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Marco Rubio cancels State Department meeting, says the Obama administration guilty of "ethnic politics"

Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday abruptly canceled a meeting with a high-level State Department official after learning that Democrats had described his vote Monday against the ambassador to El Salvador as an insult to the Puerto Ricans he represents in Florida.

The Senate failed to get enough votes Monday night to take up the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte, who has been serving as an interim basis as the ambassador to El Salvador. The White House lashed out at Republicans for blocking the vote, calling their move Monday night one that played "politics with America's national interests."

In a call Tuesday afternoon, Hispanic leaders accused Rubio and other Republicans of abandoning fellow Hispanics. Aponte is the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador. But she has a complicated past -- a former boyfriend was accused of being a Cuban spy. The FBI cleared Aponte, who later received two top security clearances, but not before the chatter scuttled her 1993 nomination by President Bill Clinton to serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

"Once again, one of the victims of this political agenda here in Washington D.C. is someone who is very qualified and happens to be a stellar member of the Latino Community," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., in a call put together by the Democratic National Committee. "Most of us are not only disappointed but angered to see politics played at the expense of someone who is so capable."

A spokesman for Rubio said the Obama administration was playing "ethnic politics," and said the Florida senator would abandon efforts to work with the administration on Aponte's nomination. She's been serving as the ambassador to El Salvador since mid-2010, when President Barack Obama appointed her during a recess.

Rubio had been scheduled to meet Wednesday in his office with the No. 3 person at the State Department, Wendy Sherman. He had meetings this week with top White House officials as well, including Cecilia Munoz, the director of intergovernmental affairs. Rubio also spoke to Aponte herself Monday night, his spokesman Alex Conant said.

Conant said he didn't know why the DNC was "injecting itself into serious policy discussion on issues of democracy and the Western Hemisphere." "For them to try to play ethnic politics shows that they're not serious or acting in good faith," Conant said. "We're canceling that meeting because it's clear the White House and administration is more interested in playing politics than in getting anything done."

Yet Hispanic Democrats in Florida have taken notice, too. They include Florida state Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando and Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, who ran against Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, in 2008 and again unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade County Commission last year. Taddeo-Goldstein on Monday night urged people to call Rubio's office to criticize his vote. Soto said in the DNC call that Rubio should be more conscious of what his "no" vote means to the thousands of Puerto Ricans who live in Florida and will vote in the presidential election.

"You would think because he represents the state, because he represents so many Puerto Rican-Americans here, that it would have some consideration," Soto said. "This would have been an easy way for him to cross the aisle and perhaps pick up some more support in Central Florida for the 2012 elections."

Other Republican senators also opposed Aponte's nomination, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who was critical this week of an op-ed Aponte wrote in a Salvadoran newspaper praising the country for its support of a U.N. declaration that calls for eliminating violence against gays and lesbians. Rubio, though, has long maintained his opposition has nothing to do with Aponte's work or qualifications. He opposes the nominations of other officials in that part of the world, including the top U.S. official at the State Department in charge of the Western hemisphere, which includes Cuba.

Rather, he says it's about the Obama administration's policies in Latin American, particularly regarding its handling of the results of the Nicaraguan elections. He'd also like to see the State Department rethink some of the policies toward Cuba, including allowing more visits by the American families of Cubans on the island, and the ability for Cuba-Americans to send more money there. Rubio has maintained that not scaling those back has hindered efforts to secure the release of Alan Gross, the American contractor jailed in Cuba for the past two years.

White House spokesman Luis Miranda said Aponte has "served our nation with distinction, and it is disappointing that yesterday she was blocked from continuing in her job by a group of Republican senators for ideological reasons." "We are and always have been eager to work with Senator Rubio and anyone else who is serious about our nation’s interests in the Americas. Ambassador Aponte deserved an up or down vote, and her nomination should have never been filibustered."