Cuba trade backers in Senate take small steps first

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. AP

A bill to end all travel restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba will be introduced Thursday on Capitol Hill, marking the opening salvo in a fight that’s brewing over whether Congress should further open Cuba to travel and trade now that President Barack Obama has decided to normalize relations with the communist-run Caribbean island.

Led by Republican lawmakers from farming and ranching states, a group of senators is planning a press conference to outline details of the bill.

“Americans ought to be able to travel wherever they want,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., adding that increased contact with Americans could open Cuba to democratic reforms.

The effort has bipartisan support and the backing of the business community, which is eager to ramp up U.S. exports to Cuba. The ultimate goal is a full repeal of the economic embargo on Cuba, which was imposed by Congress more than 50 years ago. Only Congress can lift it.

But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who stands 5-foot-7, joked that the odds of Congress lifting the trade embargo on Cuba are about the same as his own chances of playing professional basketball in the NBA.

“Anything’s possible,” the senator said with a laugh. “But I don’t think it’s very likely.”

There is longstanding congressional support, particularly among Republicans, for maintaining a tough stance against Cuba.

And the new Republican leadership is less than enthusiastic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he disagreed with Obama’s decision to open relations with Cuba.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a recent interview with “60 Minutes” that he expects the embargo to stay in place, calling Obama’s move to normalize relations a “bad decision.”

With the odds stacked against them, GOP advocates of trade with Cuba decided to start with the less controversial travel bill, which will be filed Thursday by Flake. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is a co-sponsor, along with fellow Republicans Mike Enzi of Wyoming and John Boozman of Arkansas, and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

It’s also simpler to change the laws in relation to travel than it is to lift the embargo, because the embargo was created by several overlapping laws, Moran said.

“While there’s no desire for a delay, there’s also a desire to do this right and do it in a way that allows us to have the broadest support from members of Congress,” he said.

Additional legislation to lift the embargo will follow the travel bill, Flake and Moran said in interviews. Both senators have long championed an end to the embargo. Flake flew to Havana for the recent release of contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban jail, a critical element in Obama’s decision to restore ties with the country.

Their bill would eliminate the restrictions on travel to Cuba that remain after the Obama administration expanded the leeway for travelers earlier this month. For now, general tourism still isn’t allowed.

Under new rules that took effect Jan. 16, U.S. travelers must fall into 12 categories of authorized travel, but they now can buy their tickets and make travel arrangements through any travel agency or airline that provides service to Cuba. Previously such providers needed to get a license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The reasons for traveling include professional research, religious activities, athletic competitions and humanitarian projects.

Flake said he expects his colleagues’ support for making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba.

“The thought has been that there are just a couple of Republicans in favor. There are more than that,” Flake said of his travel bill’s chances of passing the Senate. “I feel good about that. … The country’s there.”

But the senator admits that lifting the embargo on trade will be “a tougher sell.”

In some ways, Obama’s unilateral move to restore ties with Cuba has complicated efforts to lift the embargo, given longstanding Republican criticism of his foreign policy.

Obama’s role virtually guarantees that legislation relating to Cuba will be controversial and divisive, said Richard Sawaya, vice president of USA Engage, a group that opposes unilateral sanctions over the use of diplomacy, whether with Cuba, Russia or Iran.

“What the president is doing is giving people standing to have a food fight … and that’s what I expect,” said Sawaya.

“Most members of the (Republican) conference that I’ve spoken to consider Cuba in the context of the White House’s broader foreign policy agenda – an attempt at peace through weakness and appeasement,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. “I don’t see a lot of traction for these efforts. There aren’t enough votes.”

Cuba policy splits both the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

In the Senate, Republicans Flake and Moran, along with party colleagues Pat Roberts of Kansas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have said they’re eager to see the embargo go away. In the House, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York has led the charge with his Free Trade with Cuba Act, a bill to repeal the embargo, which he first introduced in 1993.

Leaders of the opposition include Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, and Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, as well as Cuban-American Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, both Republicans.

Many members from both parties privately support lifting the embargo but aren’t willing to go against their colleagues for personal or emotional reasons, or because they’re worried about the political fallout at home, said Jake Colvin, vice president of global trade for the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobby for multinational companies.

“The issue is emotional for some members, and some members are so vested in it that it will be difficult to move anything,” he said.