Business groups want Cuba vote in the lame-duck

A number of business associations are planning a lobbying blitz during the lame-duck session to repeal the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.

The bill ran into trouble last week when Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, postponed a markup of the legislation. An analysis by The Hill found Berman did not have the votes to move the bill through the panel and onto the House floor for a vote.

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Despite the setback, lobbyists for business and farm groups say that this Congress may be their best opportunity to see the bill passed and signed into law. Republicans are expected to make big gains in the midterm elections and are seen as less likely to vote for a bill that loosens restrictions on Cuba. 

“It will make it more difficult for sure,” said Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union. “This is our best opportunity to pass it through the House. At least that would give us a precedent for the next Congress, a leg up.”

A GOP takeover of the House could put Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in charge of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Ros-Lehtinen, the panel’s current ranking member, is a firm opponent of repealing the travel ban.

Goule’s group and others, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) and the National Pork Producers Council, plan to lobby lawmakers to take up the bill again during the lame-duck session. 

“A vote by the committee that has jurisdiction over the travel provision of the bill would send a strong signal,” said Jake Colvin, a vice president at NFTC. “We have always thought the committee vote would be tougher than the floor vote. If you can get it out of committee, you can win on the floor.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), has gained co-sponsors throughout the year since being introduced in February. It now has 81 supporters.

The travel ban to Cuba was eased slightly last year. In March, President Obama signed an omnibus bill with a provision that allows Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives on the island and send them money.

Trade associations and farm groups have lent their support to Berman’s full repeal of the travel ban because it would open up more trade with Cuba. Specifically, the legislation would loosen financial restrictions on transactions between Cuban and American banks, potentially boosting U.S. farm exports to Cuba. In addition, it would lift a travel ban to Cuba — a potential boon for tourism and travel companies. 

But political action committees for Cuban-American groups are opposed to the bill. They say the infusion of U.S. cash would help prop up the Castro regime, which has a record of human-rights abuses. 

In postponing the markup last week, Berman said in a statement that he wanted more time to have a “robust and uninterrupted debate” on the bill, which he expected would happen “soon.” No decision, however, has been made as of yet on when the bill will be marked up. 

While some fret about the bill’s chances next Congress, others argue that the progress made on the travel-ban repeal this Congress will not disappear during its next session. The legislation did move through the House Agriculture Committee on a 25-20 vote in its favor. 

Patrick Kilbride, who works on Latin America policy for the Chamber, said the business group will pick up where it left off with the bill if it is not passed this Congress. 

“The progress that has been made is not the kind of progress that will be lost by the end of a session of Congress. We will be picking up the ball where we left off last time,” Kilbride said.