Obama heads for showdown over Cuba embassy
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President Obama is heading for a showdown with Congress after announcing plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba.

The administration's move is part of a months-long discussion between the two countries to normalize relations that could hand Obama a needed foreign policy win, but only if he can get lawmakers on board.

But that could be an impossible task. While the administration can reopen the embassy without Congress signing off, they’ll need lawmakers to help approve an ambassador, fund the embassy, and lift a decades-old embargo.


Congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, are already plotting to block the administration’s efforts, suggesting that Obama is going easy on a dictatorial regime.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Schumer concerned by Army's use of TikTok, other Chinese social media platforms Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (R-Ark.) called the decision to reopen the embassy the latest example of Obama’s “appeasement of dictators.”

The Arkansas Republican is planning to work with his Senate colleagues to block funding for an embassy and vote against a potential ambassador “until there is real, fundamental change that gives hope to the oppressed people of Cuba.”

He could find an ally across the aisle in Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has been a vocal critic of Obama’s policy. The Cuban-American senator said Obama’s decision “is not in our national interest.”

“An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided,” he added. "The message is democracy and human rights take a back seat to a legacy initiative.”

Across the Capitol, Republican leadership also opposes Obama’s Cuba moves, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying that “relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”

The congressional opposition is hardly new. House lawmakers agreed in a 247-176 vote last month to keep the current restrictions on Americans wanting to travel to Cuba in place, effectively blocking rules issued earlier this year to make traveling easier."

The House is also using its spending bills to try to torpedo Obama’s efforts. A bill to fund the State Department would prohibit funds from being used to build a new embassy.

The administration has requested approximately $6 million to improve its current building there and convert it to a working embassy.

Despite the congressional backlash, administration officials are adamant that it would be a mistake for lawmakers to block Obama’s efforts, and suggest they could find common ground.

A senior State Department official said that a decision by lawmakers to fight the president’s policy would be counterproductive.

“It would be a shame if Congress impeded implementation of some of the very things that we think they – we all agree we want to do, such as better outreach to the Cuban people all over the island or additional,” the official said.

“These are the kinds of things that we can do as we move forward in this relationship with a more robust embassy.  And I would assume that most on the Hill agree those are a good thing to do.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that while he hasn’t “done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum, strong support in the United States Congress... for lifting the embargo on Cuba.”

And the administration isn’t without allies across the aisle as it prepares to sell lawmakers.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has said “it’s long past time” to change the country’s policy on Cuba.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) called Obama’s announcement “a step in the right direction,” but added that “fundamental issues must be addressed by its government before our two nations can establish the bilateral relationship they are capable of achieving.”

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing GOP senators frustrated with Romney jabs at Trump MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, offered a more measured response, saying that he will "continue to carefully evaluate the most appropriate way forward for the U.S.-Cuba relationship."

The Tennessee Republican suggested late last year that the Cuban embargo hasn’t been effective, but said in a statement provided to The Hill that “we still have yet to see any significant actions by the Castro regime that will benefit the United States or enhance freedoms and circumstances for the Cuban people.”

As Foreign Relations Chairman, Corker has wide sway over whether or not a nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Cuba gets a confirmation hearing or a vote.

The administration could also have an unlikely ally in Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFox News legal analyst says quid pro quo is 'clearly impeachable': Trump requested 'criminal' act Federal court rules baseless searches of travelers' devices unconstitutional Sunday shows — New impeachment phase dominates MORE (R-Ky.) who has been silent on Cuba since Obama’s announcement.

The 2016 presidential candidate got in a Twitter skirmish late last year with Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE, who is also running for president, over the Florida Republican’s support for the embargo.

At one point, Paul tweeted, “The United States trades and engages with other communist nations, such as China and Vietnam. So @marcorubio why not Cuba?”

He wrote in a separate Times op-ed that “if we allow the passions to cool, maybe just maybe, we might conclude that trade is better than war and that capitalism wins every time a people get a chance to see its products.”

But Paul’s stance, and his potential support for Obama’s policy, pits him not only against Rubio, but also Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges On The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war MORE (R-Texas), who are also running for president.

His three 2016 rivals have suggested in the wake of Obama’s decision that they’re ready to keep the issue in the spotlight, using the publicity from their campaigns to hammer the president on Cuba.

Cruz and Rubio have pledged to oppose any nominee that Obama sends to the Senate for review, as well as hold up funding for an embassy in Havana.

"The word's coming out of the president's mouth simply aren't true,” Cruz, also a Cuban-American, added during an interview with Mickelson in the Morning, an Iowa-based radio show. "It makes no sense to be strengthening a profoundly anti-American enemy, a tyrant 90 miles from the U.S. shore."

Meanwhile, Graham had a more direct warning for Obama, suggesting that his efforts could be short lived if a Republican wins the White House next year.

“I’ll close it in a New York minute. I would not open the embassy until the Castro brothers are removed or they change their behavior. This is the worst possible signal to send at the most important time,” he told the Hugh Hewitt Show.

Cuba “hasn’t changed one bit,” said Graham.