UPDATED: Senate Minibus Showdown on Cuba
Wonk-out alert: For those who missed the action on the Senate floor yesterday, The Hill reports that Senator Reid’s “Minibus” appropriations bill nearly crashed over Cuba provisions contained in the bill. Those provisions were 1) a provision passed in FY 09, FY10 and FY11 that defines the term “cash in advance” for the purpose of complying with a 2000 law that authorized cash in advance food exports to the island, and 2) a provision that would have blocked enforcement funds for a prohibition on Cuban buyers routing their payments for U.S. purchases directly, rather than through a third country bank.
The former provision was in the original Financial Services Appropriations bill when it was considered by the full Appropriations Committee in September. The latter provision, championed by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ben Nelson (D-NE), was attached to the bill by a vote of 20 to 10 in that committee. The vote was significant – for Cuban watchers, anyway – because the Chairs of the Intelligence and Banking Committees, and the chair of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke in favor of the amendment, and because 6 Republicans, including the Ranking Member of the full committee, joined 14 Democrats in voting for it.
These provisions aren’t exactly huge chunks of the U.S. embargo. What they would do is inch a bit closer towards reasonable and reliable terms of export (you can’t really call one-way transactions “trade”, can you?), something which the agriculture export community in the U.S. has been pushing for since a 2005 Bush administration rule made cash-in-advance sales impossible to transact. The sales, though they dropped and continue to drop, have continued because the law also allowed for foreign letters of credit in payment, something larger exporters are quite used to and comfortable with. Taken together, the two rules added cost and volatility to the sales. Small bore though they may be, the agriculture export provisions give embargo supporters like Senators Rubio, Menenedez and Nelson (of Florida) heartburn because better export terms means more exports and better ties between Cuba and an influencial sector here in the U.S., which in turn could lead to further dismantling of the embargo.
What I can’t yet explain is why the provisions were vulnerable to the Senate rule against authorizing or legislating policy on a spending bill. The Moran provision that came out of Committee was simply a prohibition on funding, and shouldn’t have fallen upon such a challenge. UPDATE #1: I've double-checked and the Cuba language voted on in the Appropriations Committee in September is not language that was to be added to Reid's minibus (S.1573). Sometimes committees make technical corrections to bills before they go to the floor, but if that's what happened, it's what enabled opponents to get it removed on the floor.
The cash-in-advance fix, on the other hand, was written differently, and perhaps no one Rule XVI'ed it in previous years because of the larger priority at stake: passing the underlying bill to keep much bigger chunks of the government funded than this “minibus” would do. But newcomer Senator Marco Rubio has no allegiance to Senate Majority Leader Reid’s agenda, and perhaps his arrival to the chamber changed the game. Of course, the same applies to Mr. Moran, a freshman Republican who favors engagement with Cuba . After Rubio and company* took down his Cuba provisions, forcing Reid to bring up an amended bill without the Cuba language, Moran (who voted against the Financial Services spending bill in committee, by the way) objected to considering that bill, which wasn’t the version that came out of committee.
The Financial Services Appropriations bill had bigger, more partisan problems ahead of it than Cuba. Chances are this fight moves to bicameral conference-type negotiations over whatever vehicle will be used to continue funding the agencies and functions the bill covers. And in that scenario, provisions attached by pro-embargo Representative Mario Diaz-Balart in the House (which drew a veto threat) to block the Obama administration’s more open travel rules will be pitted against the Senate’s agriculture export provisions. And that, dear readers, is about the biggest showdown we’re likely to see on Cuba policy before November 6, 2012.
UPDATE #2: I originally attributed the objection on the Senate floor to Senator Rubio, but it was Senator Menendez who raised the objection, backed by Rubio and Nelson of Florida. In response to the Cuba provisions' takedown, and presumably to bolster the Senate language in conference (the Cuba provisions remain in the Financial Services bill), Senator Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is now collecting a bunch of ag state cosponsors - Roberts, Bingaman, McCaskill, Cantwell, Nelson (NE), Harkin, Pryor, Tester, Murray, Moran, Crapo, Johnson and Landrieu so far - on an amendment that would retain the cash-in-advance fix (it's amendment #1049) . What's interesting about that list is that it includes vulnerable farm state senators who are up for re-election in 2012, such as Senators Tester and McCaskill.
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