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Sen. Martinez makes a move toward the middle

Call him Mel the Middleman.

On the day he was sworn in as the nation's first Cuban-American senator, Republican Mel Martinez heaped praise on Bob Graham, his Democratic predecessor, and pledged to be a moderate voice on partisan issues, including tort reform, immigration and Social Security.

"You get things done by reaching for the middle," said Martinez. His emphasis on moderation was a sharp departure from his Senate campaign, which never missed a chance to remind voters he was the conservative candidate.

The 58-year-old senator, who fled Cuba at 15 during Operation Pedro Pan, called his election a historic culmination of the American dream. Two busloads of exiles from his hometown in Cuba, Sagua La Grande, came from Miami for a reception honoring him at the Capitol on Tuesday.

"So many people pinned their hopes on me," he said. "I'm really humbled by the responsibility I'm about to take."

Martinez cited Graham's bipartisan efforts toward the Everglades cleanup and other issues and promised to follow his model. He and Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, have pledged to work together.

It won't be easy to be a middleman. Republicans gained seats in the House and the Senate in the recent election, and conservatives are planning a spate of controversial initiatives that likely will test the bounds of the Senate's legendary bonhomie.

On reforming the medical malpractice system, Martinez, a former trial lawyer from Orlando, said he hoped to play a key role and "be an honest broker" between the parties. President Bush and many Republicans want to cap jury awards and make it tougher to file lawsuits against doctors, but Martinez said he sees the other side, too, and patients who are wrongfully hurt need recourse.

On immigration reform, Martinez said he opposes giving amnesty to illegal aliens, as some Democrats have suggested, but he believes Congress must ac-commodate immigrants who work in the country illegally.

Many of his Republican colleagues take a harder stand.

"We have millions of workers in this country today who are working without any papers. They fill a void in our work force that is vital to our economy," he said. "I think we have to accommodate the reality of those already here."

On controlling the growing budget deficit, Martinez said he expects the president to call for major cuts to some programs. But he cautioned that any cuts must include reductions in defense spending, "because that's where the big dollars are."

He also does not favor reducing the president's tax cuts and believes they will help the economy grow out of trouble.

The hottest issue facing Congress when it begins work in earnest this month is Social Security reform. The president is expected to outline a plan for Social Security that would allow workers to invest some money in private accounts.

Martinez said he backs the idea but is concerned the transitional costs may be too high. He said he wants to maintain benefits for those who are retired or close to retirement, but is willing to consider changes for younger workers.

"Some adjustment to benefits is going to have to happen as we see people living longer and longer lives," Martinez said. "But the question is, when does it come? Why would we not allow Americans to make a small investment?"

Martinez, who resigned as Bush's housing secretary to run for Senate, has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Aging and the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. He also faces a steep learning curve as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

This week, he is scheduled to travel with a congressional delegation to Israel to observe Palestinian elections and meet with Israeli officials. Tuesday he met with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the president's pick to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state, and with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

He said he asked Lugar for a place on the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, which oversees U.S. affairs in Latin America, including Cuba.

While many Republicans and Democrats in Congress support easing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, Martinez supports the embargo against Fidel Castro's communist government and hopes to "educate" his Senate colleagues and others about the nation.

He cited a recent news account in which an American cattle farmer praised the recent sale of prized breeding stock to Cuba as helping build relations between the two nations. While well-intentioned, the farmer failed to understand "they probably will go to Castro's brother's show farm," Martinez said. "No Cuban is allowed to own a cow or a goat. It all belongs to the government."

At the same time, he said he favors meaningful cultural exchanges _ but not tourism _ and favors sending more U.S. aid directly to dissidents on the island.

"Fidel Castro's days behind him are more than the days ahead of him," Martinez said. "The question is how do we better prepare the Cuban people to take the reins of their own future and their own democracy."