Cuba travel ban won't be lifted this year

Legislation eliminating a longstanding travel ban to Cuba is dead in this Congress, several senior Democrats said this week.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), a strong backer of lifting the ban, called it "absurd" that Congress would maintain restrictions "predicated on a Cold-War mentality" irrelevant to current events. But with the year drawing to a close — and lawmakers reluctant to tackle yet another thorny topic in a politically polarized environment — the bill won't come up in the lame duck, he said.

"There will be no action," Delahunt, a senior member of the Foreign Affairs panel, told The Hill.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), another senior Foreign Affairs member, also indicated the bill won't resurface this year.

Inaction would be a blow to the Obama White House, which took administrative action to loosen the decades-old Cuba sanctions in the hope that a Democratic Congress would enact broader changes. Instead, the combination of a radioactive topic and election-year politics conspired to stop the legislation in its tracks.

After passing the House Agriculture Committee in June, the legislation stalled in September in the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the Senate, two similar bills introduced last year never made it that far.

With the Senate stalemate in mind, Delahunt noted, there's little reason for the House to consider the bill.

"There's a certain lack of utility in just sending messages," he said.

Sponsored by Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the House bill would allow all Americans unlimited travel to Cuba, expanding on the Obama administration's 2009 move to allow Cuban Americans to visit family members and send money. The bill would also loosen restrictions on U.S. farmers exporting goods to Cuba, which sits just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Supporters argue that opening Cuba to U.S. travelers and trade would benefit both countries.

"American farmers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba, particularly at a time when our economy needs it most," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a sponsor of one of the Senate bills, said in an e-mail. "This bill can help create jobs by promoting U.S. agriculture exports, and it would remove the travel ban to Cuba — allowing U.S. farmers and business owners the opportunity to develop a customer base in Cuba."

Peterson's office directed inquiries to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which did not return a series of calls and e-mails requesting comment.

If history is any indication, the bill will likely go nowhere in the next Congress once the House majority switches over to the Republicans, who controlled the chamber between 1995 and 2007 without easing Cuban sanctions. Contributing to that sentiment, the Foreign Affairs panel will be led next year by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who says any relaxation of Cuba sanctions would simply prop up an abusive regime at the expense of an already destitute people.

"Any bit of money that's going to get in there is not going to benefit the people, it's going to benefit the regime," Ros-Lehtinen spokesman Bradley Goehner said this week. "Now is a particularly terrible time for any additional outreach."

Still, the bill's supporters are holding out hope that the incoming class of Republicans will feel differently than GOP leaders about the sanctions. Although many conservatives have traditionally supported the ban as a way of pressuring Cuba's communist dictatorship, the incoming class of Republicans brings with it a libertarian streak that favors individual freedoms above government intrusion, many observers note.

That position could place them at odds with GOP incumbents — notably Ros-Lehtinen — who have fought for years to keep U.S. restrictions on Cuba in place.

"They might not take kindly to the government telling them where they can and can't travel, where they can and can't trade," Jake Colvin, vice president of global trade at the National Foreign Trade Council, said of the incoming Republicans. "Their perspectives will be much more of a libertarian bent. …  The conventional wisdom that Republicans are more hard-lined on Cuba may not play out next year."

Jo Ann Emerson, who supports the legislation lifting the travel ban, agreed. The Missouri Republican said the hands-off approach to government advocated by incoming Republicans could pressure GOP leaders to rethink their strategy on Cuba — and the bill.

"I just don't think it's dead in the least," Emerson said.