A bill to eliminate the 55-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba will be introduced Tuesday by an unlikely member of Congress: a Republican in the House of Representatives.
Rep. Tom Emmer, who narrowly lost the Minnesota governor's race in 2010 before winning a House seat in 2014, is scheduled to file the "Cuba Trade Act of 2015" that removes the long-standing restrictions on American businesses from trading with Cuba and American citizens from travelling there. Emmer said he decided to pursue a full repeal of the embargo after a trip to Cuba in June, when he met with Cuban government officials and everyday citizens.
"I understand there's a lot of pain on both sides of this issue that goes back many decades, something that a kid from Minnesota is not going to necessarily be able to understand," Emmer said. "But I believe this is in the best interests of the Cuban people. This isn't about the Cuban government — it's about people on the street looking for more opportunity and to improve their quality of life."
Ever since President Obama announced in December that he would reestablish diplomatic relations with the one-time Cold War foe, Congress has responded by trying to tweak the embargo, which is established in U.S. law and can only be changed by an act of Congress. Democrats in the Senate, with some Republican support, have been trying to ease trade and travel to the island. Republicans in the House have fought back, proposing a series of additional restrictions to bolster the embargo.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been clear that his chamber will not address the embargo until he sees significant changes in Cuba. Under current law, the embargo cannot be removed until several changes take place in Cuba, including a transition to a democratic government and improvements in the country's human rights record. Since none of that has happened, Boehner said in May that his chamber would not reexamine the embargo until "the Cuban people enjoy freedom, and not one second sooner."
Emmer saw firsthand what a challenge he's facing as he briefed Republican leadership and Cuban-American members of the House about his bill over the past week. "I didn't expect everybody to be thrilled," he said with a laugh.
But Steven Law, senior adviser to Engage Cuba, a group pushing for normalized relations with Cuba, said most of that reaction was simply political instinct in the face of another example of Obama using his executive powers to fundamentally alter U.S. policy.
"A lot of Republicans started out with the reflexive view that if Obama was behind it, there's something wrong with it," said Law. "But I think that's changing."
Law is no liberal — he is the president and CEO of the American Crossroads super PAC that supports Republican candidates and previously worked in the administration of President George W. Bush. He said the Cuba question can eventually cut across party lines with help from traditionally-conservative groups pushing for more access to Cuba, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to libertarians.
"A lot of these members are hearing from constituents that it's a new day and we need a new policy to respond to those changes," he said.
Groups plan to use the August congressional recess to push that argument. Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, said they plan to rally support for Emmer's bill through various August events.
"What's going to ultimately happen is this will start the conversation within the Republican caucus," Hanson said.
That conversation will be a short one, according to Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which has opposed Obama's opening with Cuba. Claver-Carone pointed to recent votes conducted on the House floor on amendments to appropriations bills that created tighter sanctions against Cuba. In one case, Republicans won with a 120-vote majority.
"If anyone is trying to imply that somehow, within a couple of months, 61 members of the House of Representatives are going to flip, I think they have an unpleasant surprise coming," he said.