By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
As fourth-term Democratic Rep. David Skaggs walked to the podium on the evening of July 1, he was still bristling over the events of the past few hours. Cuban American politics had arrived with a vengeance in the halls of Congress, and it had just cost Skaggs's Colorado district $23 million in federal funds.
It had been a long, unpleasant day.
Right then, at a few minutes past 7:00 p.m., the House floor was empty; most members of Congress were already on their way home for the Fourth of July recess. But Skaggs was going to speak anyway, for the record. And standing a few feet away at a second lectern was Rep. Jose Serrano, a fellow Democrat from the South Bronx who was there to lend his moral support.
The trouble had arisen several weeks before. In a tough budget year, as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee -- specifically, of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the departments of commerce, justice, and state -- Skaggs had been looking for programs to cut from the 1994 budget. In Radio Martí and TV Martí, he believed he had found two prime candidates. And indeed, in mid-June, at Skaggs's urging, the subcommittee had voted to cut all funding for both programs, a total of nearly $28 million.
A week later, though, when the trimmed budget went to the full Appropriations Committee, Miami Rep. Carrie Meek successfully argued to allow $8.7 million in funding for Radio Martí, in spite of Skaggs's objections. Before the appropriations bill went before the entire House of Representatives for consideration, Meek, along with fellow Miami representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had met with Skaggs to persuade him not to do anything that would endanger Radio Martí. But as Meek had told the congressional newspaper Roll Call, Skaggs was unwilling to compromise; he promised to fight against Radio Martí funding on the House floor.
So it had come about that on that fateful first day of July, the day on which the appropriations bill was coming up for debate, Diaz-Balart paid the Rocky Mountain State congressman a visit. While other aspects of the bill were being discussed, the freshman representative from Miami confronted Skaggs and admonished him to abandon his crusade against Radio Martí. (Diaz-Balart's actions are characterized by one congressional source as "a very angry outburst" during which the Floridian warned that if Skaggs didn't leave Radio Martí alone, he would see to it that every program the Coloradan held dear likewise was decimated.)
Skaggs stood his ground.
Although the final House vote on funding for Radio Martí was postponed until the second week in July, Diaz-Balart had wasted no time in making good on his threat. That very afternoon, in a parliamentary move known as a "point of order," he axed a $23 million construction project that was heading for Skaggs's district.
The Cuban American National Foundation wasn't wasting any time, either. No sooner had Diaz-Balart killed the Colorado construction item when the political exile group issued a press release gloating over the pre-emptive strike. The statement, faxed to every major newspaper in Colorado, was entitled, "Opposition to Cuba Initiative Costs Boulder Rep Pet Project." (The foundation was keenly interested for several reasons. Not only do they believe the Martí broadcasts are vital to keeping the Cuban people informed, but foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa is also chairman of the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, which has been the unofficial governing board for both Radio and TV Martí.)
Of course, the fact that Skaggs was about to decry the day's events for the congressional record would not go overlooked.
Jose Cardenas, a Cuban American National Foundation spokesman, implies that Skaggs's response pegs him as nothing short of a bellyaching wimp. "When you throw three roundhouse right hooks at something that is so important to the Cuban American people and then you cry foul when somebody takes a poke back at you, well, it seems to me to be rather surprising behavior," Cardenas says. "He was the one who came looking for the fight. He kept coming back for more, so we gave him more. A person can only roll with the punches for so long."
"If anything, Congressman Diaz-Balart has gained a lot of respect," adds a Republican congressional staffer. "Skaggs never expected that a freshman would have the know-how or the guts to do this. Lincoln has placed himself in a position where he let people know, particularly more senior members of Congress, that they are not always going to get their way with him. Overall, this was good for his image on the Hill."
Not everyone, however, agrees. Rep. Carrie Meek has tried to distance herself from the affair; she told Roll Call she didn't endorse Diaz-Balart's actions. "It's not the way I would've done it," she said, "but I can't speak for anybody else."
While the feud rated barely a mention in the Miami Herald, it was front-page news in the Denver Post. In Washington, Roll Call ran a story about the tiff under the headline, "Freshman Rep. Diaz-Balart Gets Revenge on Rep. Skaggs, to the Tune of $23 Million." "Skaggs Alienates Cuban Lobby" was the headline on a Boulder Daily Camera editorial, which went on to outline the reasons Skaggs believed Radio Martí was a waste of taxpayer money. "This reasoning makes sense to us and probably to many of Skaggs's constituents in Colorado," the editorial reads. "But it is blasphemy to the Cuban American community in Florida. So Cuban-born Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., pulled a parliamentary maneuver to punish Skaggs for his temerity."