A for Effort, but Can Diaz-Balart and Rivera Really Beat Back Obama's Cuba Travel Policies?

[This is an slightly updated version of a post from last Friday, when for some reason, many of our subscribers didn't get the feed.  Let's hope that's resolved now.]

In The Miami Herald this week:

"Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart's efforts to tighten travel to Cuba stand a good chance despite a presidential veto threat."

http://thehavananote.com/sites/thehavananote.newamerica.net/files/Mario_Diaz-Balart,_official_portrait,_111th_Congress.jpgThat subhead sure sounds exciting, but I just don't buy it.  On what basis does The Herald reach this conclusion?  On the push-messaging of a pro-restrictions lobbyist, an unidentified Democratic Hill staffer, and Joe Garcia, a former Congressional candidate in South Florida who, I would guess, wants to make sure that Miami Cubans who want their travel rights protected don't sleep through this defining moment. 

Last week's full page ad taken out in El Nuevo Herald by the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights warning that families are "in danger of losing their rights" suggests pro-travel Cuban Americans aren't taking any chances.  Now, with the all-out assault on the Obama administration's Cuba travel reforms over the last two years included in the House Foreign Affairs Committee Foreign Authorization markup this week, how bad is it for Cuba policy reformers, really?  The Herald had this to say on the Diaz-Balart language:

"The bill is all but certain to be approved unchanged by the Republican-controlled House. The Democratic-controlled Senate usually does not draft its own version of the Treasury budget bill, leaving it to a House-Senate conference committee, with members appointed by congressional leaders, to craft a compromise.

House and Senate Democrats in the conference committee will try to strip the Diaz-Balart language out of the bill, said the Capitol Hill staffer, “but in a conference committee the leadership gives the orders, and on this one I don’t know if the Democratic leadership is willing to die for travel to Cuba.

That leadership would include Sen. Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban-American democrat from New Jersey who has steadily and harshly criticized Obama’s efforts to ease the Cuba travel restrictions."

It's hard to evaluate exactly how seriously to take the opinions of the unknown Hill staffer.  But in my experience in the Senate, I learned that the president's party leaders, especially if they are the majority party, will lay down on the train tracks to remove a veto target, whether to protect their president, or to protect their bill. 

The Herald didn't ask me to comment, but here's what I would have said if it had: Who's in charge of this bill on the Senate side?  Senator Dick Durbin, the #2 Democrat in the Senate, who is both close to the president and a supporter of freedom to travel to Cuba.  It's going to fall to him, Chairman Inouye and Leader Reid to support their president, particularly when the policy in the crosshairs is one believed to help the president's numbers in a key swing state next year.  Moreover, I highly doubt that Bob Menendez, who doesn't even sit on the Appropriations Committee, would out-influence Durbin and his colleagues  (last time I checked, every single Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, save possibly Lautenberg, supports Cuban American family travel, and a number of the Republicans do too).  It also strains credulity that Bob Menendez, who is up for reelection in 2012 (and - this I forgot to mention when I first published this post on July 21 - no longer heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; pro-Cuba policy reformer Patty Murray does) and might need Obama to come to a campaign event or two in New Jersey, would go head to head with the president on this one, much as he might like to.  I just don't buy that Obama needs Menendez more than Menendez needs him. 

Next, why assume House Republican leaders will go to the mat for this parochial provision?  It's easy for the Appropriations Committee chairman to support Diaz-Balart in a party-line markup.  But final passage is a different ballgame. The Cuba provisions are tucked into the Financial Services spending bill, which is one of the least popular spending bills there is (it has no broad constituency).  As it has in recent years, this bill will get rolled into a much larger spending bill, and if Republicans get the spending cuts they want, I just don't see the chairman, or Speaker Boehner, holding up an omnibus conference report over Cuban American family travel.   

And what about that Foreign Authorization bill with even tougher Cuba travel reform rollbacks included?  It might make travel ban backers feel good, but given that the last time Congress was able to send a Foreign Authorization bill to a president was nearly a decade ago, in the wake of the September 11th attacks (and when Republicans controlled the House and the presidency), I don't think it's on the fast track to the president's desk.  If a Democratic Congress couldn't send a Democratic president their version of bill during the last Congress, I wouldn't exactly expect a Ros-Lehtinen/Kerry attempt to be any quicker.  The Cuba provisions' chances certainly improve if Kerry-to-State-Department rumors really pan out, since his likely successor, Senator Bob Menendez, supports the Cuba restrictions, but even under that scenario, it's not a slamdunk.  Even if he and Ros-Lehtinen agreed on every other policy in the bill (which they wouldn't), any authorization bills except for Defense Authorization are usually extremely difficult to get through the Senate because any one senator can really gum up the works with the use of that pesky filibuster, and the even peskier "anonymous hold". 

Though their fight is far from won, embargo backers in Miami should definitely give their Congressional champions an A for effort here.  But it remains to be seen what grade the Cuban American electorate at large may give them, and to the president whose Cuba policy they've targeted, next year at the polls.

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