Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scramble for GOP healthcare votes suddenly puts Cuba policy in play

Scramble for GOP healthcare votes suddenly puts Cuba policy in play

The showdown in Congress over House Republicans' healthcare bill might
have nothing to do with Raúl Castro — if it weren't for Miami.

Thursday's planned vote on the American Health Care Act is so razor
tight that House GOP leaders and the White House are leaning hard on
every single shaky Republican for their support. One of them: Rep. Mario
Diaz-Balart of Miami, whose foremost want is to overturn the Obama
administration's Cuba opening — and who has recently taken it upon
himself to outline a possible Cuba policy for the Trump administration.

Perhaps Diaz-Balart and the White House would engage in a little
old-fashioned horse trading — a "Yes" vote on healthcare for swift
action on Cuba?

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Diaz-Balart wanted assurances
from White House officials that President Donald Trump would keep his
campaign promise to take a harder Cuba line. There was no explicit
discussion about trading a healthcare vote for a Cuba promise, The Times
said after initially reporting otherwise.

"I wish that they would've given me a commitment on something, but that
is just made up," Diaz-Balart told McClatchy, the Miami Herald's parent
company, on Wednesday.

He added that he's still undecided on the healthcare bill, mostly based
on concerns about insurance coverage and premium costs for older Americans.

"I am very concerned that particularly that population is not being
dealt with yet in a way that is giving me a lot of comfort," he said.

Politically, he noted, it's better not to be a hard "Yes" or "No": "Once
I do that, then I'm out of the loop."

But there's no denying that Diaz-Balart has brought up Cuba every time
he's had a chance to speak to the White House, where he's closest to
Vice President Mike Pence. And the Trump administration has spent two
days openly wooing Republicans who, like Diaz-Balart, are on the fence
about healthcare. (The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the bill
lacks the votes to pass the House on Thursday.) Diaz-Balart was the
tie-breaking vote approving the bill in the Budget Committee last week
but has said he nevertheless leans against it.

Diaz-Balart said Wednesday he hasn't talked to Trump — but wouldn't say
if he's spoken with Pence.

The suggestion that Diaz-Balart or the White House might even consider
cutting a deal on Cuba to pass healthcare prompted immediate criticism
from advocates of U.S.-Cuba engagement and from the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, which said the AHCA would "cost tens
of thousands of his own constituents access to healthcare, blow the roof
off of others' premiums, and slap an age tax on older South Floridians."

"Mr. Diaz-Balart is playing politics with his constituents' healthcare
in order to settle a family feud," said James Williams, president of
Engage Cuba, a group that advocates for closer U.S.-Cuba ties. "Our
U.S.-Cuba policy should be guided by what's in the best interests of the
American and Cuban people, not one congressman's personal agenda."

The White House has yet to make any commitments on Cuba, a congressional
source told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald on Wednesday — in part
because Trump has yet to appoint No. 2s at the State Department and
National Security Council to handle Western Hemisphere affairs.

In the absence of any high-level policy officials, Diaz-Balart has
recently circulated a two-page memo to other Cuban Americans in Congress
outlining a possible Trump approach to Cuba. The memo, titled "A Good
Deal that Upholds the Law and Protects National Security," has also been
passed around the White House.

The memo lists no author, and Diaz-Balart's office would not confirm
Wednesday that he wrote it. Diaz-Balart, however, rattled off the same
proposals — practically verbatim — in a November interview with el Nuevo
Herald. Another congressional source confirmed Wednesday that the memo
had come from Diaz-Balart.

The memo doesn't go as far as calling for a return to restrictive
Bush-era Cuba policy. Instead, it seeks to undo former President Barack
Obama's actions from December 2014, when he announced the
reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the island's Communist regime.

Cuba would get 90 days to meet criteria set by Congress in the 1996
Helms-Burton Act, including schedule free, multiparty elections,
respecting political and civil rights, and making "demonstrable
progress" on returning property confiscated from Americans or
compensating them for it. Failure to do so would result in returning
Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, allowing lawsuits
against confiscated Cuban property, and eliminating the October 2016
Obama guidance to federal agencies on normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

"The top priority is that sanctions must be tightened at least to those
that were in place prior to President Obama's changes announced in
December 2014," the memo says, in a line that is bold and underlined.
"In addition to that fundamental change, President Trump has other
opportunities listed here which together will generate a better deal for
the American and Cuban people that furthers U.S. law and vital national
security interests."

McClatchy Washington correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Source: Scramble for GOP healthcare votes puts Cuba policy in play |
Miami Herald -

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