Hard-line Cuba PAC makes inroads with House freshmen

An anti-Castro political action committee has found dozens of new recruits to defend a hard-line position on Cuba, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Clyburn, who has previously voted to lift the Cuban trade embargo, in July voted against a more limited measure sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) that would have eased certain restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba.

{mosads}The U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC), founded at the end of 2003, has given $322,500 in political donations in the 2007-2008 cycle, including $10,000 to Clyburn.

Sixty-six Democrats voted against Rangel’s amendment, which was a surprise to the longtime lawmaker and groups opposed to the trade embargo, which had hoped a Democratic Congress would be more amenable to changing Cuba policy.

“I was blindsided,” said Rangel, who acknowledged his side did not whip support. The presiding chairman ruled Rangel’s amendment had been approved by voice vote before opponents asked for a roll call vote. The amendment was defeated soundly, 182-245.

One embargo opponent noted that those opposed to Rangel’s amendment could have told him they had the votes to defeat it, which would have avoided the embarrassment of a floor defeat. Instead, they asked for a roll call vote to show their strength.

Clyburn said he voted against Rangel’s amendment on Cuba to save the farm bill, which was already controversial. “My whip count indicated that were this amendment to pass, it would have potentially killed the farm bill, legislation that’s critical to American farmers,” he said in a statement issued by his office.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also voted against the Rangel amendment. Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), however, voted with Rangel, as did other members of leadership including Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Assistant to the Speaker Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) did not vote on the amendment, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traditionally does not cast House votes.

Embargo opponents point to Clyburn’s vote in June for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) to bolster their case that he has shifted on Cuba policy. That measure, which passed the lower chamber, sought to increase funding for Cuban dissident groups above and beyond what was recommended by the House Appropriations Committee. Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), Hoyer, Emanuel, Larson and Becerra all voted against that amendment.

Besides voting to lift the embargo last year, Clyburn had previously supported agricultural trade with Cuba. In a 2002 release, Clyburn said South Carolina was ideally positioned to take advantage of trading opportunities with Cuba that could benefit his state’s farmers.

A spokeswoman for Clyburn said he has always listened to all sides of the Cuba debate and has always supported programs that seek to amplify the voices of dissidents. In a comment e-mailed to The Hill, she said Clyburn would “continue to support lifting the embargo and travel ban because he wants to see the situation change in Cuba and between our two countries.”

The success of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC illustrates how a relatively small special interest group can help shape public policy through targeted political donations and lobbying even as power shifts in Washington, according to supporters and opponents.

“From about 2000 to 2003, everything was going downhill in terms of maintaining current Cuba policy,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a former Treasury Department attorney who is one of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC’s 32 directors. A coalition of liberal Democrats, free-trade Republicans and agriculture state lawmakers interested in opening travel and trade restrictions to Cuba seemed to be gaining ground, he said.

That’s when the PAC was formed and the decision was made to target new members of Congress in an effort to create a bipartisan wall of support for the embargo. Claver-Carone said the group’s effort is modeled after the bipartisan support in Congress built by pro-Israel groups.

The work began with the 2004 class and has continued ever since. “We went early and approached all these campaigns early on, and said what we believed,” said Claver-Carone.

Fifty-two of the 66 Democrats who voted against Rangel’s amendment have received one or more contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC since the beginning of the 2007-2008 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

It has given $56,000 to 22 Democratic freshmen this year, and 17 of those freshmen voted against Rangel’s amendment. The giving began during the run-up to the 2006 election. Freshman Reps. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Phil Hare (D-Ill.), Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Zack Space (D-Ohio) and Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) received donations before they were elected, and all but Giffords voted against Rangel’s amendment.

The votes of the freshmen are a concern to those who believe the current U.S. policy on Cuba is ineffective. “At this point we must as a matter of urgency prevent a generation of Democratic legislators from becoming permanent embargo supporters,” wrote Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C., lawyer with expertise in U.S.-Cuban policy, in an analysis of the vote.

Rangel blamed an organized opposition and a lack of urgency on the part of embargo opponents for defeat, and downplayed the role of political contributions.

“I don’t think we really put up much of a fight,” he said.

Tags Bruce Braley Xavier Becerra

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