The U.S. Senate ground to a halt last week, and Cuba was the culprit.
After months in limbo, Donald Trump's pick to lead NASA finally appeared to have enough support for confirmation, and a vote was scheduled. Sen. Marco Rubio, who opposed Rep. Jim Bridenstine's nomination because he wanted a non-politician to run the nation's space program, switched his stance, giving Republicans enough votes to move forward with Bridenstine on a party-line vote.
But Jeff Flake had other ideas.
The Arizona Republican seized the GOP's one-vote advantage over the minority and initially cast a "no" vote on Bridenstine. Vice President Mike Pence was in Florida, unable to hustle to Capitol Hill to break a 49-49 tie. Republican leaders were forced to negotiate with Flake on the Senate floor to get him to change his vote.
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Flake's reason for dithering? The longtime critic of U.S. trade and travel restrictions with Cuba wanted to talk to Mike Pompeo, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, about travel restrictions to Cuba, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"I want to talk to Pompeo on a number of issues, that's all I'll say," Flake said with a smile when asked if he sought to talk to the secretary of state nominee about Cuba travel restrictions in exchange for a "yes" vote on Bridenstine.
Flake, a frequent Trump critic, doesn't have much of an incentive to listen to party leaders who could help his reelection chances:. He's retiring after the 2018 elections.
That means he can continue to push Senate leaders on issues like Cuba, where the fault lines aren't drawn up neatly along party lines.
"My goal has always been the same, of closer ties, more travel, more commerce because I think that moves Cuba closer to democracy, so I'll use any leverage I can to try to bring that about," Flake said. "I'll try to keep the progress and the policies we've made particularly with Cuban entrepreneurs achieving some kind of independence from the government down there that we don't turn them back."
But Rubio and Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart last year successfully persuaded Trump to implement new restrictions on U.S. business dealings with the Cuban military, which controls most of Cuba’s economy, and tighter rules for non-Cuban Americans traveling to the island.
Flake said "it's doubtful" Trump will make any significant changes to Cuba policy in his favor, and that his conversations with high-level Trump officials like Pompeo about Cuba are about maintaining parts of the Obama-era policy change that weren't completely rolled back by Trump.
"I'm just trying to hold some of the progress that we made in terms of Cuban people being more free to run businesses and succeed because Americans are traveling there or remitting money, and we've got to keep that going," Flake said.
James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a public policy group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties, said the delay tactics used by Flake are similar to legislative maneuvering used for years by pro-embargo lawmakers like Rubio and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. Williams noted that Rubio and Menendez, despite being in the minority, held up Barack Obama's pick for ambassador to Mexico in 2015 because of the president's support for normalizing relations with Cuba.
"You’re seeing what has traditionally been a tactic of the fringe hardliners in Congress being applied by the pro-engagement members of Congress," Williams said. "That speaks to both the moment we're in but how closely divided and important every vote is."
Williams said Pompeo, who is likely to be confirmed as secretary of state after several Democrats said they would vote for him, will likely assume more control over Latin American policy than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, though it's not clear whether Pompeo will change much in Cuba in the short term.
"What we saw under Secretary Tillerson was an outsourcing of Latin America policy to Senator Rubio," Williams said. "He decided that he was basically going to politically turn this over to someone else and Rubio took advantage of that, to his credit."
The looming 2018 elections, combined with the appointment of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, means the Cuba issue could live in relative limbo in Congress over the next six months.
"It's a bit of a new era, even though its a new government, so we'll see," Flake said, adding that he'll continue to work for more economic cooperation with Cuba even after he leaves elected office.
But Williams is hopeful that lawmakers from both parties who want increased trade and ties with Cuba will wield more power in Congress after the 2018 elections. Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the longest serving Cuban-American in Congress, is retiring and leadership in the House of Representatives is set to change regardless of which party takes control of the lower chamber, after Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement.
"Our biggest challenge, candidly, is we have a majority in both parties but leadership won’t give us the floor time for a vote," Williams said. "If we had a leadership who gives us the opportunity this stuff would pass. It’s hard to imagine why Cuba would be held to a different standard than North Korea or Saudi Arabia."