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Menendez Keeps Up Cuba Fight

Though some Democrats have complained the power play over the omnibus distracted the president at a time when he needed to focus on other issues, others said Menendez was not acting out of a desire to score political points.

“The guy is the son of Cuban immigrants. It doesn’t get much more personal than that,” one Senate Democratic aide said. “I don’t think he’s trying to get a pound of flesh out of this. I think he’s just sticking up for what he believes.”

Another Senate Democratic aide said Menendez’s problem was that he opted to wage his first Cuba battle on a bill that was important to the rest of the caucus. But the aide added that Democratic leaders are prepared to move forward and leave the dust-up in the past.

“If it were health care reform, that would be something different. [Cuba is] a tertiary issue,” the aide said.

Plus, it’s not as if other DSCC chairmen have not taken positions opposing their party leadership in the past. For example, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) in 2007 broke with many in the party to support President George W. Bush’s nomination of Michael Mukasey to be attorney general. He also pushed for passage of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout last fall even as many Democratic Senate candidates assailed it as a boondoggle.

With the Obama administration seemingly poised to further loosen travel and trade restrictions on the communist Caribbean island nation, Menendez has said he is not going to back down in his opposition to lifting the restrictions or attempts to weaken the nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo imposed shortly after Fidel Castro turned the country into a communist nation in the 1959.

It’s unclear, however, when Menendez might again find himself in the cross hairs of the White House. Asked whether the issue would likely to see floor time this Congress, Reid indicated little interest in the measure.

“It’s rarely a year goes by since I’ve been in the Senate that we don’t have a vote on Cuba, and I’m sure this year will be no different,” he told reporters Tuesday.

However, votes on Cuba policy have rarely come up as stand-alone bills in the Senate. The debate has usually taken place during consideration of other legislation, such as the foreign operations spending bill or the State Department authorization measure.

When it does crop up, however, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he believes he has more than the 60 votes needed to break any filibuster that Menendez or another Senator might wage against his bill to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba.

“It’s pretty much all over but the shouting in terms of policy. Most people have moved away from thinking that restricting the rights of the American people is the right way to deal with the country of Cuba,” said Dorgan, who just reintroduced his bipartisan bill this week.

That’s not how Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), also a Cuban-American, feels.

“I think there’s a lot of fight left in this issue,” he said. “It’s come up a lot of times over the years, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

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