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Democrats Escape Cold, Spend Part of Recess in Cuba

McCaskill, center, and Klobuchar, right, were part of a CODEL to Cuba. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats from both sides of the Capitol have been spending parts of their Presidents Day recess in Cuba as relations between the communist nation and the United States begin to thaw.  

The trips weren’t designed to be a means of avoiding the bitter cold, but that might be a much appreciated side effect. A House delegation led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrived on the island  Tuesday, just as a trio of senators wrapped up their trip of a few days and prepared to return to the U.S. "This delegation travels to Cuba in friendship and to build upon the announcement of U.S. normalization of relations and other initiatives announced by President [Barack] Obama,” Pelosi said in a statement.  "[It] will work to advance the U.S.-Cuba relationship and build on the work done by many in the Congress over the years, especially with respect to agriculture and trade."  

The Senate group, promoting agricultural and other trading opportunities, featured Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia.  

The trio met with reporters, including representatives from state-run media in Havana, before finishing the trip. Pelosi and her delegation are scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday.  

The senators told reporters that talks between the United States and Cuban authorities would resume next week in D.C., according to The Associated Press .  

"We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington between the Cuban government and the American State Department to make progress," Warner said.  

McCaskill was active on Instagram during the trip, posting photos of, among other things, the old American automobiles that still serve as a primary mode of transportation on the island, a well-known phenomenon Klobuchar also mentioned in an interview with CQ Roll Call.  

"I kept being struck by the fact that as much as there’s sort of a delightful throwback to the classic cars … literally being driven on every street, and all these buildings from the turn of the century, there was also so much hope for the future," Klobuchar said. "I had no idea until I got there that people would still be referring to Dec. 17 like it’s forever etched in their memory."  

That was the date when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced a reopening of relations between the two countries.  

Klobuchar said she was surprised to find herself being recognized on the street for having introduced legislation to lift the longstanding embargo. She’s also supporting a bill to lift the travel ban, which is being spearheaded by Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.  

McCaskill, Warner and Klobuchar visited with a variety of small-business operators, artisans and artists who could likely benefit from U.S. tourism dollars — as well as making a trip to the site of the new Port of Mariel, which will replace the antiquated Port of Havana.  

“Clearly they see the future which will be — we hope — a lot of American exports coming to Havana, especially from my state, which has hogs and turkeys and corns and soybeans,” Klobuchar said.  

Of course, even smaller steps such as formally transitioning the existing U.S. Interests Section in Havana to an embassy with a formal ambassador will run into legislative obstacles on Capitol Hill.  

Right from the outset , Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has pushed against providing funding for the embassy or allowing a U.S. ambassador to Cuba to move through the Senate confirmation process. Rubio is the chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee with jurisdiction over policy in the Western Hemisphere.  

Also casting doubts was South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who has the key role of chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that writes the annual foreign operations spending bill.  

Still, Klobuchar said she thought there would be a "very good chance" of seeing an ambassador confirmed.  

“All these other countries have ambassadors, and to me that is a logical first step,” Klobuchar said. “I just don’t think there will be the support to knock that down and to stop that from happening.”  

In comments released over the weekend, Warner said, "I think after 55 years, the vast majority of Americans believe it's time to recalibrate this relationship. The old ways weren’t working."  

"Now, clearly we've got to keep pressure on the Castro government to open up,  give the Cuban people more personal freedom, more religious freedom, and to actually bring more capitalism to that country. But I think we can do that by exerting our diplomatic — and if we can open up trade, that’s going to open up opportunity to Cubans and to Americans," Warner said.  

The first congressional delegation since the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba changed made the trip in mid-January.  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Related: Pelosi Leads House Democratic CODEL to Cuba Cuba CODEL Gets Firsthand Account of Dramatic Dealings Paul Challenges Rubio Over Obama's Cuba Plan Boehner Invites Anti-Castro Cubans to Obama Speech The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.