DeLay swings momentum against easing Cuba limits

The White House, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other Republican lawmakers orchestrated a successful campaign over the past several weeks to defeat legislation that would ease the United States’ hard-line policies toward Cuba.

DeLay, a frequent and vocal critic of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, worked to thwart three appropriations amendments related to Cuba that passed the House last year.

The agricultural lobby has long pressed policymakers to open up the Cuban market to their products. But the administration has steadfastly refused to do so, saying that such a move would prop up Castro’s regime.

Capitol Hill aides say that even though DeLay’s poll numbers have plummeted in the wake of ethics allegations, his power base in the House remains potent. DeLay’s triumphs on Cuba follow the more high-profile passage of the budget resolution, which the majority leader played a vital role in enacting.

The first Cuba bill that DeLay helped take down was Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) amendment that would have eased gift restrictions to Cuba.

Flake, known for bucking leadership, was confident his amendment would pass. A similar version of his 2005 measure, which sought to reject the Bush administration’s policies that restrict items that can be sent to family members in Cuba, passed last year by a comfortable 221-194 count.

That stunned House GOP leaders with its broad bipartisan support despite stiff resistance from the administration. Before the 2004 roll call, the White House had unsuccessfully urged Flake to withdraw the amendment.

After the vote, the Associated Press deemed it an “election-year setback to President Bush” and the Cuban government hailed the House action.

Not surprisingly, the Flake language was stripped from the final appropriations bill before it was sent to the president.

Flake knew that his 2005 bill would not become law if it passed. Still, he felt as if he had the votes.

DeLay spoke out on the floor to urge members to reject the Flake bill, saying that Castro’s government seizes packages from family members in the United States. He called Castro a murderer and a thief.

Flake argued that U.S. citizens should be allowed to send their family members personal-hygiene items, such as toothpaste and toilet paper.

The debate largely paralleled the 2004 floor debate, but despite the fact that the makeup of the House had not changed as a result of the elections the vote count shifted dramatically.

Flake’s amendment failed 210-216, as 11 fewer Republicans backed it compared to the 2004 roll call and eight more Democrats opposed it.

One of the reasons for the turnaround might have been a document handed to members as they considered their votes. It falsely described the Flake amendment as having broad policy implications, allowing “unfettered trade with the communist regime of Cuba with no Administration oversight of said trade.”

At the bottom, the document stated, “Authorized by Chairman Frank Wolf” (R-Va.), head of the Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the Flake language.

Flustered, Flake said he approached Wolf about the misleading characterization of his amendment and, Flake said, Wolf told him he did not write or authorize the description.

An Appropriations Committee spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment. It is unclear who wrote the language.

Flake said that he believes the document played a key role, especially for freshman members who had never voted on the bill. Twenty of 23 freshman Republicans rejected the Flake amendment, including all five new GOP members from Texas.

Sources say that DeLay holds considerable influence over House GOP freshmen, noting that the majority leader plays a major role in helping get elected.

A House Republican leadership aide said, “DeLay worked hard to defeat these amendments, but a lot of credit should be given to the freshmen.”

Last week, the House rejected two more Cuba amendments that had passed in 2004. Rep. Jim Davis’s (D-Fla.) amendment to relax travel restrictions by family members was defeated 208-211 after passing last year, 225-174. Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) voted for the Davis language last year but spoke out against it during the floor debate.

The House also voted down Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) amendment seeking to change U.S. policy on student travel to Cuba — after it passed by voice vote last year.

Like the Flake amendment, the Davis and Lee bills never made it into the conference report language sent to the president in 2004.

Mavis Anderson of the Latino America Working Group compiled research showing that 19 lawmakers changed their votes on the Davis and Lee amendments after receiving political contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, an anti-Castro political action committee.

Other Republicans who played a major role in the amendment victories include Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart. Sources said those three lawmakers have been working their colleagues for months on the Cuba amendments.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart helped persuade Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) to change his vote on the Flake bill by assuring Coble that humanitarian aid is getting through to Cubans who need it, according to Coble spokesman Ed McDonald.

Other lawmakers who backed Flake’s bill in 2004 and rejected it this year include Phil English (R-Pa.), James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

Proponents of the administration’s policies toward Cuba could not overcome wide-ranging support for Rep. Jo Ann Emerson’s (R-Mo.) appropriations amendment that would facilitate U.S. agricultural trade to the communist country. The language was added in committee and not challenged on the House floor. The White House has threatened to veto legislation that includes Emerson’s language.

Mark H. Rodeffer contributed to this report.