If Congress objects to Obama's move on Cuba, what can it do?

President Obama moved Wednesday to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Many in Congress were not pleased, and there are several ways they can oppose the move.

Molly Riley/AP/File
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, seen here at the National Press Club in Washington earlier this year, spoke out against President Obama's decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba Wednesday.

Here we go again. The topic is new – reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. But the storyline is familiar: The president acts. Congress wants to undo that action. Or at least some members do.

“I am committed to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, speaking about President Obama’s Wednesday announcement that he is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years.

But can lawmakers undo another executive decision that they don’t like? In this case, it’s not that the president went beyond his executive authority, Senator Rubio says (though others disagree). He just doesn’t like what Mr. Obama did.

So what can Congress do about it? Politicians such as Rubio suggested these three measures:

  • Deny funding for an embassy.
  • Block the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba.
  • Refuse to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, established by Congress, as the president has requested.

While Congress can use its budgetary power to deny funds, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland notes that the US maintains officials in Havana. They are in the old embassy – renovated in 1997 – in what is called an “Interests Section.” Its functions are similar to those of an embassy.

“The fact is the person who is in charge of the Interests Section today becomes the charge d’affaires of the Interests Section, so his status immediately changes, regardless of how long it may or may not take the Senate to act on an ambassador.”

Lifting the embargo is another story. Rubio flat-out said it won’t happen. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the leading Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that “Congress must see a greater political opening in Cuba before lifting the embargo.”

But the president’s actions – from allowing certain travel to business financial arrangements – make the embargo less relevant, says Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Utah who supports the president’s move. He traveled to Cuba with Congressman Van Hollen Wednesday to bring home Alan Gross, a Cuban prisoner returned to the US as part of a prisoner-swap deal.

Increased travel, Senator Flake said, will erode support for the embargo and help spur change in Cuba itself.

“As soon as Americans start traveling, there’s more of a need for Cubans to update their infrastructure. To do so, they have to have better laws in terms of rights to contract to attract foreign investment. That leads to other things and it leads to change.”

Rubio, a possible presidential candidate for 2016, is not the only member of Congress to viscerally object to establishing an embassy in Havana and other announced changes – although, as the son of Cuban immigrants, he has special reason to protest.

Key politicians, from Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey to House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, also object to the policy change.

In the critics’ view, the US is increasing specialized travel, commerce, and the flow of information to Cuba while Cuba does nothing to open up its political system or allow an independent press. More money coming in to the island will flow to – and thereby strengthen – the authoritarian regime and military, they argue. They also express alarm that the president has suggested a review of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner,” said Speaker Boehner in a statement.

Despite such opposition, it’s far from clear how many lawmakers disagree with the president, as most have already left for the holidays. The majority of Americans favor normalization, according to an Atlantic Council poll released last February. And so does the US Chamber of Commerce – an influential body on the Hill.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who herself fled Cuba, suggested that Obama’s decision to unilaterally normalize relations with Cuba could be unconstitutional.

At the least, Senator Menendez is pushing for hearings on this “dramatic and mistaken” change in policy when the GOP-controlled Senate meets in the new year. The incoming Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker Tennessee, said in a mildly worded statement that “we will be closely examining” the changes in the next Congress.

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