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Ag Committee Chairman Peterson Outmaneuvers Opponents of Travel to Cuba, Moves Legislation Forward

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After a momentous week in the nation’s capital, advocates of lifting restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba have reason to celebrate.

On Wednesday, June 30, the House Committee on Agriculture held a mark-up session of H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act. While out-of-touch hardliners on the committee tried to amend and motion Ag Committee Chairman Peterson and Congressman Jerry Moran’s bill to death, it ultimately received a favorable 25 to 20 vote, putting Congress on the verge of voting on ending the travel ban, rather than simply shutting down its checking account, for the first time in history.

The landmark legislation, championed by Democratic Chairman Peterson of Minnesota and 64 of his House colleagues, restores U.S. citizens' right to travel to Cuba, and aids farmers struggling to make ends meet by creating thousands of jobs here at home, and puts quality food on the tables of ordinary Cubans. It’s won endorsements from groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Human Rights Watch, and 74 leaders of Cuba’s opposition, just to name a few of the constituencies calling for an end to the anachronistic ban on travel to Cuba.

The final committee tally was more favorable than we had expected beforehand, but opponents of U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel didn’t just sit back and watch; in fact, they did everything they could to strip travel from the bill and, at one point, came close to killing it (yes, we were holding our breath, too).

What follows is a play-by-play of the action in the committee (we don’t have the benefit of a House parliamentarian editing our blogs, so we’re going to keep it as simple as possible).

The first of five negative amendments was offered by Reps. Baca (D-CA) and Rooney (R-FL). As anticipated, their amendment sought to strike the language pertaining to U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba from H.R. 4645. In a letter asking colleagues to support his amendment, Rep. Baca argued that “Opening Cuba to travel would also jeopardize America’s national security” since Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, as our colleagues at The Havana Note pointed out in an excellent post refuting many of the opposition’s talking points, the State Department’s report on this very subject actually says this: “The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba….” But the facts have never been the opposition’s strong suit, have they?

Ag Committee Chairman Peterson responded to the Rooney-Baca amendment with what would become a common refrain throughout the mark-up session: the House Foreign Affairs Committee, not the Ag Committee, has jurisdiction over the travel portion of the bill; thus, the Ag Committee couldn’t consider amendments that would, in one way or another, affect this section of the bill. With the travel section of the bill clearly off limits, a motion to “table,” i.e. stop, consideration of the Rooney-Baca amendment passed without much trouble, 29 votes to 16.

Apparently, Rep. Conaway (R-TX), a long-time opponent of travel and engagement with Cuba, didn’t agree with the jurisdictional views of Chairman Peterson or those of the House parliamentarians on-hand for the mark-up session. After the Rooney-Baca amendment was tabled, he introduced an amendment that would have conditioned the implementation of H.R. 4645 upon progress on human rights and democracy. Again, Chairman Peterson amiably informed his colleagues that amendments that affected travel couldn’t be considered because the committee didn’t have the jurisdiction to do so. And again, a vote to table won by a comfortable margin, 26 votes to 19.

Yet, no matter how many times Chairman Peterson said it or how diplomatically he put it, opponents of lifting travel restrictions just couldn’t accept that their stranglehold on U.S. policy towards Cuba was slipping out of their hands–and fast. Before the mark-up session was over, they put forward three more amendments. The first two of these amendments, one put forth by Rep. Conaway and the other by Ranking Member Lucas (R-OK), sought to condition the implementation of H.R. 4645 on the passage and implementation of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea pending in Congress. Rep. Rooney also offered a last-ditch amendment that would have conditioned implementation of H.R. 4645 on the resolution of outstanding property claims against the Castro government. Can you guess what happened next? Chairman Peterson ruled that these amendments weren’t in the committee’s jurisdiction and motions to table passed easily.

At this point, Chairman Peterson turned over the mic to Rep. Kratovil, a first-term Democrat representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Rep. Kratovil spoke at length about his reservations with the legislation, calling it both a “bailout” and “concession” to the Castros. He argued that passing H.R. 4645 amounted to giving away “a bargaining chip” that could be used to secure the release of U.S. citizen and Maryland resident Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor being detained in Cuba for violating its laws prohibiting Helms-Burton sanctioned activities. Congressman Kratovil would ultimately vote in favor of the bill, but will include his “dissenting views” in the committee’s final report. Other members can, and are likely to, sign on to these dissenting views; and we fear that those who do cannot be counted on to support this legislation on the House floor.

With five of five negative amendments defeated, supporters of freedom to travel would have been forgiven for getting ready to pop the champagne or mix the mojitos. But the drama was only beginning to unfold. Since travel couldn’t be stripped from the bill or otherwise conditioned, the committee hardliners decided to try their hand at another game: killing the bill outright.

Rep. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, led this effort by calling for a motion to report H.R. 4645 to the floor without a recommendation. Knowing full well that a bill without a committee recommendation would never see the light of day on the House floor, Chairman Peterson quickly tried to have the motion tabled by a voice vote. The chairman ruled that the ayes had it, but the opposition demanded a roll call vote. The motion to table Rep. Goodlatte’s motion failed by two votes. With his bill on life support and the opposition smelling blood in the water, Chairman Peterson called a 10-minute recess to plot a way out of the morass.

Once the committee returned to session, it was moment-of-truth time: a vote for Rep. Goodlatte’s motion would kill the bill, while a vote against it would keep it alive. We sat with white-knuckles gripping our chairs tightly, hoping that a majority of committee members would come to their senses and rally to the chairman’s side. Yet, as the committee secretary called roll on Rep. Goodlatte’s motion, something interesting began to happen: staunch opponents of freedom to travel, such as Reps. Baca and McIntyre (D-NC), passed when their names were called, refusing to vote either for or against the motion. Realizing midway through that the vote wasn’t going their way, the staunchest opponents of H.R. 4645, including Rep. Goodlatte, voted against the motion to report the bill to the floor without a recommendation. The motion was ultimately defeated by a resounding 42 votes to 3. Even if members were stridently opposed to H.R. 4645, or had strong reservations about it, they ultimately proved unwilling to embarrass their chairman.

Sensing that the freedom to travel side had regained the momentum, Vice Chairman Tim Holden (D-PA) followed the defeat of Rep. Goodlatte’s motion with one of his own: a motion to pass the bill out of committee with a favorable recommendation. We held our breath as the committee secretary went around the chamber, paying special attention to the members who were undecided heading in to the mark-up. “Rep Halvorson?” Aye.  “Rep. Murphy?” Aye. “Rep. Kratovil?” Aye. “Rep. Boccieri?” Aye (yes, we did a double-take, too). If all of our known supporters stayed with us, we were on the verge of pulling out a huge victory from the jaws of defeat. The room fell silent as the secretary counted the final tally: 25 votes to 20. H.R. 4645 had been passed out of the Ag Committee! High-fives and relieved laughter filled the chamber and phones started ringing and buzzing with congratulatory calls. For once, freedom to travel had carried the day in Congress.

Chairman Peterson and many of his colleagues on the Ag Committee have won our admiration and respect. They deserve heaps of praise and credit for staying united against the oppositions’ attacks and for putting good policy first.

With the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act over its first major hurdle, it’s ready to move through the House. We’ll be watching and hoping for a floor vote before election fever kicks in to full gear. Stay tuned. Congratulations and felicitaciones to everyone who helped get us here!