WASHINGTON — A South Carolina senator who opposes the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Honduras is blocking the nominations of two appointees to the State Department.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., asked Tuesday that the nominations of Arturo Valenzuela, President Barack Obama's choice to be the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Tom Shannon, his candidate for ambassador to Brazil, be held until the next Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting. The committee, which is scheduled to meet next week, had been poised to vote on the nominations Tuesday.
At Valenzuela's confirmation hearing July 8, DeMint had argued that the administration made the wrong call by pushing for ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's return to power. He pressed Valenzuela on whether the removal constituted a military coup and questioned whether the U.S. should side with Zelaya.
"President Obama rushed to side with (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez and (Cuban leader Fidel) Castro before getting the facts," DeMint said at the hearing. "Now it's clear that the people of Honduras were defending the rule of law, yet this administration still supports Zelaya's efforts to become a dictator and return to power."
Never miss a local story.
Valenzuela said at the hearing that he was "not familiar myself with all of the details" of the removal of Zelaya on June 28. He defended the administration's stance, however, noting that every member of the Organization of American States — which includes Brazil, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean countries — had agreed that Zelaya's military-led ouster was wrong.
"We're not an outlier on this at all," he said.
DeMint has argued that Zelaya "removed himself" from the presidency by violating the constitution in seeking to extend his time in office. DeMint and 16 other Republican senators signed a letter July 8 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying that it appeared the Honduran government followed the constitution when it removed Zelaya and asking Clinton to provide legal justification that his removal "was anything but legal and legitimate."
The State Department declined to comment.
The holds came as Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Shannon and State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, asking them to restore about $20 million in aid to Honduras that the U.S. has cut off in recent weeks.
The United States is backing mediation talks led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and is calling for Zelaya to be returned to office. Ros-Lehtinen called it "deeply troubling," however, that the U.S. position "appears to remain focused on Zelaya's political and personal future rather than on protecting constitutional and legal order in Honduras."
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said he was unfamiliar with the meeting with Ros-Lehtinen, but he reiterated the administration's support for the mediation talks, which are scheduled to resume Wednesday.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington