GOP spending bill targets Obama's Cuba moves

 

David Rogers, on Politico

 

House Republicans on Tuesday rolled out a $55.3 billion transportation and housing bill that is lean on spending but fatter on policy riders including new provisions challenging President Barack Obama’s efforts to open up more channels between the U.S. and Cuba.

 

Restrictions would be imposed on the Transportation Department and Federal Maritime Administration to block the licensing of new air flights and cruise ship routes to Cuba if the landing fields or docks include property that had been confiscated at one point by the Castro government.

 

The language reflects the increased power enjoyed by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has taken over the House Appropriations Committee panel charged with managing the annual budget bill. More broadly, it reflects a strategy by the GOP to use policy riders to gather support for spending bills, which could be hard to pass given the tight caps on domestic spending for the 2016 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

 

GOP allies in the trucking industry also stand to benefit from riders affecting the length and weight of tractor-trailers on the road, for example. Meanwhile, the same bill requires cuts from transit and rail programs to meet its goal of an effective freeze on overall spending.

 

The Federal Railroad Administration faces a cut of $262 million below current spending, and the Federal Transit Administration would be provided just $10.7 billion — $161 million below the 2015 appropriations level.

 

The popular TIGER infrastructure grant program is among the hardest-hit. Just $100 million would be provided for 2016, an 80 percent reduction from current funding and $1.15 billion less than Obama’s request.

 

Community Development Block Grants would be preserved at $3 billion in an effort to appease GOP moderates. But the toll on Amtrak and transit funding is very real for Republicans from Northeast states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and this comes as the Republican budget is promising tens of billions in extra defense dollars by circumventing spending caps that are being enforced for domestic programs.

 

Against this background, throwing Cuba into the mix was just an added aggravation for Democrats.

 

“At a time when roads and bridges are crumbling and there is a national crisis of affordable housing, it makes no sense to use this critical bill to meddle in foreign policy,” said New York Rep. Nita Lowey, ranking Democrat on Appropriations and a leading voice for her party on foreign affairs.

 

Meeting with reporters later, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx expressed his disappointment with the bill’s funding levels, which represent a $1 billion cut from current funding for his department and are $6.8 billion below the administration’s request.

 

Foxx said this is “very disappointing overall because the country is sucking wind,” and he also took aim at the pattern of safety concessions to the trucking industry, which has been a source of campaign funds for the GOP.

 

“What’s happening is that the appropriations process is now being used to create policy, and when it comes to safety, that’s a real problem,” Foxx said.

 

Regarding Cuba, Diaz-Balart said his policy riders were an attempt to rein in what he sees as Obama’s broader definition of what American tourism will be permitted to encourage improved relations between Washington and Havana.

 

“Congress cannot remain idle,” said the Republican lawmaker, a strong opponent of the Castro regime. “The expansion of regularly scheduled flights to Cuba is an obvious attempt to circumvent the tourism ban. Similarly, allowing cruises to dock in Cuba would violate both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law”.

 

“U.S. law prohibits tourism in Cuba, and U.S. law also allows for those whose properties were confiscated by the Castro regime to sue those who use, or benefit from using, those confiscated properties” he added. “Despite these clear provisions in U.S. law, the Obama administration has expanded travel to Cuba and turned a blind eye to the property claims of Americans. The administration has allowed trips that include snorkeling, cigar factory tours, salsa dancing lessons, and other obvious tourist activities, and has implemented policies that will inevitably utilize the confiscated properties.”

 

Indeed, billions of dollars in such claims remain pending against the government of Cuba and have been certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. Diaz-Balart would argue that these must be resolved, and his riders are clearly crafted to elevate the property issue. But the congressman remains opposed as well to expanding flights and ship routes, and thus far has shown no willingness to accept a compromise on the two issues.

 

Reaction from the airline and cruise ship industry to the Cuba riders was cautious, each taking more of a “wait-and-see” approach before jumping in against Diaz-Balart’s language.

 

“Our members are guided by U.S. laws and policies, as well as those in the countries where we serve, and there are still a number of steps to be resolved on this issue,” said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America.

 

But a trade group for travel agents acknowledged its concern and said it would prefer that Congress be more open to tourism with Cuba, not less.

 

“Generally speaking, we are concerned about efforts to roll back the administration’s recent actions on Cuba,” the American Society of Travel Agents said. And it urged lawmakers to instead pass a pending bill to “do away with the ‘travel ban’ once and for all.”

 

Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.

 

 

 

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