Hard-line Cuba PAC makes inroads with House freshmen
By Ian Swanson
September 18, 2007
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.
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.
Background information from a travel advocate:
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Reasons for the Failure of the Rangel Amendment
There’s no mystery about why the Rangel amendment failed. You can’t beat something with nothing. We have on our side no PAC, no organization on Capitol Hill to speak of, and no whip operation.
To begin with our lack of a PAC, since the beginning of the year, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC has given $322,500 to federal candidates, including at least two $1,000 contributions to every freshman Democrat. That means that all the new Democratic members have heard the pro-embargo arguments at least twice as they received their checks. In addition, two Democrats, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Cuban-American Albio Sires (D-NJ) are actively whipping Democrats – especially freshmen – to support the embargo. (The Diaz-Balart brothers have performed that function with incoming Republicans for several years).
In an unusual move, Speaker Pelosi installed Debbie Wasserman Schultz as a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee in only her second term. i.e. she Chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee that determines the funding level for the entire legislative branch. She also serves on the powerful Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee. In addition she holds a leadership position at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Her job at the DCCC as head of the Frontline program is to help “vulnerable” Democrats win reelection. So, when she asks a new Democratic member to vote with her, she does so with considerable institutional authority.
If Wasserman Shultz’s status were not enough of a problem, we have lost Majority Whip James Clyburn. (Majority Leader Hoyer was always a problem on Cuba issues, but was thought to be offset in the leadership by Clyburn). The loss of Clyburn moves the situation in the House from serious to close to desperate.
To return to the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, of the 66 Democrats who voted against the Rangel amendment on Friday, 51 (77%) had received one or more contributions from the PAC since the beginning of the 2007-2008 election cycle:
Brown (FL) $5,000
Davis (AL) $3,000
Jones (OH) $2,500
Ryan (OH) $2,000
Wasserman Schultz $10,000
Wilson (OH) $2,000
Of the remaining 15, 7 (47%) received one or more contributions from the US-Cuba Democracy PAC in the 2005-2006 election cycle:
Green (TX) $1,000
Miller (NC) $4,000
Altogether, 58 of the 66 Democrats who voted against the Rangel amendment on Friday (88%) received one or more contributions from the US-Cuba PAC in the last year and a half.
They didn't wait for the 110th Congress to convene either. The US-Cuba Democracy PAC gave out $62,000 after the 2006 general election - again mostly to newly-elected Democrats. That means the PAC gave a total of $384,500 to federal candidates since the 2006 general election.
The founding of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC and its targeting of campaign contributions coincides with the annual votes to defund enforcement of various provisions of the Cuban embargo. It is not to be critical – but only factual – to point out that those votes provided the basis for an annual appeal to wealthy Cuban Americans to provide funds to preserve the embargo in Congress. (As the list of PAC contributors reveals, they are almost exclusively Dade County-based Cuban Americans http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/pacgave.asp?strID=C00387720&Cycle=2006).
It is always more difficult to pry a member of Congress away from a position taken in a recorded vote than to prevent that vote in the first place. At this point we must as a matter of urgency prevent a generation of Democratic legislators from becoming permanent embargo supporters. I hope our next discussion will be about how that might be done.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Wall Street Journal Article on Rangel Defeat
Vote Rejects Efforts To Ease Cuba Trade Restrictions
By DAVID ROGERS Wall Street Journal July 30, 2007
Anti-Castro lawmakers in Congress are delighted by a House vote last week rejecting efforts to ease restrictions on financing for U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.The 245-182 vote quashes speculation that the new Democratic Congress will change U.S.-Cuban policy substantially.Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), a favorite of her party leaders, helped deliver 66 Democratic votes against an amendment sponsored by the House's chief tax writer, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.)."The message is very clear," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.). "There will be no possibility of a relaxation of sanctions until there is a democratic constitution in Cuba."Most striking, the fight came on an issue touching on agriculture, always a weak point for proponents of the U.S. trade embargo, which was relaxed in the last years of the Clinton administration to allow U.S. exports of food and medicine.The Bush administration has since imposed tough payment regulations that critics contend are overly burdensome, effectively requiring cash in advance of any shipment from American ports.Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R., Mo.) has waged a running battle in the annual Treasury Department appropriations bill to try to get Congress to override these rules and allow cash on delivery. As recently as June 28, pro-embargo forces made a strategic decision not to force a House vote on Ms. Emerson's language.But Mr. Rangel went further. His amendment -- offered to the farm bill last week -- would have allowed direct payments to U.S. banks and permitted visas for Cuban officials traveling to the U.S. to inspect agriculture export facilities."It went too far. We could not let it go," said Ms. Wasserman Schultz.The timing also left the chairman vulnerable. The farm bill happened to come to the floor after advocates of Cuban sanctions had mounted a lobbying campaign in Congress; the vote on the Rangel amendment was just a day after Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, had addressed his nation on Revolution Day; and Ms. Wasserman Schultz warned colleagues against adding a politically volatile issue to the farm bill.Undaunted, Mr. Rangel described the amendment as a "real win for America and a win for American farmers."But even pro-trade allies were skeptical. "His timing was horrendous," said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council."It's the best we've ever done on any vote that has an ag aspect," said Mr. Diaz-Balart.Ms. Wasserman Schultz, who worked with another Democrat, Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, said the 66 Democratic votes represent a solid core now that won't be easy to shake."The message is: there has not been a lessening of support for the sanctions against Cuba," Rep. Wasserman Schultz said. "Among Democrats there is a solid base for pushing for reform on the island."
Analysis from a Capitol Hill observor
Here are some thoughts on the Rangel amendment vote to the Farm Bill
--Reasons for loss include:
- 2 hour notice to other Congressional offices and all interest groups/policy groups
- Farm Bill politics (people wanted to keep the bill as clean as possible and there was a lot of horse trading going on)
- No leadership or concerted whipping happening on our side
- Rangel was the face of the tax increase that was slipped into the Farm Bill the night before, severely hurting his chances of having any Republicans vote for his amendment (and some Dems)
- The other side was playing the terrorism card which always freaks Members out
- $$$ from the PAC
- 2 minute vote instead of a 15 minute vote where Members would have had time to think about their vote and last minute whipping could have been done on our side
Overall analysis of what this loss means
- This is a huge blow to changing any Cuba policy this year, though not the kiss of death
- The hardliners have more money, are more active and organized than our side
- We have gained an understanding of where the new Members stand, and while we lost 20 Dems on the vote we also won 21 Dems. This means that despite all the $$ that has been thrown at them, we have successfully gotten to half of them and can still work on the others.