New Honduras government gains ground with Congress

There are tentative signs from Democrats in Congress of support for the forces that removed Honduras President Manuel Zelaya from power at the end of June.

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Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of a key House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Honduras, roundly criticized both factions at a Friday hearing. But he also stopped short of calling for Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement, which he’d done in previous statements.

While Engel said the United States and its allies in the Western Hemisphere could not tolerate what appeared to be a military coup, he said Zelaya had ignored his country’s own Supreme Court, legislature and even members of his political party when he sought to change the constitution by seeking a second term as president.

“When the entire political establishment speaks and expresses dire concerns, the President needed to listen. From everything I can see, he did not,” Engel said during the hearing of his House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

In a statement on June 29, a day after Zelaya was removed, Engel called for Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement.

“I strongly condemn the removal of President Zelaya and believe that he should be reinstated without delay,” Engel said in the statement.

The Obama administration has tread carefully since Zelaya’s removal. It has called for the reinstatement of Zelaya, an ally of Venezeula strongman Hugo Chavez. President Obama said Zelaya’s removal was illegal, but the administration has pressed for a negotiated solution.

In Congress, the battle has basically gone along party lines, with Republicans unified in supporting Honduras’s military. They’ve argued Zelaya was removed because he was acting against Honduras’s constitution.

Democrats in Capitol Hill have been critical of Zelaya’s ouster, but Engel’s comments on Friday suggest the push against Zelaya may be gaining currency.

Honduran business groups have hired Washington lobbyists, including a former advisor to former President Clinton, to press their case that Honduras’s military was right to remove Zelaya.

As The Hill reported Friday, the Honduran branch of CEAL, the Latin American equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has hired Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to lobby on its behalf in Washington.

Firm partner Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton and supporter of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, is representing CEAL and testified at Engel’s hearing Friday.

In his opening statement, Davis said his client supports the mediation process but that “they believe that no one is above the law  — including the President — under the Honduran Constitution, just as no one is above the law under the U.S. Constitution.”

In an interview Thursday, Engel said Zelaya would be returned to power if the mediation process now established, under the guidance of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, was allowed to take its course, but that under the constitution he should not be allowed to run for a second term.

“I think if mediation is done, almost assuredly the outcome will be the reinstatement of Zelaya as president, but with it, the understanding that he cannot, under the constitution, run again for a second term and then there would be elections in November and even people in his own party, I’m told, have opposed him trying to run for a second term,” Engel said. “I think that’s the likely outcome of the mediation and I think it’s a fair outcome.”

Many Republicans on the Hill are throwing their support behind the military.

“They shouldn’t be treated like a rogue regime,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “They’re a group of people within the democratic process who are stopping a power-grab by someone who’s trying to concentrate power unconstitutionally.”

Rohrabacher’s comments were echoed in the upper chamber earlier in the week as a group of 17 Republican senators sent a letter to Clinton asking for the White House to support Zelaya’s removal.

The Obama Administration has advocated mediation led by Costa Rica President Oscar Arias as the appropriate process to reach such a resolution.

Freshman Democrat Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), who managed a multitude of Central American issues for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the 1980s and has dealt with Arias at length, said the Costa Rican carries the adequate clout to bring about fair results.

“The fact that [Arias] is known in the region, I think makes him a particularly effective choice to try and mediate the situation, rather than have it be a U.S. imposed solution or perceived as a U.S. imposed solution,” said Connolly in a recent interview. “I think it’s a very skillful deployment of an indigenous resource.”

In the meantime, the White House has suspended $16.5 million in military aid to Honduras and $1.9 million from the USAID, in addition  to freezing U.S.-supported educational and family planning programs in the country.