Cuba Policy Foundation

What to Expect from Congress Regarding Cuba in the Weeks Ahead

Prepared by Brian Alexander, Executive Director, Cuba Policy Foundation;

Monday, December 2, 2002


With November’s election results in, Cuba watchers will ponder the prospects for Cuba legislation passed in the 107th Congress, and what to expect in the 108th.


Status of Current Cuba Legislation:


In, 2002, an unprecedented year for Congressional measures to ease the embargo, the107th Congress successfully acted on five amendments regarding Cuba:


·         On July 23, 2002, the House of Representatives, led by the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, passed three amendments on the FY2003 Treasury-Postal Appropriations Bill (TPO), which would de-fund the travel ban, remittance cap, and prohibitions against private finance of farm sales; another amendment failed, which would have tied easing the embargo to Presidential certification that Cuba is not involved international terrorism.

·         Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) included an amendment on the Senate’s FY2003 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, which would allocate $3 million to U.S. counternarcotics cooperation with Cuba;

·         Senator Byron Dorgan (D-SD) included an amendment on the FY2003 Treasury Appropriations Bill, which would de-fund travel ban, similar to a provision on the companion bill in the House.[1]


However, the expiration of the legislative calendar in the 107th Congress will lead to the result that 11 out of 13 FY2003 appropriations bills will be left unfinished, including those appropriations bills containing the Cuba language. 


In the lame duck session of Congress held in November, to address 2003 appropriations requirements, a continuing resolution (C.R.) was passed by the House of Representatives.  The C.R. continues current FY2002 spending programs, with few modifications, until January 11, 2002. 


Passage of this C.R., in effect, is likely to kill all existing unfinished FY2003 appropriations bills, leaving them to be re-negotiated in 2003 by a Republican controlled Congress.  This means that the bills containing the Cuba amendments will expire with the close of the 107th Congress, and the Cuba provisions will die a quiet death, less because of politics and more because of procedure.


Also during the lame-duck session, Republican leaders of the forthcoming 108th Congress announced an intention to pass an omnibus appropriations bill for FY2003 spending in January, before President Bush’s State of the Union address.  An omnibus is one single, very large appropriations bill that encompasses all outstanding federal spending programs, in lieu of several smaller and more manageable individual appropriations bills.  Omnibus negotiations are notorious for omitting controversial provisions, making it almost certain that the five Cuba amendments passed in the 107th Congress will NOT be included in an omnibus bill for FY2003 spending to be negotiated in the 108th Congress.


Therefore, after unprecedented successes in 2002, supporters for change in the embargo will find little early progress in the 108th Congress.  Legislative initiatives to ease the Cuban embargo will have to wait until other bills come up at a later time in the 108th Congress.  The expiration of the calendar in the 107th Congress prohibited final consideration of the Cuba amendments of 2002, and these amendments would now have to be reintroduced at some point in 2003. 



Prospects for Cuba Legislation in the Near-term and the 108th Congress:


Near-term: There is a RISK that pro-embargo members of Congress, close to the Congressional Republican leadership, will attempt to slip measures to tighten the embargo into the proposed FY2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, without anti-embargo proponents catching it before the bill is voted on.  An omnibus bill can be a multi-thousand page document, made available for review on only a limited basis in its final form before being quickly voted upon by the Congress.  The passage of the FY1999 omnibus bill, for example, was when the Section 211 was passed, while many opponents of the controversial measure did not even know it existed until after the omnibus bill passed.


108th Congress:  The House Cuba Working Group, as well as a handful of Senators and other Representatives, are likely to introduce numerous measures to ease the embargo, including those that would end the travel ban, increase exports to Cuba, lift the remittance cap, expand security cooperation, sunset the Helms-Burton law, and others. 


Such measures could be introduced accordingly:


Stand-alone bills: Stand-alone bills to ease the Cuban embargo may not amount to anything more than symbolic gestures, as some members of the Republican leadership who control movement of legislation in each chamber could prevent these bills from moving in committee or onto the floor.

Amendments to appropriations bills: The successful strategy of introducing amendments that de-fund aspects of the embargo to appropriations bills is likely to be repeated in the 108th Congress, and there is reason to anticipate that such amendments could pass in 2003, as they have in recent years. 

Amendments to non-appropriations bills: This could be a possibility as well, although opportunities to do so in the past have been few because of rules governing the germaneness of amendments.  The advantage of amendments to non-appropriations bills is that rules forbidding authorizing (i.e. changing the law) on appropriations bills would not apply, and thereby the embargo could be changed instead of simply de-funded.


What are the prospects for provisions to ease the embargo in the 108th Congress?


One answer might be that the prospects are grim: Republican control of the Congress could make the President’s pro-sanctions position harder to alter.  But, for optimists on the anti-sanctions side, there is room for hope:


·           It was a Republican-controlled House that passed the 3 TPO amendments in July 2002.

·           It was a Republican controlled House that defeated measures tying Cuba to terrorism in July 2002.

·           Ending the embargo has bipartisan support (e.g. the House Cuba Working Group, votes on the House floor, and Senators such as Hagel, Specter, Chafee, Roberts et al.).

·           Richard Lugar, the next chairman of Senate Foreign Relations, is generally perceived to be more open toward easing the embargo on Cuba than previous chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC Ret.).

·           Many Republicans support easing the embargo, at both the national and local levels, creating internal pressures in the Republican party for changing policy toward Cuba. 

·           A strong Republican mandate in Florida and elsewhere might actually free the President’s hand a bit, allowing the Executive some flexibility in relation to domestic pressures on the issue.  

·           Ending the embargo makes sense for Republican reasons: expanding U.S. export markets to improve the U.S. economy and spread American influence and values is a position comfortable for many Republicans.

·           So-called “Red America,” the states that supported the President in 2000, are agricultural states that benefit the most from trade with Cuba.


However, the Congressional leadership in each chamber, which will be Republican in the 108th Congress, may hold the most sway, no matter what the majority opinion of the other members.  The rules of the House and Senate can lend inordinate strength to individual members in the Leadership.  These leadership members can use such powers to employ parliamentary and other tactics to delay or thwart progress on measures supported by the majority.  Unless the leadership bends, it will be difficult to ease the embargo.


Finally, movement in the United States toward easing the embargo will depend in part on Cuba itself.  Continued positive gestures from the Cuban government (such as purchases in 2002 of over $200 million of U.S. farm goods, or further offers of cooperation on counterterrorism), or at least an absence of negative conduct, will make it harder for mainstream America to agree to the case for keeping the embargo and will make it increasingly difficult for embargo supporters in the federal government and among the American population to avoid compromising on easing the embargo.


If you have any questions or comments, please contact Brian Alexander at the Cuba Policy Foundation via phone, or email at

[1] For more information on legislative initiatives to ease the Cuban embargo in 2002, please see “Embargo Update,” August 5, 2002 (available: