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    Congressional Republicans look to block Cuba policy changes

    Congressional Republicans look to block Cuba policy changes
    BY DAVID LIGHTMAN MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU
    12/17/2014 6:01 PM 12/17/2014 6:10 PM

    WASHINGTON
    The shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba triggered fierce partisan warfare
    Wednesday in Congress, as some Republicans vowed to take strong steps to
    block the changes.

    “I am committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these
    changes as possible,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a view many top
    Republicans shared.

    Among the possible strategies: They could refuse to end the economic
    embargo of Cuba, block funding for a new embassy, or stall or defeat an
    ambassadorial nomination.

    President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro agreed Wednesday to
    free American aid worker Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds, while three
    Cubans convicted of spying went back to their country. The United States
    will now explore establishing an embassy in Cuba for the first time in
    53 years, and ease travel and trade restrictions.

    Leading the opposition Wednesday were lawmakers with close ties to Cuba,
    notably Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants.

    Obama’s action does not quite end the economic embargo against Cuba,
    since that’s up to Congress, which in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act
    toughened travel and economic restrictions against the island nation.
    The act said the embargo cannot be lifted until Cuba becomes democratic
    and its leaders do not include Raúl Castro or his brother Fidel.

    Obama pledged to work with Congress.

    He’s going to run head-on into a furious Rubio, who next year is
    expected to be chairman of the Senate’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee,
    which considers legislation dealing with Cuba policy. Senate Republican
    leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will be majority leader next
    year, told the Associated Press he supports Rubio’s position.

    “This Congress is not going to lift the embargo,” Rubio said flatly.
    Rubio is also mulling a run for the 2016 GOP nomination for the presidency.

    Any negotiation will take some time, predicted Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a
    senior Foreign Relations Committee member. “It’s too early to predict
    what will happen,” he said.

    The money dispute could begin early next year. If Obama requests funds
    to build an embassy, a Republican-led Congress would need to approve the
    request.

    “I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy
    in Cuba,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’s slated to become
    chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations
    subcommittee.

    The Senate also would have to confirm an ambassador nominee, and almost
    any Obama pick would be subject to brutal scrutiny.

    Just wait, Rubio warned Wednesday. The new policies will change nothing
    in Cuba.

    “They are not going to agree to anything that destabilizes their grip on
    power,” he said of the Cuban regime. “And the sooner policymakers like
    the president realize that, the less these sorts of ridiculous policies
    we’re going to get from them.”

    Overcoming strong Republican opposition to any part of the Obama policy
    could be tough, since the party will control 54 of the 100 seats in the
    Senate next year. In the House of Representatives, Republican leaders
    were adamant Wednesday that the president had blundered.

    House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio protested that Obama had made
    “mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and
    schemes with our enemies.” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., branded Obama
    the “appeaser-in-chief.”

    Democrats were more sympathetic. “For too long our relationship has been
    soured by mistrust and clouded by memories of the Cold War,” said Senate
    Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “Reports
    that our countries will move to normalize relations are very welcome.”

    Democrats had some hope they could prevail, noting it’s been a long time
    since any true test vote on Cuba policy. Farm Belt Republicans often are
    seen as willing to ease embargo restrictions, and next year’s Senate
    will include 28 senators who have taken office since 2013. And an
    October New York Times poll found 56 percent of Americans approved of
    establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, while 29 percent
    disapproved.

    Among Republicans eager to improve relations is Sen. Jeff Flake of
    Arizona, who was on the plane that traveled to Havana to bring Gross
    home. “My sense is that most of my colleagues feel we are long past due”
    for change, he said.

    In a twist, he could find a top Democrat as a leading skeptic.

    Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the outgoing Foreign Relations
    Committee chairman whose parents were Cuban immigrants, was adamant
    Wednesday: “Let’s be clear, this was not a `humanitarian’ act by the
    Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”

    He said Obama’s action “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban
    government.”

    (Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid.)

    Source: Congressional Republicans look to block Cuba policy changes |
    The Miami Herald –
    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article4577467.html