Pork Over Politics: Omnibus moves from House to Senate
The House voted 245-178 on February 25th to pass the Omnibus Appropriations bill.
As summarized by Lesley Clark and Frances Robles in the Miami Herald, it will
* Prevent the U.S. government from spending any of its budget enforcing 2004 rules that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years.
* Create a general travel license for Americans who sell food and medical supplies to Cuba.
* Let Cuba pay for the American products it buys in cash when they arrive in Havana. Current law forces Cuba to pay upfront before products leave U.S. ports.
* Require the U.S. Treasury Department to issue a report showing how much of its staff and funding is spent on enforcing the ban on travel to Cuba.
Robles today diminished its significance by leading with a more cynical but possibly accurate view that the bill
tweaked U.S.-Cuba policy,making it easier for Cuban Americans to get away with illegally traveling to the communist country
The only Cuba related intervention during the debate came from Miami hard liner Lincoln Diaz-Ballart. However instead of denouncing the travel and agricultural provisions, he just wanted to be sure that $20 million of Cuba "democracy" funding that largely benefits his supporters in Miami was still in the bill. Rep. Nita Lowey, the manager of that part of the legislation, reassured him that his pork was safe.
His Democratic soul mate, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (photo above), also spoke but her comments were entirely in favor of the bill, skewering its Republican opponents. Not a word did she utter about the dastardly Cuba language .
The bill was debated under a no amendments rule so there was not much they could really do to challenge its content.
The test comes very soon in the Senate where Majority Leader Reid said he wants to complete work on the legislation by the end of next week when stopgap funding runs out. Senators have privileges that could allow travel opponents Martinez and Menendez to hold the bill hostage if the Cuba language stays in.
As reported by Bill Gibson in his Sun-Sentinel weblog
Florida Senator Mel Martinez this afternoon threatened to block a big spending bill that would ease restrictions on Cuban-American travel to visit relatives in Cuba....
Martinez, a Republican, said he would object to consideration of the bill. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a procedural move that would force the billÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supporters to round up 60 votes to overcome delays that would kill it, a modern form of filibuster.
The bill returns travel for Cuban Americans only to the less restrictive formula of the Clinton Administration, annual visits to a normal definition of family that includes cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. However it does so by blocking enforcement of existing law and regulations rather than by changing them.
An Associated Press story suggests that the travel may need to go through third countries:
Tessie Aral, owner of ABC Charters in Miami, said that because of the way the measure is written, she worries individuals won't be prosecuted for traveling to Cuba, but companies arranging the trips may be targeted.
"This is not what President Obama promised," Aral said. "If it only stops enforcement, I still can't sell you a ticket knowing I'm going to break a law."
The leading voice for the campaign on behalf of family travel in Miami went further in an editorial in Progresso Weekly pressing President Obama to keep the promise of his campaign and the Democratic Party platform for unlimited Cuban American travel and remittances:
in our opinion, the Cuba travel piece should be removed completely from the Omnibus Bill making the rounds in Washington, DC.
Finally, what we would like to stress to the president is that every time a family member dies in Cuba, alone; a son, daughter or nephew sits in the hospital with little hope of seeing a loved one who lives in the U.S.; every minute that passes while family members are kept apart for political reasons, is yet another black mark on one of the most un-American and cruel pieces of legislation passed in this country over the last 20 years.
Methods of agricultural sales also are normalized by dint of preventing expenditure of funds for enforcement of politically motivated obstructions created by the Bush Administration. On the other hand, travel for the purpose of sales of agricultural and medical products received a general license, i.e. no application necessary.
Reuters saw the economic implications this way
The legislation approved by the House does not lift the overall embargo. But it would prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring payment of cash in advance for agricultural sales to Cuba.
Analysts believe that U.S. rice sales to Cuba will soar if the provision becomes law. Rice sales declined every year after the cash-in-advance rules were imposed in 2005, because Cuba could turn to Vietnam -- a country with which it has close ties -- for rice on easier terms.
Lawyers will sort out the exact implications. The crucial element is that implementation will be by officials in the Treasury and Commerce Department answering to a different more pro-engagement political drum. Before they expire on September 30th, all provisions will probably be supplanted by more fundamental change available through executive orders and notices in the Federal Register or by new legislation.
The BBC went to the core of the issue:
The measures announced in the US bill represent a first move in broader efforts to ease the US trade embargo and end travel restrictions for all Americans.
However the path is not certain report Clark and Robles:
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who backs the current restrictions, said she believes the travel measure wouldn't pass on its own, because most Republicans and about 80 Democrats are opposed.
Winning the battle begins in the Obama Administration whose allies and supporters must insist to the White House and to Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, that vision and boldness be the product of the interagency review, including general licenses for all non-tourist people to people travel.
The question is still in play, as the Miami Herald also reported today
Cuba watchers say it's unclear whether he will lift restrictions not just for Cuban Americans, but for American academics, church groups and others as well. Key administration posts in charge of such decisions have yet to be filled.
The link changed for Sen. Lugar's excellent letter calling for a new policy and Carl Meacham's far reaching report after the final text was issued, although the PDF appears to be the same version as the draft.