Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Tuesday pressed the Senate to swiftly confirm President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to El Salvador, casting Republican opposition as denying a Hispanic woman a rare shot at a prestigious diplomatic post.
In gloves-off political terms, seven members of the caucus said the Senate's failure to approve Mari Carmen Aponte, a Washington lawyer and Hispanic activist, would send a message to Latinos nationwide that partisanship trumps qualifications.
"What really makes me mad about this delay and obfuscation is the willingness of my Republican colleagues in the Senate to sacrifice a remarkable Hispanic woman in order to express dissatisfaction with the administration," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Aponte has served as ambassador in San Salvador since September 2010 after Obama, looking to bypass Republican opposition to her nomination, made her a recess appointee. But her temporary tenure is about to run out and GOP lawmakers are resisting a determined administration effort to secure Senate confirmation.
"The ambassador has served with incredible distinction and competence," said Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of the caucus.
Said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.: "Between Mari Carmen Aponte and Sonia Sotomayor, there seems to be something amiss over in the Senate with Republicans refusing to confirm strong, smart Puerto Rican women for important positions for which they are eminently qualified."
Republican opposition stems from questions about Aponte's relationship decades ago with a Cuban-American that scuttled her nomination during the Clinton administration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and a more recent essay she wrote in June to mark Obama's proclamation of gay pride month.
Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved her nomination on a 10-9 party-line vote last week, her fate in the full Senate is uncertain with just days left in the legislative session.
"It appears unlikely that all of these Republicans are going to change their mind as far as allowing it to come to a floor vote without a change in attitude about the information," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is pressing for more details about Aponte. "All of us think we should have an ambassador in El Salvador, but all of us are concerned that we get people who we know are the right people."
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, insists Aponte has done a "solid job in her capacity as ambassador now," including helping secure the deployment of Salvadoran troops to Afghanistan to aid in the fight against al-Qaida. "I have not heard of or seen any substantive rationale for her not continuing in this post," Kerry, D-Mass., said at last week's committee meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is likely to push for a vote despite GOP efforts to run out the clock on her selection, according to lawmakers and congressional aides.
Conservative anger toward Aponte is based, in part, on an op-ed she wrote June 28 in La Prensa Grafica, a daily newspaper in El Salvador. The essay was in response to a State Department cable to ambassadors worldwide urging them to recognize gay pride month.
In a Spanish-language piece titled, "For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist," Aponte wrote: "No one should be subjected to aggression because of who he is or who he loves. Homophobia and brutal hostility are often based on lack of understanding about what it truly means to be gay or transgender. To avoid negative perceptions, we must work together with education and support for those facing those who promote hatred."
In the op-ed, Aponte noted that the United States and El Salvador were among more than 80 nations that had signed a U.N. declaration for the elimination of violence against gays and lesbians. She also pointed out that El Salvador President Mauricio Funes had signed a decree in May 2010 prohibiting discrimination by the government based on sexual orientation.
But 57 percent of El Salvador's population is Roman Catholic, and several Salvadoran family and religious groups wrote to U.S. lawmakers criticizing Aponte for "abusing her diplomatic status, showing a clear disdain concerning our values and cultural identity." They urged lawmakers to oppose her confirmation and suggested she be removed from the post.
DeMint, writing last month in Human Events, assailed Aponte for the op-ed and revived the old speculation about her personal life.
"Our relationship with the Salvadoran people has been one of trust and friendship for decades," DeMint said. "We should not risk that by appointing an ambassador who shows such a blatant disregard for their culture and refuses to clear unsettled doubts about her previous relationships. It's time to bring Ms. Aponte home."
Thirteen years ago, when President Bill Clinton nominated Aponte, reports surfaced that a former live-in boyfriend, Roberto Tamayo, had ties to Cuban intelligence in Fidel Castro's regime and that Cuban intelligence agents had tried to recruit her. The head of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., signaled he would question Aponte about the allegations at her confirmation hearing; she withdrew her nomination.
In the end, the FBI cleared her. On two occasions, Aponte has received top-secret security clearances.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the allegations were "simply false and unfounded," and Aponte has the full backing of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.