Election Analysis, Tempered Optimism

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Thanks to many of you who have let us know that you have called or written your members of Congress—especially the new members. It is much appreciated, and it is what will make a difference in 2007. From our analysis, we believe that we need to “win” almost 40 of the new members to our position on Cuba. That is a big task; but with your consistent efforts, we can do it.

If you haven’t made your calls or sent your letters yet, PLEASE DO SO NOW. New members, especially, should hear from you before they hear from the other side. Let’s not lose our edge. 

We need 218 votes in the House to pass legislation. After the November elections, we calculated that we had about 182 House members who would support an end to the travel ban on Cuba. Doing the math, that comes out to 36 votes short. So, the new members are extremely important.

Winning back some of the incumbent members’ votes we lost in 2004 because of lobbying money from the right-wing U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC would also be very helpful. That same group is actively recruiting new members to vote in favor of maintaining the embargo. We can’t let them push us aside.

So just what is the political scene this year? What do the recent elections mean for the possibilities of changing U.S.-Cuba policy?

We are using the phrase “tempered optimism” in describing our analysis. [Thanks to Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America for coining that phrase; and thanks, too, to Geoff for the brief analysis below.]

On the “optimism” side:

1. The elections reflected a new mood of skepticism in the public about Iraq, and about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy overall. This opens opportunities for positive change for us, as the public is more open to critiques on U.S.-Cuba policy.

2. The elections resulted in important changes in the leadership of the Congress. Three years ago, there was a functioning Cuba Working Group in the House and the Senate; and we were winning favorable Cuba votes in the House with 250-plus votes. Our problem wasn’t a lack of votes on our side; our problem was the Republican leadership, which used its influence and its control of parliamentary procedure to remove Cuba provisions before the final legislation went to the President for signing. That entrenched Republican leadership has lost its majority power, and our prospects for keeping Cuba provisions in the final version of bills has gone way up.

3. The elections led to changes in committee leadership, along with overall House leadership, and that’s really important. Members who support changing U.S. policy toward Cuba will control important committees and subcommittees. The final committee assignments won’t be known until sometime in January, but some of the leadership positions are almost certain. Click here to see a few positions that will be helpful to us.

Summary: we have a new mood in the general public on foreign policy; obstructionists have been moved out of leadership in the Congress; members of Congress interested in changing Cuba policy are in key positions. We have reason to be optimistic.

But, our optimism has to be “tempered”:

1. While the Congress has changed, the Presidency has not. President Bush is not going to change Cuba policy, and he will threaten to veto any pro-engagement initiatives that Congress approves.

2. While the old obstructionist congressional leadership has been removed (or at least taken down a notch), and we may be able to keep Cuba provisions in legislation, we still have to win votes in both the House and Senate. While we won these votes resoundingly three years ago, we have not won them in the last two years. But more importantly, we lost the votes of most of the new members of Congress elected in 2004. There were 38 new members of the House in that election, and only eight of them voted with us in 2005 and 2006.

In fact, we start 2007 with only 182 House members who have a record of voting consistently to change Cuba policy. Our optimism should be tempered because to win in the House we need 218 votes. We need to keep all 182 votes and win over nearly 40 of the new members or those whose votes we lost in 2005 and 2006. There are, depending upon some still unsettled races, between 54 and 58 new members. We need to win over the vast majority of them.

3. We still face some difficulties with committee leadership. If we have allies in Rangel, Dodd, Baucus, etc., we also have Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) as chair of the House International Relations Committee. While he has voted with us consistently on travel, he is not particularly sympathetic to changing Cuba policy overall; and the Republican ranking member may be Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who may have some influence over him. We need to nurture Rep. Lantos regarding a positive Cuba policy. And we likely have Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) as chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. He has never cast a positive vote on Cuba policy. If you are Rep. Engel’s constituent (part of the Bronx, West Nyack, Mt. Vernon in New York), we desperately need your help in converting him. And we have a new Cuban American from New Jersey in the House, Representative-elect Albio Sires, who will likely champion a hardline stance on Cuba.

In the Senate, we have Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL), both Cuban Americans who support the embargo.

4. Our optimism also has to be tempered because the Democratic leadership of the House has its own priority agenda – raising the minimum wage, Medicare/Medicaid reform, ethics and corruption, Iraq, etc. – and has its eye on winning again in 2008. The leadership may see Cuba policy as potentially controversial, or likely to hurt them with some constituencies. Hearing from constituents like you will push them in the right direction.

Summary: we face serious challenges in this Congress, even as we have new opportunities. Our initial major challenge is to reach out early to new members of Congress, especially in the House. As we work with allies and people in the leadership on positive Cuba policy initiatives, none of this will matter if we don’t have the votes to win. Those votes depend on constituents and activists writing, calling, and visiting new members of Congress in the next weeks and months.

So, please make those calls and set up those meetings.