Lawmakers want to break stalemate in Congress over Cuba trade embargo

 José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez (right in blue shirt), chief of mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, watches as workers raise a flagpole in preparation for reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS — AP

José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez (right in blue shirt), chief of mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, watches as workers raise a flagpole in preparation for reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington, Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

HAVANA, June 11  With efforts to lift the Cuban embargo stalled in Congress, a pro-trade senator from Kansas will try to break the stalemate on Thursday by offering new legislation designed to win over his reluctant Republican colleagues.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, along with co-sponsor Angus King, an independent senator from Maine, hope that taxpayer protections included in their bill to end the embargo will give it a better chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate than a version introduced earlier this year by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

“I’m very aware of Sen. Klobuchar’s bill,” Moran said Wednesday. “My view is that the goal is to accomplish something very similar. This does it in a fashion that is much more likely to be acceptable to Congress, to the American people and much more likely to become law, and does it in a way that protects taxpayers.”

King said he and Moran carefully drafted the legislation “to be a bill that could get bipartisan support and actually have a chance at passage.”

But the odds that this latest proposal – or any legislation to undo the embargo or ease travel restrictions – will get through Congress this year is slim, say Cuba experts.

The bill is likely to run into strong resistance from a broad cross-section of Republicans – and particularly from the Cuban-American delegation from South Florida, where opposition to Cuba’s Castro regime has long been a defining characteristic.

“I think it’s hard for either side to get a Cuba bill through – to roll back what the president did, or to lift the embargo,” said Phil Peters of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va.

Pro-trade forces have made some inroads in advocating for their position. And pro-travel forces might even have majority support in the Senate. Still, getting such legislation through both sides of Congress will be extremely difficult. And if it doesn’t happen this year, it’ll be even tougher in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The embargo on trade with Cuba was imposed more than 50 years ago and later codified by Congress. Only Congress can lift it.

Klobuchar introduced a bill in February to do just that, not long after President Barack Obama announced that he’d move to normalize relations with the communist nation. The Klobuchar bill, the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, would remove all legal barriers to trade with Cuba but would preserve parts of the law intended to protect human rights and private property.

Although three Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to Klobuchar’s bill – Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake of Arizona – it has yet to garner broad Republican support.

Similar bills filed in the House of Representatives also have had trouble making headway.

The new bill to be introduced Thursday by Moran and King is called the Cuba Trade Act. It seeks to assuage the concerns of lawmakers who balked at the idea of using federal funds to underwrite trade with Cuba.

“What this bill does is take away one of the unnecessary criticisms of dealing with Cuba, which is you’re just going to allow U.S. taxpayers to fund the sale of agriculture products, commodities to Cuba,” Moran said.

“What we’re saying is if the market is there, if Cuba can acquire the necessary financing, that’s a great development for American business and for American agriculture,” he said, “but the criticism that we’re subsidizing those sales disappears in our legislation.”

Like Klobuchar’s bill, the Cuba Trade Act would permit private-sector industries in the United States to export goods and services to Cuba.

But it includes additional language to ensure that U.S. taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook if the Cubans default on lines of credit extended by U.S. banks and businesses.

Another provision emphasizes that private funds – rather than taxpayer dollars – would be used to promote trade and develop markets in Cuba.

And the bill would preserve an existing ban on U.S. government-backed credit and foreign aid to Cuba, including restrictions on the use of federal funds to finance trade with the communist island through the Export Credit Guarantee Program or the Export-Import Bank.

Whether these provisions will be enough to give the bill the boost it needs to pass both Houses of Congress is unclear. For now, Cuba legislation is at a standstill in both the House and the Senate – even though there appears to be increasing public support for Obama’s decision to normalize relations.

Asked by the Gallup organization whether they favor or oppose the U.S. ending its trade embargo against Cuba, 59 percent of respondents in February said they favored it – up from support of about 50 percent during polls in the 2000s.

“I think the support is there,” King said. “I’ve met with Cuban-Americans from Florida and it’s really somewhat a generational issue. The younger generation who were born and raised in America are much less passionate. There are going to be people who are just going to be mad as hell and not want this to happen. But I think by and large the public wants this to happen.”

Part of the holdup on bills to lift the embargo can be ascribed to congressional politics. While Republicans control both chambers, the Cuba issue doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. Farm-state Republicans such as Moran have joined with Democrats to try to boost trade with Cuba, even though the GOP in general has traditionally strongly supported the embargo.

Moran is a longtime supporter of trade with Cuba, driven in part by the eagerness of the ranchers and farmers in Kansas to ramp up U.S. exports to Cuba.

The agriculture industry in Kansas and across the country has been lobbying hard to convince Congress to open Cuba to trade. More than 25 food and agricultural interests including Cargill, the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation formed a coalition in January aimed at convincing Congress to scrap the embargo and open up the island to increased investment with the United States.

“When we’re not trading with Cuba, somebody else is,” Moran said. “Cuba buys $150 million of wheat every year (from the European Union). They’re buying it and they’re paying for it, they’re just not paying the United States for it.”

King said he’s particularly troubled by increasing trade between China and Cuba.

“I would rather have Cuba have us be their principle trading partner rather than having the Chinese have a significant foothold 90 miles off the shore of Florida,” he said.

On the other side, Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a 2016 presidential candidate, has marshaled forces into a camp dedicated to seeing the embargo hold. He has also laid down a set of conditions that need to be met before he will support any U.S. ambassador to Cuba, another part of the White House’s agenda.

The conditions, laid out in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last week, will be tough to meet; even as a solo senator, Rubio has the ability to stymie any nominee.

And neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., nor House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have shown much interest in gumming up the congressional calendar with Cuba legislation.

“With all of that, generally the status quo wins out,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc.

One possible intermediate victory for the pro-trade lawmakers might be to ease restrictions on credit sales of products that are exempted from the embargo, even if the overall embargo remains in effect. Removing the cash-only payment for food and health care items would allow Cuba to buy American products on credit.

Such a bill, with its smaller scope, might have a more realistic chance of passing. But that’s far from certain as well.

“It’s not the silver bullet – but for their side it would be a victory and a further erosion of the sanctions,” said Jason I. Poblete, a former Republican congressional staffer who’s an international regulatory lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP.

As for the ongoing debate, Poblete said, “I’ve been watching this for 20-plus years, and it looks like more of the same – great for sound bites, great for politics, but it doesn’t move product.”

Moran said he’s well aware of the obstacles.

“This issue is particularly fraught with lots of politics and personal experience,” Moran said.

“Cuban-Americans who immigrated from Cuba to the United States have strong feelings on both sides of this issue, so I don’t think anything is easy about it,” he said. “But this is – in my time in dealing with this topic – probably the best opportunity we’ve had.”