(Original title: Dem leaders struggle for votes to change Cuba policies)
By Ian Swanson | TheHill
When Democrats gained control of Congress, hopes were high that Cuba travel and trade restrictions would be eased by a party historically opposed to a so-called hard line on Cuba.
So far, however, the Democratic-led House has been tougher on Cuba than when Republicans controlled the lower chamber.
Sixty-six House Democrats — including 20 members of the freshman class — recently voted against a farm bill amendment offered by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) that would have made it easier for U.S. farmers to sell agricultural goods to Cuba.
Earlier this year, the House also approved an amendment adding $36 million in funding for Cuban dissident groups after the House Appropriations Committee recommended only $9 million in funding.
“It was a blow for us to have the Rangel vote be, you know, the worst vote we’ve had,” said Sarah Stephens, an advocate for ending Cuba travel and trade restrictions who directs the Freedom to Travel Campaign.
The amendment was defeated 182-245 even though similar amendments were approved by voice vote when Republicans controlled the House.
More Democrats voted against the farm bill amendment than voted against another Rangel amendment last year that would have prohibited funding for implementing the overall trade embargo with Cuba. Only 40 Democrats voted against that amendment when it was considered.
Both supporters and opponents of the Cuba embargo said they were surprised by the vote. “If we can’t prevail on an issue of agriculture trade, it says it will be very difficult to prevail on other issues,” said Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a longtime supporter of trading with Cuba.
Both sides in the Cuba fight say Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was instrumental in winning Democratic votes against the Rangel amendment. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told The Miami Herald that Wasserman Schultz was “a tiger” on the Rangel vote, while Antonio Zamora of the U.S.-Cuba Legal Forum described her as a key party in building Democratic opposition.
“I was about as active as you could be,” said Wasserman Schultz, a second-termer who serves as a deputy chief whip for Democrats. At the same time, she said other members such as Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) also worked hard to whip opposition.
Sires, a freshman, deserves credit for the 20 freshmen who voted against the Rangel amendment, said Joe Garcia, director of the New Democrat Network’s Hispanic Strategy Center.
Wasserman Schultz attributes the vote against Rangel’s amendment to “a more aggressive and better-organized effort by opponents on the Democratic side.” While the Appropriations cardinal said she was just as active on past Cuban votes, Wasserman Schultz claimed she is now more organized and knows more members personally from her experience co-chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” effort in 2006.
Wasserman Schultz’s position on Cuba puts her at odds with some Democratic leaders, but she said she has no worries that this might affect her if she seeks a higher leadership position in the future. She said that Democrats understand they will not always agree on every issue and that she sought out Rangel to explain her position.
“I think it’s a matter of style, too,” said Wasserman Schultz, who remarked she was not one to get in someone’s face on an issue. “You can be diplomatic and diffident. There’s a way to handle differences of views with leadership.”
However, Wasserman Schultz has clashed with members on Cuba policy, including Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), a fellow cardinal on the Appropriations Committee.
She noted that she does not arrive at her position on Cuba because of her district’s makeup, which includes few Cuban-Americans and is 20 percent Hispanic. Instead, she points out that she is Jewish, and that the words “never again” resonate in terms of the Holocaust and the state of human rights in Cuba.
In another sign that the Democratic-controlled House is in no rush to change Cuba policy, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) said he believes his bill seeking to overturn the administration’s rules on travel by Cuban-Americans will not receive a hearing until next year. Those rules are particularly unpopular in Miami, and the Delahunt bill at the beginning of the year was seen by many as having bright prospects this year.