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Lawmakers caught in a crunch of own

HIALEAH, Fla. — HIALEAH, Fla. -- In Los Portales, a pink and terra cotta condominium complex in this city of hard-working Hispanic immigrants and often harder luck, many of Juan Carpio's neighbors are losing their homes.

To the right of his ground-floor unit, two apartments are in the early stages of foreclosure. Across the street, a three-bedroom unit has been seized by a bank. To the left, another one is up for auction.

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"The government should help," said Carpio, 57, a former truck driver whose wife is a security guard. "Somebody ought to do something."

In Carpio's view, that somebody could be Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, an eight-term Republican who represents Hialeah and whose district slices through Miami-Dade into Broward, two counties in the top 10 of foreclosures nationwide.

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But as Congress returns from a two-week recess tomorrow for a furious debate over whether to help homeowners on the brink of default, Diaz-Balart is caught in a crunch of his own.

On one side, Democrats emboldened by the Federal Reserve's intervention in the collapse of Bear Stearns are demanding help for "everyday Americans." On the other, Republicans including Sen. John McCain, the party's presumptive nominee, are urging restraint, reluctant to commit taxpayer funds to what they say is simply a bailout for greedy lenders and reckless buyers.

It is a bind shared by other Republicans, especially from high-foreclosure states such as Arizona, California, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a list of 18 districts where it plans to highlight high foreclosure rates in its effort to oust Republican incumbents this year.

So Diaz-Balart is treading carefully even as some of his constituents angrily insist that he should be leading the charge for help on Capitol Hill. He says he is open to some of the Democrats' ideas but has not decided how he will vote on a proposed $300 billion loan guarantee program to prevent foreclosures and an array of other housing initiatives expected on the House floor in the next few weeks.

"I haven't studied this sufficiently to commit right now," Diaz-Balart said in an interview outside Epworth Village, a retirement community where he spoke to constituents about how to get their payments from the economic stimulus plan approved by Congress last month.

"It's a very serious problem, and I am not dogmatic," he said. "I am not going to say there cannot be state intervention in a dogmatic way."

For constituents like Carpio, that is not enough. "I'm very lukewarm about him nowadays," said Carpio, who like his congressman is a lifelong Republican of Cuban heritage.

Others were less subtle. "He says a lot about foreign policy, mainly toward Cuba, which makes no difference here," said David Carbonell, a former computer programmer and gas station manager now on disability with a heart ailment. "You have people living here at the edge of poverty, and he has done nothing to bring anything back to Hialeah or Miami Lakes. He is a party hack. He will vote the way his party votes."

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The rising anger at Washington is not something Diaz-Balart is accustomed to, because he has long shared the strong anti-Castro sentiments of his heavily Cuban-American district.

And to be sure, Diaz-Balart remains immensely popular among many residents of his district. A warm and gregarious politician, he switches effortlessly between Spanish and perfect, unaccented English all the while doling out kisses, clasping his constituents by the hand or draping an arm around their shoulders to be sure his affection is understood.

He said that in addition to addressing the foreclosure problems, he was trying to help low-income constituents struggling to pay rent. "Much of the community I represent is of very limited economic resources, so you have then a lot of renters," he said. "I would say the major housing problem here is insufficient accessible housing."

But with Democrats seeing the housing issue as a powerful election-year weapon, it is unclear how flexible they will be about debating affordable housing ideas or other Republican counterproposals. In recent days, the Democrats have leveled a barrage of criticism at President Bush and McCain for not offering more help.

With Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. planning to unveil tomorrow a package of regulatory reforms, almost all requiring the approval of Congress, Democrats are certain to insist that helping individual homeowners remains their most immediate priority.

While the Bush administration has also signaled that it might be willing to extend additional federal loan guarantees to help stem foreclosures without new legislation, the Democrats say they will push for more.

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And in a sign of the increasing pressure that lawmakers are feeling after two weeks at home, some Senate Republicans say they are ready to deal.

"The two things you hear most about from people are the price of gasoline and the housing problem," said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. "I don't think we could get away with not addressing it forthrightly, and hopefully we will."


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