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Becerra butted heads on Cuba

President-elect Obama’s expected choice as trade representative voted to end the trade embargo with Cuba and butted heads with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus after a meeting more than a decade ago with Fidel Castro.

Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraNew Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing Obama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins MORE (D-Calif.), who has reportedly been offered the job of U.S. trade representative, clashed with Cuban-American members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1997, when he was chairman of the group.

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Florida GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart resigned from the caucus at time, saying they were “personally insulted” by Becerra’s four-day trip to Cuba. Both members said they were upset that Becerra visited the nation while campaigning to head the CHC, which was then bipartisan. The CHC now only includes Democrats.

Becerra’s office responded to the criticism by saying that, during the Cuba visit, the lawmaker talked to people with different perspectives, including Castro and dissidents to the regime.

Neither the Obama transition team nor Becerra’s office has confirmed that the lawmaker has been offered the trade post. His office did not respond to a request for comment on the decade-old flap.

Becerra has repeatedly voted in favor of softening the trade embargo, most recently in 2007, when he supported an amendment backed by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to make it easier to ship farm goods to Cuba.

In the 109th Congress, Becerra voted in favor of a separate amendment by Rangel that would have prohibited funding for implementing the trade embargo with Cuba.

Still, Becerra would not have a great influence in setting Cuban trade policy even if he becomes the U.S. trade representative. Policy experts on both sides of the debate agreed that the power players on Cuba in the administration would be at the White House and in the State Department.

“USTR is the last agency where Cuba policy is made,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which supports lifting the embargo. Colvin’s group will release a report on Thursday making the case for a new policy on Cuba.

A leading supporter of the embargo agreed with Colvin, adding that from his perspective it would be good to see Becerra leave a leadership position in the House for USTR. Becerra recently was elected vice chairman of the Democratic caucus.

“I think the best thing that could happen is for him to become USTR and leave Congress,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which has lobbied intensely to preserve a tough embargo. “USTR has zero domain over Cuba policy.”

The Treasury Department bears responsibility for implementing the day-to-day regulations enforcing the embargo. USTR negotiates with foreign countries and could be involved in talks with Cuba at the World Trade Organization, but does not oversee policies affecting the embargo.

Lifting the embargo would require action by Congress, although the administration has much flexibility in implementing restrictive policies affecting Cuban trade.

In general, Becerra has a mixed voting record on trade issues, and has often voted with his party’s leadership. He supported the Peru trade agreement in 2007, but voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a relatively small deal with Oman in 2006.

He also voted in 2002 against granting President Bush fast-track authority, which makes it easier for the administration to negotiate trade deals by setting rules for the talks in exchange for preventing congressional amendments.

Becerra has received Bs in recent years from the National Foreign Trade Council for his voting record on trade — partly because of his opposition to the Cuban embargo. He also holds a 93 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO, suggesting an ability to please both sides in the trade wars.

“We like him,” said AFL-CIO lobbyist Thea Lee. “I think it’s a good choice.”

While she said the labor group does not agree with Becerra on every point, they believe they will get a fair hearing from him and will have a voice in the process.