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Obama Faces Battle With Congress Over Cuba
From the Wall Street Journal of Sun, 21 Dec 2014 22:52:04 EST
Senator Marco Rubio, (R-FL), the son of Cuban immigrants, speaks during a press conference in Miami on Dec. 18. Beside him is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, (R-FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL). All three lawmakers criticized Mr. Obama’s move on Cuba.
Senator Marco Rubio, (R-FL), the son of Cuban immigrants, speaks during a press conference in Miami on Dec. 18. Beside him is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, (R-FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL). All three lawmakers criticized Mr. Obama’s move on Cuba. Reuters

KAILUA, Hawaii—The shape of U.S.-Cuba relations for years to come hinges on the brewing fight that will determine how much of President Barack Obama ’s executive action to normalize ties can be blocked by opponents in Congress.

Mr. Obama, who announced plans last week to normalize ties with Havana after half a century of hostility, is pushing forward on his broad authority to set the tone through diplomatic relations and government-to-government cooperation on issues ranging from crime to finance to the Ebola crisis.

But Congress controls some of the most significant restrictions on travel, tourism and trade between the two countries, and lawmakers from both parties have made clear they plan to complicate Mr. Obama’s efforts by refusing to fund certain proposals or confirm his nominees to fill diplomatic posts.

“If you’re being offered the ambassadorship to Cuba, turn it down because you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting confirmed,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a member of the SenateForeign Relations Committee.

Some of the original restrictions that make up the Cuban embargo were authorized by U.S. presidents starting half a century ago, relying on the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917.

But Congress later codified much of the Cuban embargo in the Helms-Burton law of 1996, also called the “Libertad” act, and in other legislation. Still, Mr. Obama has the ability to alter federal regulations based on the 1996 law.

“The president can go very far,” said Serena Moe, of the law firm Wiley, Fein & Fielding in Washington and former sanctions official at the Treasury Department. “He’s gone very far in his recommendations and he can go further.”

But unless Cuba transforms overnight, he can’t substantially undermine the embargo without the help of Congress, lawyers say.

Mr. Obama’s plan to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism would help lift some of the restrictions. Actions by the State, Treasury and Commerce departments can re-establish relations, open a U.S. Embassy, ease some trade limits and expand travel opportunities.

But the embargo, under the control of Congress, prevents a full restoration of trade and tourism, and lawmakers can resort to delays in approving the nomination of an ambassador and funding caps to limit U.S. diplomatic activity.

“Now the thing is implementation of what he’s going to do, and what the extent of the blowback is from the Hill,” said Richard Sawaya, director of USA Engage, a coalition of business groups that opposes unilateral sanctions.

In announcing last week that his administration will reinstate diplomatic ties with Cuba, Mr. Obama urged Congress to fully lift the embargo. But it is unclear whether the White House has the ability to forge a coalition of lawmakers to achieve that goal.

Instead of assembling such a coalition, the White House’s legislative strategy on Cuba has been organized around preventing congressional efforts to block Mr. Obama’s proposals.

As White House officials plot the strategy, they have noted that unlike other executive actions Mr. Obama has taken, the Cuba plans don’t face unanimous GOP opposition. Two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake of Arizona, publicly favor a new approach to Cuba.

And while some Democrats, including Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, oppose the policy changes, many support it, leaving it unclear whether legislative efforts such as obstructing funding for an embassy would succeed.

“There’s a bipartisan coalition we can work with to stop any of those changes,” a senior administration official said. “And he always has the veto,” the official added, referring to Mr. Obama.

The White House also plans to enlist the help of business groups, including Chamber of Commerce, to help blunt congressional opposition.

“There are a lot of Republican interests who have long been for making these changes because they agree with us on the foreign-policy perspective or there’s a large market that has been unavailable to American goods,” the administration official said.

With or without Congress’ blessing, the U.S. will begin to discuss normalizing relations with talks in Havana in January.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who will lead the U.S. delegation to Cuba in late January, has described the legal and diplomatic process to move toward official relations as “fairly mechanical,” including the exchange of letters.

Policy changes Mr. Obama announced earlier this week will likely go into effect in weeks, officials said. The Treasury and Commerce departments are working on regulatory changes to enact Mr. Obama’s revised policy on exports and banking relationships.

The State Department has already begun to review Cuba’s 1982 designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Once the review is complete, Mr. Obama ultimately will need to approve Cuba’s removal from the terror list.

Mr. Obama ordered the review to be finished in six months, but it could be completed sooner, Ms. Jacobson said last week.

After the new regulations are implemented, the administration would likely pause to judge the Cuban response and evaluate the shifting political climate before issuing new rules or pushing Congress for a broad lifting of the embargo, observers say.

U.S. agricultural exporters at that point are likely to find it easier to ship food to Cuba, but most businesses, including telecommunication firms, are expected to approach the market cautiously.

“U.S. banks are not going to be leaping off Key West and swimming rapid-fire to Cuba,” Ms. Moe said.

Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.

Write to Carol E. Lee at and William Mauldin at

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