US congresswoman to head house foreign affairs

She hung up on the next president, Barack Obama. twice. She thought it was a prank.

In an expert stroke of political spin, she immediately sent out a press release explaining the apparent snub as a mix-up.

Meet Florida US Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American to serve in Congress and the next in line to head the house foreign affairs committee.

The phone incident occurred in late 2008 as the president-elect reached out to potentially friendly republicans and shortly after a radio host fooled Sarah Palin by impersonating the president of France on the phone. But it was vintage "Ily," as she is known in Washington: frank, almost irreverent, yet imbued with an underlying seriousness and political savvy.

It also was a reminder that Ros-Lehtinen, 58, presents an increasingly rare image these days a politician occasionally willing to work across the aisle.

The legislator, who was re-elected with 69 per cent of the vote, is a hawk on foreign affairs but breaks with her party on immigration, gay rights and other issues important to the people she represents Cuban-Americans, gays, a strong Jewish community.

California Democrat Howard Berman, who will surrender the foreign affairs committee chairmanship in January, cautioned those who mistake Ros-Lehtinen's enthusiasm and pleasantness for weakness.

"People greatly underestimate her skill and tenaciousness," he said.

Under her watch, the committee is expected to push for stepped-up sanctions against North Korea and Iran, more oversight of the UN and a block on any dialogue with Cuba. As a strong abortion foe, Ros-Lehtinen also may try to chip away at the president's executive order allowing foreign aid for international groups that provide information about abortion services.

"I think she is going to be very active on latin America and oversight, making sure the administration is enforcing sanctions," Mr Berman said.

Ros-Lehtinen fled Cuba with her family at age 7. She taught elementary school, then started running her own school. She was in the Florida legislature for six years before winning election to the US house in 1989, her bid brokered by legendary Cuban-American political king-maker Jorge Mas Canosa. She completed her doctorate in education while serving in Congress.

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