under the Constitution, however, the president holds a trump card: He can make a "recess appointment." When the Senate is in recess, presidents may bypass confirmation by installing nominees. The nominee may then stay in office until Congress adjourns the next year.

Ignoring pleas earlier in the week by Bush to confirm Reich and Eugene Scalia, the nominee for Labor Department solicitor, the Senate went into recess on Friday and is scheduled to return Jan. 23. Scalia, a Washington labor lawyer, is the son of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, in response to a question about the Reich nomination, a White House official said the president was reviewing all his options, including a recess appointment. The official said nothing had been ruled out.

Asked for his reaction to the possibility of a recess appointment, Dodd said, "Well, I've always, you know, felt that was an unwise move to make."

Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that by stalling the Reich nomination, Democrats were denying the president "his right to have an entire foreign policy team in place."

"Otto Reich needs to be put in place," Fleischer said. "His position is critical to our relationship with our partners in the Western Hemisphere at a time when nations in Central and Latin America are looking for leadership from the United States to help them with difficult internal issues."

Supporters, including the Cuban American National Foundation, point to a series of problems in the region in pushing for the immediate confirmation of Reich: the debt crisis in Argentina, the Marxist guerrilla war in Colombia and the strong-arm rule of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Reich is a former ambassador to Venezuela.

Dennis K. Hays, the Washington-based executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, blamed the impasse over the Reich nomination on opponents bent on smearing his name.

"There's been a huge effort to demonize him as an individual," he said, "but nothing holds up."

He declared Reich "a wonderful choice for this position."

What troubles opponents is the role Reich played in the Iran-Contra affair, a secret operation that helped fund the U.S.-backed Contra rebels with arms sales to Iran. Iran-Contra was the Reagan administration's most embarrassing foreign policy initiative.

From the summer of 1983 until late 1986, Reich ran a controversial government office designed to generate American public support for the U.S.-backed war in El Salvador and for the Contras in Nicaragua.

The office relied on Army psychological-warfare specialists and was accused of smearing U.S. journalists the administration found especially critical of its Central America policy.

Nelson said Reich's past is not a problem, so far as he was concerned. "It bothers me and I've spoken directly to Mr. Reich about that, and he has explained his point of view and I've talked to a number of people in Florida who know him well and they have satisfied me," he said.

Graham also supports the nomination. "I start from the presumption that the president should have the people responsible to him, his team, that he wants," Graham said.

As for the past allegations, Graham said: "They've been fully reviewed. I don't think there's anything left to learn about them and, in my opinion, they are not close to being disqualifying for his service."

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