Prospects dimmed yesterday for congressional hearings on the armed seizure of Elian Gonzalez as Republican leaders dampened their early enthusiasm for a high-profile inquiry.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who voiced the most strident call for hearings the day after federal agents stormed the Miami house to seize the Cuban boy, sounded a far more cautious tone yesterday.
“We’ve got to wait and see what we can get” before calling hearings, the Texas Republican said, hurrying away from a House leadership meeting.
The day after the April 22 raid, Mr. DeLay said, “You bet there will be congressional hearings… . I was outraged. I was sickened, and afterwards I was ashamed.”
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott also backed away yesterday from early calls for an inquiry. While he said yesterday a Senate hearing is “still very much on the schedule,” he pointedly told reporters that “I don’t think there was very much momentum [for hearings] to begin with.”
The Mississippi Republican had called for hearings the day after he and 10 senators grilled Attorney General Janet Reno about the raid even outlining a list of witnesses who could be called.
GOP lawmakers came out strongly in favor of hearings after the pre-dawn raid, in which federal agents stormed the house where the 6-year-old had lived for five months.
Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, said the leadership was not pushing for a hearing and expressed doubt that one was necessary.
“There are many ways to get the answers,” he said with a broad shrug. “One way is a hearing. Another way is a letter.”
House Majority Leader Dick Armey gave an evasive answer when asked whether a hearing will be held.
“We’ve had a lot of hearings on a lot of different subjects and we’ve had some people who have not been very forthcoming. I think we need to try some inquiries, see where we can go on that and see where it takes us,” the Texas Republican said.
Still, Republican leaders denied they were retreating in the face of polls showing the public opposes hearings. But despite the early strong words from Mr. DeLay and others, the momentum for the hearings has been dwindling steadily in recent days.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, has shown little interest in scheduling hearings any time soon. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, has indefinitely postponed his hearings, saying the Justice Department has been slow to turn over documents.
The tepid congressional comments about hearings come the same day a new poll showed that a majority of Americans oppose congressional hearings. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, taken last week, shows that 54 percent of Americans oppose a congressional inquiry while 43 percent approve. Republican voters are only a little more excited, with 50 percent calling for hearings and 46 percent opposing them.
“My dear friends on the Republican side continue to take dumb positions, positions that are not supported by the American public,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The same poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed approved of the Justice Department’s move to reunite Elian with his father, although 53 percent disapproved of the actual conduct of the raid.
Mr. Armey denied that Republicans are retreating before the weight of public opinion.
“I think it’s just a question now of how do you, in what orderly fashion do you, ferret out real information about serious questions,” he said.
House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican, agreed.
“Let’s find out why we’re having hearings, what is our mission, what’s our purpose … I don’t think we have to predetermine at the beginning that we’re going to have hearings,” Mr. Watts said.
One of the administration’s strongest Senate critics, Sen. Larry E. Craig, however, said he will argue against any effort to back down.
“I think we’re going to be sensitive to public opinion,” the Idaho Republican said, “but I think the public needs to be sensitive to abuse of justice … there are times when congressional leadership is important when the public is confused.”
On the House side, Mr. Hyde has asked his staff to prepare a report on the raid. He will not even decide whether to hold a hearing before he reads that report and consults with Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the committee. A committee spokesman said there is no schedule yet for that report or the talks between the committee leaders.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who asked Mr. Hyde to look into the matter, supports his slow approach to investigating the raid, spokesman Pete Jeffries said.
“We don’t want it to get off its intended purpose… . We want to do it in a very measured and statesmanlike manner,” he said.
Elian Gonzalez was pulled from the ocean on Thanksgiving Day after surviving a shipwreck that killed his mother, who was attempting to defect to the United States. Ever since, he has been at the center of a fierce dispute between his Miami relatives, who want him to remain in the United States, and his father, who demands his return to Cuba.
Federal agents plucked the boy from the Miami home of his relatives and delivered him to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who was staying at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. The father and son are now staying at the secluded Wye Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, awaiting the outcome of a legal fight over Elian’s future.
His Miami relatives have asked a court to order a hearing on the child’s request for political asylum, filed while he was staying in Miami.
Mr. Gonzalez’s attorney, Gregory Craig, filed a motion Monday asking the court to dismiss that request. He said there is no way the young boy could have understood the request for asylum, since it was written in English. The boy does not even know how to read in Spanish, his native language, Mr. Craig said, adding that Elian is eager to return to Cuba.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is expected to consider the Miami relatives’ request on May 11. A lower court earlier rejected the family’s request, prompting their appeal to the higher court.
Dave Boyer contributed to this report.