Obama heads for showdown over Cuba embassy
By Jordain Carney
President Obama is heading for a showdown with Congress after announcing
plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba.
The administration’s move is part of a months-long discussion between
the two countries to normalize relations that could hand Obama a needed
foreign policy win, but only if he can get lawmakers on board.
But that could be an impossible task. While the administration can
reopen the embassy without Congress signing off, they’ll need lawmakers
to help approve an ambassador, fund the embassy, and lift a decades-old
Congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, are already plotting to
block the administration’s efforts, suggesting that Obama is going easy
on a dictatorial regime.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called the decision to reopen the embassy the
latest example of Obama’s “appeasement of dictators.”
The Arkansas Republican is planning to work with his Senate colleagues
to block funding for an embassy and vote against a potential ambassador
“until there is real, fundamental change that gives hope to the
oppressed people of Cuba.”
He could find an ally across the aisle in Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.),
who has been a vocal critic of Obama’s policy. The Cuban-American
senator said Obama’s decision “is not in our national interest.”
“An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming
all the more lopsided,” he added. “The message is democracy and human
rights take a back seat to a legacy initiative.”
Across the Capitol, Republican leadership also opposes Obama’s Cuba
moves, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying that “relations
with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized,
until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”
The congressional opposition is hardly new. House lawmakers agreed in a
247-176 vote last month to keep the current restrictions on Americans
wanting to travel to Cuba in place, effectively blocking rules issued
earlier this year to make traveling easier.”
The House is also using its spending bills to try to torpedo Obama’s
efforts. A bill to fund the State Department would prohibit funds from
being used to build a new embassy.
The administration has requested approximately $6 million to improve its
current building there and convert it to a working embassy.
Despite the congressional backlash, administration officials are adamant
that it would be a mistake for lawmakers to block Obama’s efforts, and
suggest they could find common ground.
A senior State Department official said that a decision by lawmakers to
fight the president’s policy would be counterproductive.
“It would be a shame if Congress impeded implementation of some of the
very things that we think they – we all agree we want to do, such as
better outreach to the Cuban people all over the island or additional,”
the official said.
“These are the kinds of things that we can do as we move forward in this
relationship with a more robust embassy. And I would assume that most
on the Hill agree those are a good thing to do.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that while he
hasn’t “done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum,
strong support in the United States Congress… for lifting the embargo
And the administration isn’t without allies across the aisle as it
prepares to sell lawmakers.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has said “it’s long past time” to change the
country’s policy on Cuba.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) called Obama’s announcement “a step
in the right direction,” but added that “fundamental issues must be
addressed by its government before our two nations can establish the
bilateral relationship they are capable of achieving.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee, offered a more measured response, saying that he will
“continue to carefully evaluate the most appropriate way forward for the
The Tennessee Republican suggested late last year that the Cuban embargo
hasn’t been effective, but said in a statement provided to The Hill that
“we still have yet to see any significant actions by the Castro regime
that will benefit the United States or enhance freedoms and
circumstances for the Cuban people.”
As Foreign Relations Chairman, Corker has wide sway over whether or not
a nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Cuba gets a confirmation hearing
or a vote.
The administration could also have an unlikely ally in Sen. Rand Paul
(R-Ky.) who has been silent on Cuba since Obama’s announcement.
The 2016 presidential candidate got in a Twitter skirmish late last year
with Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also running for president, over the
Florida Republican’s support for the embargo.
At one point, Paul tweeted, “The United States trades and engages with
other communist nations, such as China and Vietnam. So @marcorubio why
He wrote in a separate Times op-ed that “if we allow the passions to
cool, maybe just maybe, we might conclude that trade is better than war
and that capitalism wins every time a people get a chance to see its
But Paul’s stance, and his potential support for Obama’s policy, pits
him not only against Rubio, but also Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and
Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who are also running for president.
His three 2016 rivals have suggested in the wake of Obama’s decision
that they’re ready to keep the issue in the spotlight, using the
publicity from their campaigns to hammer the president on Cuba.
Cruz and Rubio have pledged to oppose any nominee that Obama sends to
the Senate for review, as well as hold up funding for an embassy in Havana.
“The word’s coming out of the president’s mouth simply aren’t true,”
Cruz, also a Cuban-American, added during an interview with Mickelson in
the Morning, an Iowa-based radio show. “It makes no sense to be
strengthening a profoundly anti-American enemy, a tyrant 90 miles from
the U.S. shore.”
Meanwhile, Graham had a more direct warning for Obama, suggesting that
his efforts could be short lived if a Republican wins the White House
“I’ll close it in a New York minute. I would not open the embassy until
the Castro brothers are removed or they change their behavior. This is
the worst possible signal to send at the most important time,” he told
the Hugh Hewitt Show.
Cuba “hasn’t changed one bit,” said Graham.
Source: Obama heads for showdown over Cuba embassy | TheHill –