Baucus bill portends Dem fight over Cuba
By Alexander Bolton - 05/03/09 08:01 PM ET
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is set to introduce legislation that would open the door to more agricultural exports to Cuba, taking advantage of President Obama’s pledge to “seek a new beginning” with the island nation.
The bill will likely trigger a fight with Democratic proponents of the Cuba embargo policy, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
But Democrats from agricultural states, such as North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, will side with Baucus. American farmers view Cuba as a lucrative, largely untapped market.
A Senate official working on Cuba policy closely informed The Hill that Baucus is expected to drop his bill this week.
Baucus said in an interview that he thought he would do so, but said he was not 100 percent certain.
The Finance panel chairman has introduced legislation aimed at increasing agricultural exports to Cuba in previous years.
In 2007, Baucus pushed the Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act. The Finance Committee held hearings on the bill but it did not receive a vote on the Senate floor.
Dorgan and Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) signed on as co-sponsors.
The bill would have prohibited the president from restricting payments from Cuban financial institutions and directed the secretary of Agriculture to promote exports to Cuba.
“We expect to introduce something soon,” said Dan Virkstis, a spokesman for Baucus and the Finance Committee. “It will be similar to the chairman's bill last Congress — focused on opening trade and travel markets for U.S. farmers, ranchers and families.”
Congress passed legislation in 2000 allowing Cuba to buy agricultural commodities from the U.S., but farm lobbyists say the Treasury Department curbed exports by interpreting the law to require payment before goods are shipped.
Farm lobbyists see a golden opportunity to change that in the wake of Obama’s directive making it easier for Cuban Americans to travel and send money to Cuba.
Cuba policy has already flared as a controversial subject within the Democratic caucus this year. Menendez and Nelson threatened to vote against a $410 billion omnibus spending bill in March because it contained language they feared would weaken the embargo.
Menendez withdrew his objection after receiving assurances from the Treasury Department that the provision would not impact Cuba policy significantly.
Some Cuba policy watchers suspected that Menendez may have had a behind-the-scenes impact on Obama’s decision not to also allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for cultural, academic and humanitarian purposes. This would have marked a return to the policies in effect at the end of the Clinton administration.
Menendez spoke to Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, shortly before Obama announced his Cuba order. McDonough advises the president on Cuba policy.
But one Senate Cuba expert noted that Obama’s directive fulfilled promises he made on the campaign trail and that Obama had not pledged to return entirely to Clinton-era Cuba policies.
Given the likely opposition from Menendez, Nelson and Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, it may take some time before Baucus can move his bill to the floor.
This week, the Senate resumes consideration of housing legislation, a measure that has become less controversial since the Senate voted against an amendment known as cramdown. The proposal, pushed by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), would have given bankruptcy judges power to write down mortgages for homeowners in default.
Also this week, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee will continue work on a supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Democratic leadership aide said that bill could reach the floor before the Memorial Day recess or in early June.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he also wants to take up a railroad antitrust bill and legislation addressing executive compensation.