Kerry-DeMint Clash Over Honduras Trip Highlights Policy Feud

On the Senate floor, Republican Jim DeMint, left, deplored Democrat John F. Kerry's
On the Senate floor, Republican Jim DeMint, left, deplored Democrat John F. Kerry's "bullying tactics." (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

A simmering feud over U.S. policy toward Latin America burst into the open Thursday when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) tried to prevent a fact-finding trip to Honduras by a Republican senator who is blocking two important diplomatic appointments.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) denounced Kerry's move on the Senate floor and sought the intervention of the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Republican leader appealed to the Defense Department to provide an aircraft for DeMint's trip and the Pentagon agreed to do so, according to the South Carolina senator's office.

"These bullying tactics by the Obama administration and Senator Kerry must stop, and we must be allowed to get to the truth in Honduras," DeMint said in a statement. His spokesman, Wesley Denton, called Kerry's action "unprecedented."

Kerry fired back in a news release: "Senator DeMint's statement wins an A for 'audacity.' Thanks to his intransigence, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can't even hold hearings on our policy in Central and South America."

The statement, issued by Kerry's spokesman, Frederick Jones, added that when DeMint allows a vote on the appointment of the two diplomats, "the Committee will approve his travel to Honduras."

The clash showed the depths of animosity that have developed in Congress over Obama's policy toward Honduras since its leader was removed by its military in June and expelled from the country.

The administration, along with all other governments in the hemisphere, branded the action a "coup." It also cut off millions of dollars in aid and suspended the U.S. visas of Honduran officials. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped organize negotiations, led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, that produced a plan to allow ousted president Manuel Zelaya to return to his post temporarily, with limited powers.

The de facto Honduran government, led by Roberto Micheletti, a former leader of the National Congress, has rejected that proposed settlement.

DeMint and a handful of other conservative Republicans have said Zelaya's removal was legal because he had violated a constitutional ban by trying to extend his presidential term. They have protested that the Obama administration is supporting a politician with close ties to Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Ch?vez.

For weeks, DeMint has held up a critical Senate vote on Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's choice to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the nominee to be ambassador to Brazil.

DeMint aides said he was preparing to travel to Honduras on Friday with three Republican House members -- Aaron Schock (Ill.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Doug Lamborn (Colo.) -- when they learned that the trip had been nixed by Kerry.

As head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry can withhold committee funds for travel and deny permission for the use of military aircraft. But he had never before used that power to block another senator's travel, his aides said.

DeMint's office said Thursday evening that thanks to McConnell's intervention, the trip would go forward. DeMint's statement accused the State Department of being part of the effort to block his trip.

But Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, denied that it had played any such role.

"We don't control congressional travel," he said.

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