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Roll Call

Menendez Keeps Up Cuba Fight

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) remains on a collision course with the White House over its Cuba policy, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman appears committed to butt heads not just with President Barack Obama but also with powerful Democratic Senators.

It’s an unusual position for an otherwise loyal party player who is trying to guide Senate Democrats to another banner election year in 2010. But both his fellow Democratic leaders as well as candidates whom he will be promoting say they don’t expect the rift with Obama to affect Menendez’s effectiveness as the DSCC chairman.

“In terms of his role at the DSCC, he is maintaining a breakneck schedule to raise the money, recruit the candidates, and we are excited about his leadership,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

Durbin said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other leaders understand that the issue is personal for the Cuban-American Menendez. A bipartisan group of Senators is continuing the push to ease travel and trade restrictions to Cuba, which Menendez adamantly opposes.

“There’s bound to be times when individual Democratic Senators don’t agree with President Obama or Durbin or Reid or whoever it might be. But we don’t expect 100 percent allegiance here,” said Durbin, who supports a change in U.S.-Cuba policy.

Despite a news report suggesting that Menendez’s hard line against Cuba might prevent him from aiding in the re-election of Senators opposed to him, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents in 2010, said that is certainly not the case when it comes to his campaign.

“I don’t know where that came from at all. I don’t feel that way at all,” said Dodd, who supports easing travel restrictions to Cuba but opposes ending the trade embargo.

Dodd added that Menendez has “been tremendously helpful already. And the differences [on Cuba] are not that substantial ... We’ve met and talked about my campaign and things going on.”

Still, Menendez’s stance angered many of his colleagues and the White House — including powerful Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — when he threatened last month to vote against an omnibus bill funding the federal government for fiscal 2009 because it eased some travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans. Though he was not the decisive vote because a handful of Republicans were needed for passage anyway, Menendez’s gambit was seen by Obama officials and some rank-and-file Democrats as a political no-no for a party leader.

Menendez also held up two Obama nominees in order to win concessions from the White House on Cuba policy. During the omnibus debate, he — along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — eventually got a letter from the Treasury Department promising to narrowly interpret the language in the bill.

Since the flap, Menendez has been loath to talk about the issue given the focus on whether his Cuba stand is affecting his DSCC duties or his coveted seat at the Democratic leadership table.

“I already addressed these issues extensively with various press outlets, including Roll Call. There’s nothing new and nothing more to discuss on it. We’re having some big successes at the DSCC and here in the Senate, and that’s what I’m focused on,” Menendez said in a statement.

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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