Senate appropriators approved landmark language Thursday that would accelerate the Obama administration's initiative to thaw relations with Cuba.
The Senate Appropriations Committee adopted three amendments to the fiscal 2016 Financial Services spending bill related to the communist island nation, including a provision that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba under any circumstances and two others that would open up trade with the country.
The actions are significant, since it marks the first time the Senate has moved legislation that addresses President Barack Obama’s steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba announced in December. Authorizing legislation related to Cuba has gone nowhere in the chamber.
Advocates of a warmer relationship between the two estranged countries lauded Thursday’s votes.
“This is a first step by the Senate to dismantle a failed, discredited and counterproductive policy that in 54 years has failed to achieve any of its objectives,” said Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a senior Democratic appropriator and longtime advocate of opening up Cuba. “These votes were not about the repugnant policies of the Castro regime, but about doing away with unwarranted impediments to travel and commerce imposed on Americans by our own government.”
Thursday’s votes effectively guarantee that Cuba will be on the negotiating table should the politics allow for a wrap up omnibus spending package later this year.
But proponents were quick to acknowledge the challenges ahead. Any attempt to change current policy through legislation will undoubtedly be met with stiff opposition from most GOP leaders and House Republicans.
“We do know that an appropriations bill must pass Congress. What form it takes is uncertain,” Jerry Moran of Kansas, who is part of a vocal minority of Senate Republicans in favor of opening up relations, told CQ. “A free-standing bill would be a challenge, but I would guess based upon today’s vote that there are 60 votes in the Senate to change the relationship with Cuba. But I would also say that the House more than likely has a different position, particularly in the appropriations process and so this now becomes an item for negotiation.”
The debate over the issue in Senate Appropriations was muted. Longtime Castro foes largely kept quiet and allowed two of the amendments to be adopted without forcing roll call votes.
After the markup, senior GOP appropriator Richard C. Shelby said simply: “I think it’s wrong.”
The committee first adopted an amendment from Moran 18-12 that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. All 14 committee Democrats voted with four Republicans to adopt the provision. Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, John Boozman of Arkansas and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia voted with Moran.
“For nearly 60 years we’ve tried to change the nature and behavior of the Castro regimes and my view . . . we might try something once. If it didn’t work, we might try it a few more times. But after nearly 60 years we might try something different,” said Moran.
Soon thereafter, the committee adopted by voice vote an amendment from Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would repeal a requirement that bars any ship that’s been docked in Cuba from loading or unloading freight in the U.S. within six months without a special permit from the government.
“This amendment eliminates that arbitrary restriction,” said Tester. “After years it hasn’t really done all that much except undermine our own ag producers in this country.”
The committee also adopted by voice vote a provision from Boozman, the chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, that would lift the ban on agricultural exports to Cuba. Boozman’s home state farmers could benefit greatly from such a policy change.
Senate appropriators’ actions come in stark contrast to those of their House counterparts. House appropriators have used their fiscal 2016 spending bills to continually hit back against the president’s Cuba policy. Language chipping away at the Havana policy shift was folded into roughly half of the bills advanced by the committee.
The Senate, meanwhile, has been slower to respond.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, skipped the chance to address the topic earlier this summer. Graham, a Republican and a vocal opponent of the president’s policy change, previously acknowledged that he did not have the votes to sustain any anti-Castro language in his bill.
An authorizing bill from Moran and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that would lift the travel ban has languished in the Foreign Relations Committee since January.
Senate appropriators’ actions come less than a week after the Cuba reopened its Washington embassy after more than 50 years. Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.