House panel advances bill to halt Cuba flights

House panel advances bill to halt Cuba flights
© Getty Images

A House panel advanced legislation on Tuesday that would halt commercial flights to Cuba until a thorough security review is conducted at the country’s 10 airports, fueling an ongoing debate about whether the U.S. should have resumed air service with the island nation.

ADVERTISEMENT

By voice vote, the House Homeland Security Committee backed an amended bill from Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Transportation Security Subcommittee, to pause Cuba flights until lawmakers receive assurances that the country’s airport security procedures are up to snuff.

The markup comes two weeks after scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba resumed for the first time in 50 years. The commercial flights are a cornerstone of President Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the former Cold War rival.

Katko’s measure would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to complete a report assessing Cuba’s airport security protocols and secure an agreement that gives TSA agents access to the country’s airports.

Lawmakers adopted, 14-10, a substitute amendment that would also require all air carrier contracts with the Cuban government to be made public.

The underlying legislation requires an agreement permitting federal air marshals on flights to and from Cuba, though the TSA said it already reached such an agreement this summer. 

Bill sponsors still want to know whether the country has adequate body scanners, explosive detection systems, technology for detecting fake passports and a strong employee vetting process.

A group of committee members said they wanted to travel to Cuba themselves and investigate some of these concerns, but were denied travel visas.

“We know that this sector is still under threat from terrorists,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the full panel. “I want to make sure that this committee is doing everything in its power to ensure the security of America on these flights.”

Supporters of Cuban air travel argue that charter services have been offering flights between the U.S. and Cuba for years without terrorism incidents and point out that Cuban airports already must comply with a set of international standards.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the panel, said it’s problematic for the U.S. to impose additional security mandates on Cuban airports and pointed out that the TSA already has mechanisms to bolster security at foreign airports.

He offered an amendment – which was defeated in a 9-13 vote – to express a sense of Congress that it’s unfair to single out one airport or country under the bill.

“The [Department of Homeland Security] has told the committee that to single out one specific foreign airport for this type of reporting requirement would be unprecedented... and could have a chilling effect with international partners,” Thompson said.

But Katko argued that the measure does not impose any additional standards on the TSA or Cuban airports.

“It’s simply asking for a study to be done,” Katko said.

Lawmakers adopted a handful of amendments on Tuesday, including one that would require the TSA to analyze the security risks in Cuba using Chinese-made equipment for its screening operations and using a Russian company to manage its air traffic control.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE (R-Fla.), a staunch opponent of normalizing relations with Cuba, unveiled companion legislation last week.

But the measure faces much tougher prospects in the Senate, where a committee approved lifting the Cuban tourism and travel ban in an annual spending bill earlier this year.