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Obama picks new fight over Cuba

President Obama has picked a new fight with Congress over the nation's Cuba policy, enraging newly empowered Republicans already accusing the White House of executive overreach.

The stunning announcement – coming just weeks after another White House edict drastically reshaped U.S. immigration policy – has also raised spirits among Democrats, who are hoping the back-to-back power moves are a sign the president will be more exertive in the face of GOP opposition through the final two years of his lame-duck presidency.

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“His actions,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), “are smart, strategic and long-overdue.”

Coming after 18 months of secret talks between Washington and Havana, the new policies take long strides toward normalizing relations with Cuba more than 50 years after ties were cut with the arrival of the Communist Castro regime. 

Under the deal – sealed by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro – the United States will establish an embassy in Havana and ease long-held travel and trade restrictions. The agreement was reached only after Castro agreed to free Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.

But if the move at once proved historic, it also promised to play an outsized role in the politics of the next Congress, which returns to Washington next month with Republicans leading both chambers and relations with the White House at a low point in Obama's tenure.

Republicans are already outraged over last month's executive order halting deportations on millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. And on Wednesday, before Obama had even announced his new Cuba policy, Republican critics – including several eying the White House in 2016 – had laced up their gloves to take a swing.

“It is a victory for the repressive Cuban government and a serious setback for the repressed Cuban people,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWhat Trump's Cabinet picks reveal House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief What the 2016 election can tell us about 2018 midterms MORE (R-Fla.), a Cuban American and a potential presidential contender. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.”

Other GOP leaders – including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) – were quick to pile on the criticism.

“The beneficiaries of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades,” Bush said via Facebook.

While the policy shift has infuriated conservatives, it's also energized liberals, who have long-urged Obama to fight harder for the Democratic ideals on which he campaigned in 2008 and 2012. Many have blamed the Democrats’ midterm election drubbing on what they consider Obama's unwillingness to do just that. And they're hoping his recent moves on immigration and Cuba forecast a new era of liberal policy-making from the White House.

“Our president has taken the mold-breaking, progressive action that so many of us always hoped he would and for that he deserves our most heartfelt praise,” Charles Chamberlain, the head of Democracy for America, a liberal advocacy group, said Wednesday in a statement. 

Still, the thorny debate over U.S.-Cuba policy has never broken strictly along party lines. And that dynamic was on full display following Wednesday's announcement.

Indeed, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was among the Republicans visiting Cuba with administration officials when the deal broke. And at least one powerful Democrat – Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another Cuban American – denounced the agreement as an invitation for “rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”

“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,"\” Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

What's less clear, however, is what power Congress's critics have to push back against Obama's new policies. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested Wednesday that lawmakers would use the budget as their weapon, vowing to do “all in my power” to prevent federal dollars from opening the Havana embassy. 

“Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time,” Graham said on Twitter.

Still, trade and foreign relations experts say that, while Congress must act to eliminate the decades-old embargo altogether, Obama has broad powers to ease trade and travel sanctions on America's island neighbor under current law.

“The laws were written in such a way that gave the executive branch a good amount of leeway,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “He has a lot of discretion, and it seems as though he’s intending to use it.”

Complicating the equation for the critics, Obama maintains veto power over congressional funding bills. And despite the outcry, the Republicans' efforts to dismantle the administration's new deportation policies have so far met with only frustration.

Most Democrats, meanwhile, were quick to hail the Cuba deal, arguing that the tougher rules governing Cuban-American relations over the last 50 years have failed to topple the Castro regime while stifling Cuba's economy at the expense of the Cuban people.

“We work with the Russians. We work with the Vietnamese, we work with China and many other nations that we have had difficult relationships with in the past,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon, said in a statement. “To move into the future, we must learn to live together and work together as members of the community of nations.”

Announcing the new relationship, Obama emphasized that very point.

“We can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” Obama said in a video statement from the White House. 

“It's time for a new approach.”