Congress Spells Trouble for Obama on Cuba

Monday, July 6, 2015
From Politico:

Why the GOP Congress could be trouble for Obama in Cuba

The president can only go so far without the cooperation of Congress.

President Barack Obama knows he didn’t need Congress to formally relaunch a U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

But Republicans are already plotting revenge for when Obama does need them down the road.

Within hours of Obama’s announcement to open an embassy in Cuba, Republicans in Congress were threatening to deny funding to the embassy while blocking any ambassador to lead it — underscoring the deep antipathy toward Obama’s Cuba policy on Capitol Hill.

And lifting that decades-old embargo? Fat chance, Republicans say.

“The support to keep pressure on the Castro regime is stronger now than it has ever been in Congress,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American lawmaker and one of the most vocal critics of Obama’s Cuba policy, said in an interview.

Obama has already acted without Congress, easing some trade and travel restrictions to Cuba as well as taking the island nation off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the White House would need lawmakers to green-light funding for an embassy and to officially end the embargo. Though he appears unlikely to nominate a permanent ambassador, that would take Congress’ assent, too.

Obama has some congressional allies on Cuba, mostly Democrats but also a handful of Republicans. After that, it’s a wall of opposition, from GOP leadership that opposes restoring full diplomatic relations, to committee chairs skeptical of the administration’s Cuba policy, to a raft of Republican presidential contenders waving a loud megaphone to showcase their Cuba opposition.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a 2016 presidential candidate who is of Cuban descent, said in a statement Wednesday that he would work to block funding for a U.S. Embassy in Cuba and any nominee for ambassador Obama recommends, “unless and until the president can demonstrate that he has made some progress in alleviating the misery of our friends, the people of Cuba.”

The Obama administration doesn’t need Congress’s approval to simply switch its existing “interests section” in Havana to a full-fledged embassy. But it would need lawmakers to sign off on additional funding.

The State Department asked Congress for roughly $6 million for fiscal 2016 to convert the interests section to an embassy. It’s clear the current building would need upgrades: A May 2014 inspector general report said the facility, located on the waterfront Malecón boulevard in Havana, is “subject to high winds and salt air and requires constant attention.”

Administration officials “believe that they have the resources available in the State Department to at least start the embassy,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview Wednesday. Republicans “cannot stop the president from his policy change; they can embarrass the United States by limiting investment.”

But Republicans have already shown plenty of appetite for a Cuba fight.

House Republicans have a funding bill for the State Department that restricts money for an embassy or a similar diplomatic facility in Havana, beyond funds already in place before Obama’s announcement in December to normalize relations with Cuba. The measure would also bar money from being spent on opening a Cuban embassy in Washington.

It’s unclear when the State Department appropriations bill, which has already cleared a House committee, would come to the floor. It wasn’t on a list of legislation released Wednesday that House Republicans will take up in July.

The Senate hasn’t yet released its funding bill for the State Department. But the lawmaker who would spearhead it is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the panel that oversees State funding and vowed in December to use every tool in his power to block funds for an embassy in Cuba.

Senate aides didn’t indicate Wednesday whether the chamber’s funding bill for the State Department would include such restrictions. The Senate Appropriations Committee will take up that bill next week.

“As president, I would not honor this decision with Cuba and I would close the embassy until the Castro brothers actually change their behavior,” Graham, another 2016 contender, said Wednesday.

Another key leverage point Republicans would have is if Obama nominates an ambassador to Cuba. But given deep opposition from the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Cruz and others, and the likelihood of a drawn-out nomination battle he might not win, Obama might decide against it.

If he choose to not nominate an ambassador, observers have said the U.S. Embassy could function without one. The U.S. currently has a chief of mission at the interests section in Havana: Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who is considered a top contender for the ambassadorship. He’ll become the chargé d’affaires as soon as diplomatic relations are normalized.

Durbin, a strong advocate of normalizing ties with Cuba, conceded that the prospects for confirming an ambassador were slim in the GOP-led Senate.

“We have three Cuban-American senators and any one of them, if they decided to, could be a hold on that ambassador,” said Durbin, referring to Rubio, Cruz and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Still, the Obama administration’s Cuba overtures have driven a rift through Capitol Hill that doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. For instance, some Senate Republicans representing farm states such as Jerry Moran of Kansas favor opening up more relations with Cuba, since more agricultural exports there could be an economic boon back home.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was part of the congressional mission that rescued Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor held by the Cuban government for five years until his release in December. Flake praised Obama’s steps to open an embassy, saying it would lead to more travel and contacts between U.S. citizens and Cubans.

“It’s long past time for U.S. policy toward Cuba to be associated with something other than five decades of failure,” Flake said.

Flake is pushing legislation that would end the travel ban on U.S. citizens and legal residents to Cuba; it’s backed by more than 40 other senators, including a half-dozen Republicans. Another bill, by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), that would end the Cuba trade embargo has 17 co-sponsors.

Notably, both measures are backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a 2016 presidential hopeful who sparred with Rubio in December over Cuba, saying the Florida senator was “acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat.” (Rubio has said of Paul: “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”)

But with opposition from Republican leaders and key committee chairs on the administration’s Cuba policy, those bills will have little chance of success.

The top two Republicans on Capitol Hill are both strong opponents of normalizing relations with Cuba. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated again Wednesday that any conversation in the House about easing relations with Cuba would be a nonstarter.

Democratic lawmakers generally support the administration’s moves to ease relations, with one major exception in Menendez, who was the Senate’s top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee until a federal indictment on corruption charges caused him to step aside in April.

“A policy of the United States giving and the Castro brothers freely taking is not in our national interest,” Menendez said in a statement Wednesday.

As for a congressional vote to lift the embargo against Cuba, two little-recognized votes on the House floor last month illustrated bipartisan opposition to easing relations with Cuba, Diaz-Balart said.

One proposal from Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) that would have allowed direct exports to the Cuban military was rejected 153-273. Another from Rep. Barbara Lee, another California Democrat, which would have reversed a push from House Republicans that placed some Cuba-related restrictions on flights and cruise ships, was also denied, 176-247. Both were amendments to different appropriations bills.

“But obviously, once again, this is a president who seems to be living in his own reality,” Diaz-Balart said.