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Inhofe’s Unusual ‘Holds’

In a rare rebuke of President Bush, a Republican Senator has blocked votes on two White House nominees to an obscure board that oversees U.S.-sponsored funding for development in Africa.

Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) has placed “holds” on Ephraim Batambuze, an Illinois doctor, and John Leslie, chairman of public relations giant Weber Shandwick, to serve on the board of directors for the African Development Foundation.

The ADF doles out grants to grassroots organizations in African nations to help spur economic growth. Inhofe, who participates in missionary work in Africa, said he has placed the holds because he believes there are more qualified individuals to serve on the board.

“I just want to make sure that we get some people who really do sincerely have a heart for Africa and get things done,” the Oklahoma Senator said.

Late last week, before Congress adjourned for the Memorial Day recess, Inhofe was collecting signatures from Senate allies for a letter to support his argument. While holds on nominees are not uncommon, it is rare for a Senator from the same party as the president to block a nomination.

The holds come in the wake of Bush’s high-profile victory earlier this month to dedicate up to $15 billion over the next five years to help prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in Africa and the Caribbean. The president successfully prodded Congress to approve the funding before he attends next month’s Group of Eight meeting.

Inhofe said he has spoken with the White House about the holds, saying “they are fine” with his decision to block the nominees.

“The president is awfully busy doing other things to worry about who he puts on a very insignificant small foundation in Africa,” the Senator said.

For the past seven years, Inhofe said he has been engaged in missionary work “mostly in West Africa,” a little-known fact on Capitol Hill. While the Oklahoma Republican rarely discusses his missionary work in Africa, he alluded to it in a December statement pledging to support Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to succeed Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as Majority Leader.

“In addition, Sen. Frist and I share a common interest in and have traveled frequently to Africa for mission-work and to develop friendships that can benefit our countries on both continents,” Inhofe said in the statement.

Frist, a doctor by training, visits Africa periodically as a medical missionary. The Majority Leader said he was unaware of Inhofe’s decision to invoke his Senatorial prerogative to place a hold on the nominees.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Frist said.

A spokesman for Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said there does not appear to be any concern about the nominees on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“We are ready to confirm these nominees,” said Jay Carson, a spokesman for Daschle.

Last year, the ADF sought more than $16 million from Congress for fiscal 2003.

“ADF’s programs make important and distinct contributions to advancing U.S. foreign policy priorities and national interests in Africa,” Nathaniel Fields, ADF president, wrote in the foundation’s 2003 report to Congress. “ADF is the only agency working directly at the grassroots level to alleviate poverty and promote broad-based sustainable development. The Foundation is the only Federal agency that works directly with community-based groups and entrepreneurs, providing Africans with the resources needed to identify and solve their own problems and bringing opportunity to some of the most vulnerable populations.”

In addition to helping “expand AIDS prevention and mitigation activities,” the U.S. funding helps pay for “70 country development projects in 14 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in rural and peri-urban areas.”

Batambuze said he does not know why Inhofe is blocking his nomination.

“I don’t know if it is something he wants,” he said. “I thought I had all the requirements to be there.

“He sent some questions, which I did answer the questions and sent him my answers,” Batambuze added.

A native of Uganda, Batambuze said he has been supporting Republicans since President Gerald Ford was in office. Federal Election Commission records show he has donated more than $5,000 to GOP candidates and Republican fundraising committees since 1999.

Leslie could not be reached for comment Friday, but FEC records showed he donated $250 to Texas Democrat Ron Kirk, who lost to now-Sen. John Cornyn (R) in the open-seat election to replace Sen. Phil Gramm (R) in 2002. He also donated $1,000 to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) in 2002.

Leslie’s biography on the Weber Shandwick Web site boasts that he was once a “senior aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy [D-Mass.] as well as a strategist on dozens of nationwide and local campaigns in the United States, Asia and Latin America.” In addition, his biography says, “Leslie has advised several heads of state on communications, as well as managing trade and economic development campaigns for the governments of Colombia, Chile, Portugal, the Philippines and Indonesia.”

But Inhofe said he would prefer the White House consider other candidates for the ADF board. “I have several names of people I thought would be good that I have submitted to the White House and I feel that they should be considered,” Inhofe said. “So that is it. I am not mad at anybody. I am not against anyone.”

Inhofe later added, “Hopefully we will have a chance to visit with the White House to consider some of the names we think would be a good idea.”

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