Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday attacked the Carter administration's policy toward Caribbean refugees as racially biased and confused and "increasingly out of control."
The denunciation came as the administration said it now estimates as many as 60,000 Cubans will have fled here by the end of this month -- twice as many as have come so far.
As the setting for his attack, Kennedy briefly abandoned the campaign trail and came home to the oak-paneled hearing room of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. It was the first time he had presided over a hearing of the committee since his formal challenge to Carter last November.
The witness defending administration policy was Victor H. Palmieri, President Carter's refugee coordinator.
Most of the questioning by Kennedy and others focused on the administration's failure, as they see it, to enlist other Latin American countries to share the burden of the refugees problem; on the unequal treatment afforded Haitian refugees compared with Cubans; and on the administration's failure to speedily arrange federal financial support for struggling refugees communities here.
But the proceedings were punctuated with mischievous references, primarily from Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), to the politics of the issue.
"I don't want to get in the middle of these politics. . . . But I'm an objective questioner here," he said at one point, drawing laughter from the packed hearing room. And at another: "I can't remember which primaries are coming up. . . ."
"You used to know," Kennedy interjected, gettin more laughs with his reference to Dole's recently terminated presidential candidacy.
Senators of both parties pressed Palmieri to state the administration's policy toward the 15,000 to 30,000 Haitian refugees, almost all of whom are black, who are believed to have fled here since 1972. Many have never received work permits and have subsisted on charity, according to testimony.
"Open arms," Kennedy said, quoting Carter's recent comment that the United States will welcome the Cubans with "an open heart and open arms."
"Does that include the Haitians? My understanding is that it's open arms except the Haitians . . ."
D.C. Rep. Walter Fauntroy (D) in testimony before the committee, yesterday charged the administration with "dishonesty combined with incompetence" in its approach to the matter of Haitian refugees.
Palmieri responded to the criticism by citing the special relationship of the United States to Cubans trying to escape 20 years of Castro's oppression.
He emphasized the complexities of the situation, the need for caution and deliberation, and said the administration is "considering various answers."
Palmieri warned Congress against "giving others the invitation to rush to our shores."
"I urge this committee to be careful," he said noting that the United States this year will take in 232,000 "refugees" of various nationalities, in addition to the unusual immigrants, and will spend $1.7 billion on their resettlement and related problems.
One sticking point in yesterday's heated session was the urging of Kennedy and others that the administration use its authority, which expires Thursday, to give blanket regugee status to the Haitians.
But both sides agreed that, whether or not Carter uses that authority, the administration will have to go to Congress for special funding to deal with the refugees.
"We were just trying to give them some backbone . . . send them a signal, to do that," said a Kennedy aide. "they haven't got the leadership over there to deal with it.
To Palmieri's claim that Congress is trying to "stampede" the administration into a hasty, emotional decision with unknown consequences, Kennedy retorted that he had written the administration concerning the Haitian problem as far back as early November.
The senators also grilled Palmieri about administration efforts to spread the burden to other nations, and to work through the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
Under questioning, Palmieri conceded that a conference last week in Costa Rica had yielded no increase in the number of refugees other nations are committed to accept. Palmieri said he had not asked for any additional commitments.
The number one priority of the conference, he said, was to establish a delegation to go to Cuba, negotiate with Castro and arrange an orderly and humane approach to the Cuban refugee situation.
But some senators reacted with a display of frustration and incredulity at the news that only the United States, Great Britain and Costa Rica were in that delegation -- none of them noted for their "close relationship" to Fidel Castro.
Palmieri cited the complexities and risks of the interprise for most Latin American governments, "in terms of criticism from their own liftist press."
But Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), who was sitting in on the hearing because of the intense involvement of his home state in the problem, drawled with some annoyance, "I know, Mr. Ambassador, that if you are waiting for volunteers, you're going to wait a long, long time."
"What we're failing to do," Chiles added later, "is bring that [problem with Castro] into the world courts of public opinion. . . . It would be nice if we could sit back and take forever. . . ."