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Opponents formulate a strategy to derail Obama’s new Cuba policy

Opponents formulate a strategy to derail Obama’s new Cuba policy
BY PAUL KANETHE WASHINGTON POST
12/22/2014 1:00 AM 12/22/2014 6:00 AM

WASHINGTON
Opponents of Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening toward Cuba
began plotting for the long road ahead to block the administration’s new
policy, focusing on areas where congressional consent is necessary.

The most likely targets are funding for new diplomatic operations in
Havana, as well as the requirement for Senate confirmation of the
ambassador, and while the issue has divided Republicans, key
conservatives with long anti-Castro records occupy powerful positions in
Congress and could thwart Obama’s overtures toward Cuban President Raúl
Castro.

The GOP leaders are throwing their weight behind the efforts of Sen.
Marco Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

“I don’t think conditions have changed much, I haven’t seen much
evidence that anything’s changed,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky
Republican and the incoming majority leader, said in an interview on
Thursday, suggesting that the regime’s abuses had led him
to support his Florida Republican colleagues. “They understand this
issue pretty thoroughly. I’m at least persuaded that Marco’s right about
this.”

Their staffs have begun scouring pertinent laws related to determine if
there are ways to impede the new financial avenues to commerce with the
island nation. In particular, GOP aides are focusing on portions of the
1996 law that tightened the against Cuba, whether the
president’s decision to allow U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba would
violate sections of the law, commonly referred to as the Helms-Burton Act.

Derailing Obama’s initiatives will not be easy, and it could take many
months, if not years, to play out as the new Congress takes up the
annual funding bills for federal agencies and other oversight actions.

“In my mind, we intend to use everything at our disposal to address this
in the most positive way possible,” Rubio said on Thursday at a packed
news conference in the Miami office of Ros-Lehtinen, promising to “look
at all of our options.”

Just four years into his Senate tenure, Rubio is already the
third-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and expects
to chair a subcommittee overseeing Western Hemisphere issues. He will be
able to hold hearings and call witnesses to try to shape the issue,
possibly as he mounts a campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential
nomination.

However, in a sign of the lack of ideological conformity, Sen. Rand
Paul, a Kentucky Republican and a member both of the full committee and
Rubio’s subcommittee, said on Thursday that the Cold War-era policy
toward Cuba “just hasn’t worked” and normalizing relations is “probably
a good idea.”

That divide could turn any potential confirmation hearings for a new
ambassador into a brutal fight.

Rubio is joined in his strident opposition by Sen. Robert Menendez, a
New Jersey Democrat and Cuban American who is the outgoing chairman and
who expressed outrage at Obama’s move.

Their views would be countered by Paul and Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona
Republican and conservative who flew to Havana on Wednesday to help pick
up freed American Alan .

And the incoming chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, has
so far been noncommittal, saying on Wednesday the committee “will be
closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the
next Congress.”

The effort to block funding for the new policy will fall to Diaz-Balart,
a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. He repeatedly
denounced Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former secretary of
state Hillary Rodham Clinton for negotiating the prisoner exchange
despite public pronouncements that they would never exchange Gross’s
in exchange for the return of three Cuban spies.

“Yesterday they did exactly what they claimed they would never do,”
Diaz-Balart said on Thursday at the Miami news conference with Rubio and
Ros-Lehtinen. “It shows a deep level of cynicism.”

As a senior member of the subcommittee that funds the State Department,
Diaz-Balart will have a hand in approving diplomatic budgets. House
Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and McConnell are
increasingly preaching to their rank-and-file Republicans that these
annual spending bills are where they can advance conservative goals by
attaching provisions that reduce or eliminate funds for projects, or for
attaching policy riders that specifically forbid federal agencies from
taking actions.

Just this week, a sweeping spending bill passed Congress that included a
controversial provision to alter banking laws on risky trades, serving
as the sort of example for what Diaz-Balart could try to do on Cuba
policy as those bills head through Congress next summer. Diaz-Balart has
a key ally in the Senate — Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a South Carolina
Republican and staunch opponent of the new policy who will lead the
subcommittee approving the State Department’s budget.

Still, Obama could veto those individual spending bills if they include
Cuba restrictions he finds objectionable, which would set up a showdown
over whether Republicans are willing to shut down portions of the
government over the diplomatic openings to Cuba. There are some
suggestions that existing property in Havana — known as the U.S.
Interests Section — could be converted into a temporary embassy without
requiring new funding.

Ros-Lehtinen, a 26-year veteran of Congress who once chaired the House
Foreign Affairs Committee, serves as the political godmother of the
anti-Castro movement on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, she hosted Rubio and Diaz-Balart alongside family members
of the pilots killed in 1996 when Cuban jets shot
down their aircraft in the waters off the island.

In Spanish, she said that Obama’s moves “destroy the dreams of millions
of Cubans who’ve waited for half a century for their liberty. Obama
insulted the Cuban American community that wants freedom and democracy
for Cuba.”

Rubio added a veiled attack on Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security
adviser who once wrote Obama’s foreign policy speeches, noting Raúl
Castro’s claim that Cuba “agreed to nothing” as part of the deal that
Rhodes helped broker. “This is the kind of deal you get when you send
your speechwriter to negotiate with a ,” he said.

McConnell predicted a majority of Senate Republicans would side with Rubio.

“Even though I understand the argument that engagement may bring about
changes, in this particular country — right next door to our country — I
think the arguments of people like Menendez and Rubio are compelling,”
McConnell said.

Obama stunned McConnell when he called him on Tuesday night to inform
him of the move: “It was such a surprise, we haven’t talked about this
issue in quite a while. . . . To be perfectly candid with you, I hadn’t
thought about Cuba policy in quite a while, there just hasn’t been
anything on the agenda lately.”

Source: Opponents formulate a strategy to derail Obama’s new Cuba policy
| The Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article4778862.html

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