Cuba shift is Rubio’s big chance


President Obama’s plans to normalize relations with Cuba is good news for many constituencies. It’s good for the agribusinesses that stand to sell more food to Cuba. It’s good for Democrats, desperate for a tangible foreign-policy success from their president. And of course, it’s good for Alan Gross, the Jewish aid worker arrested in 2009 who warned visitors recently that he feared he would die in his Cuban jail cell.

But Obama’s decision is also good news for Sen. Marco Rubio, the man emerging as the leader of the Republican fight against Obama’s new outreach to Cuba. When Republicans take control of the Senate in the next Congress, Rubio will be in charge of the subcommittee that oversees diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere and would hold nomination hearings for America’s first ambassador to Cuba since 1960.

It doesn’t look like that nomination will go very far. “I am committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” Rubio said.

For the last year, the junior senator from Florida had been a bit lost at sea. After his election in 2010, Rubio was the darling of the tea party movement and a leading contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. But in 2013, Rubio gambled and lost by proposing immigration reform, alienating his conservative national constituency.

Now Rubio has now been handed a new crusade. At his press conference Wednesday, he gave sharp and detailed answers to questions about his plans to stymie Obama’s new Cuba policy. And while Rubio, who is a Cuban American, has always opposed efforts to reach out to Havana, until now the issue was too specialized to garner national attention.

Now Obama has made Cuba policy a major national issue. In some areas, he has the authority to act without the consent of Congress. For example, as part of the deal to free Alan Gross, as well as an American spy held by the Cubans for 20 years, Obama released the three remaining incarcerated members of the spy network known as the Cuban Five. Obama also changed the regulations on how Cuban businesses can purchase agricultural goods, making such deals easier to finance. It is up to Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But in order to lift the embargo on Cuba, Obama will need an act of Congress. With Republicans set to control both the House and the Senate as of January, the chances of this happening are slim. House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that they opposed mending ties with Raúl Castro. McConnell even went so far as to say he would defer to Rubio on Cuba policy: “I am very likely going to follow his lead.”

Dan Restrepo, who served in Obama’s first term as the White House principal adviser on Latin America, said he did not think a Republican-controlled Congress would lift the embargo on Cuba. He also said getting an ambassador confirmed to Cuba would be “next to impossible.”

But Restrepo also said other potential efforts from Republicans such as Rubio to roll back some of the president’s executive actions on Cuba may risk failure. He pointed to a fight in 2011 by anti-Castro lawmakers to reverse Obama’s policy easing the process for Cuban-Americans to send cash back to the island, known as remittances. “In the budget negotiations the White House pushed back and the Republican leadership folded,” he said.

And while many Republicans Wednesday came out against Obama’s new Cuba policy, some supported it. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona was one of three lawmakers to fly to Cuba to accompany Gross on his trip back home. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which is usually aligned with Republicans — released a statement Wednesday in support of Obama’s new approach to Cuba.

Yet Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, warned GOP lawmakers that they would face resistance from conservatives if they supported Obama on Cuba. “If Republicans choose to underwrite Obama’s rewarding of the Castro dictatorship, their own moral standing is going to be in question and they are not going to have a leg to stand on in the coming years when they point out every single mistake Obama has made,” she told us.

Rubio has already begun making the moral argument against Obama’s Cuba policy. Elliott Abrams, who served presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as a senior foreign-policy hand, said he thinks Rubio’s opposition is a matter of principle more than politics.

“He feels very deeply about this, as does every Cuban-American member of the House and Senate without exception,” Abrams said. “This does give Rubio an opportunity, but I wouldn’t view it in political terms. This is heartfelt for him.”

Nonetheless, the politics are also part of the story for Rubio. While the Cuba issue has given him a national platform from which to possibly launch a presidential run, he also has a pending 2016 race to keep his Senate seat. ”He can’t leave the donors and the party hanging on this because if he runs for a second term, that race looks pretty good,“ said one Republican strategist. ”If he’s running for president, his seat will be a major concern — and he owes it to the party and the cause to give us plenty of time to fill that hole.“

To be remembered as the man who stopped Obama from lifting the embargo on Cuba might be tempting. At the end of his press conference Wednesday, Rubio was asked if there was a chance Congress would lift it. He responded with these nine words: “This Congress is not going to lift the embargo.”

Bloomberg View