The World from The Hill: Iran 'No. 1' on agenda for Foreign Affairs panel leader

A senior House Republican is putting Iran and its nuclear program at the top of her aggressive agenda in the next Congress.

Taking the helm of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Iran is “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” on the panel's to-do list.

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Oversight will be stepped up, she said, while noting the limitations of legislation that passes her committee.

“The bills that we pass become interesting historical documents but not really bills that have been implemented,” the Florida Republican said, referring to bipartisan congressional efforts to pass tough Iran sanctions. “And so we want to put an end to that. Can we do it? We can't force the administration to do it.

“But we hope to have oversight hearings that will ask the administration, ‘Why aren't you sanctioning more banks and companies and countries? What are we doing and what are you waiting for?’ ” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The congresswoman said she is “absolutely” intending to hold hearings into the arms sale and nuclear proliferation ties between Iran, Venezuela and Russia.

“The ties of Iran to Venezuela are ever-growing,” she said. "They're serious, expanding all the time and increasingly worrisome to democratic interests inside Venezuela and throughout the region including the United States.”

Probing that web will be critical both at the subcommittee and full-panel levels, Ros-Lehtinen said.

“The Iranian nexus into Latin America is often overlooked, and we overlook it at our own peril,” she said. “The Russians and the arms sales and the way that they're facilitating the arms buildup for Iran, the dual-use technology that they're sending them so that it allows Iran to continue to say, ‘Oh, it's just for peaceful purposes.’ ”

Such hearings could irk the Obama administration, which has made pressing the “reset button” with Russia a priority, but Ros-Lehtinen said the reset has to be “a two-way switch,” particularly as Moscow is "still going around the Iran sanctions legislation.”

“Same ol', same ol' for them as we push restart,” she said. “And I think that we need to look at Russia as what it is — that's it's a potential good ally but not quite there. And wishing and hoping and praying doesn't make it.”

In a sit-down interview with The Hill, Ros-Lehtinen reflected on her freshman start on the committee, where the incoming chairwoman had only a chair, not even a desk space. “I've been in the Foreign Affairs Committee since the day I got here, and 21 years later I get to chair the committee,” she said. “It's unbelievable.”

The ranking Republican not only credits fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba at the age of eight as the reason she has a “great appreciation for the democratic form government,” but proudly shows a collection of framed photos sent to her by the Coast Guard when they encounter "inventive ways" in which Cubans hit the seas in a risky mission to make it from the communist island to America.

“I always look at that and remember from whence I came and give thanks,” she said.

Among the photos that liberally decorate the walls featuring the congresswoman with world leaders — from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Dalai Lama — is a black-and-white photo of Che Guevara taken a few minutes before he was killed by Bolivian forces in 1967. When Castro began calling Ros-Lehtinen a “loba feroz” — “ferocious she-wolf” — she promptly, proudly got it on a personalized license plate.

“Castro doesn't realize every time he calls me that it's a badge of honor,” she said. “I said, call me some more names!”

Still, Ros-Lehtinen’s focus as the next Foreign Affairs chairwoman extends beyond her homeland.

“I hope to advance in our committee the ideas that I strongly believe in, and that’s the advancement of freedom and human rights and the rule of law,” she said, adding that she will also be stressing the cost-cutting focus in the GOP’s Pledge to America.

“I am well aware of the fact that I'm not in the foreign aid part of the Appropriations Committee — that belongs there — but I’d like to be able to have a voice in setting the agenda and giving guidance as the authorizing committee to the appropriating committee and say we all need to cut,” she said.

What could be on the chopping block? Everything from foreign aid and the State Department to agencies such as USAID. And one area “ripe with fraud and waste and abuse” that Ros-Lehtinen said she would like to tackle is the United Nations's Human Rights Council, which boasts Cuba and Libya as members.

President Obama decided to put the U.S. back on the council after Bush administration protests, something the congresswoman calls “a shame.”

“I'd like to make sure that we once and for all kill all U.S. funding for that beast,” she said. “If Cuba wants to fund it, let them fund it. If Libya wants to do it, wants to belong to it, wants to fund it, let them do it. We should not be a part of it and we should certainly not pay for it.”

Ros-Lehtinen is planning on conducting oversight hearings on the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, the U.N. budget and how U.S. dollars have been used for humanitarian purposes in Haiti.

“No country should be overlooked and no region should be overlooked, and no agency should be, either,” she said.

She praised Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) for wanting to reserve 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. as committee time, which she said would help facilitate hearings and witness testimony uninterrupted by votes. She also expects really “vibrant” subcommittees that will “be looking at everything within their jurisdiction.”

With four spots on the committee in the next Congress still unfilled as of Thursday, the chairwoman-to-be is also eagerly awaiting the freshman class.

“They get it,” she said of incoming members. “They understand that America is the world’s superpower, and they’re not ashamed of it. They’re not like President Obama — ‘whether we want to be or not’ — yes, hell yes, we are and we’re darn proud of it, and they understand the difference between our allies and our enemies.”

Republicans such as Ros-Lehtinen have long shared common cause over issues such as Iran and Israel with Democrats like Reps. Brad Sherman (Calif.) and Eliot Engel (N.Y.), and she expects that bipartisan cooperation to continue.

“We don’t want rancor or division,” she said of the post-midterm landscape. “Some people were bitter, but I hope that we can move on from that and I hope that we can have a bipartisan committee that does work well.”

On Iran, she stressed that Democrats “are as equally frustrated as I am.”

“The executive branch believes that foreign affairs is their prerogative,” she said. “And they resent intrusion of the legislative arm into what they consider their ball of wax. Well, we control the purse strings in the House and in the Senate so we should have a lot to say about the implementation.”

Iran is a “huge” example of that, Ros-Lehtinen said.

“There's just a lot that we can do in setting the tone and I hope that the tone will be received in the White House as well and will be heard,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen also said she hopes the administration will cooperate with her hearings even as it stresses diplomatic engagement with Iran.

“They're going to continue with these niceties, and I don't think that these thugs respond to niceties,” she said. “We can't continue to waste precious time. The time to act is now.”

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