By: Josephine Hearn
Jun 12, 2007 06:40 PM EST
A proposal to lift the travel ban to Cuba has prompted a spat between two cardinals on the House Appropriations Committee, pitting sophomore Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) against veteran Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.).
"It's an emotional issue for both sides. Everyone just has to calm down," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who serves on the financial services subcommittee with the other two and tried to mediate the dispute.
The disagreement arose when Serrano, the subcommittee chairman, who is a longtime proponent of normalizing relations with Cuba, planned to include a provision into the 2008 financial services appropriations bill to lift the ban on travel to Cuba.
But Wasserman Schultz opposed Serrano's move and approached other members of the subcommittee without his knowledge to lobby against it, Democratic congressional sources said. Wasserman Schultz has close ties to the Cuban expatriate community in South Florida, many of whom vehemently oppose lifting the ban.
Wasserman Schultz's tactics offended Serrano.
"I didn't appreciate hearing from other (sub)committee members that I was being lobbied against," Serrano said Tuesday. "You wait years to chair a committee, and once you do, people should discuss things with you and not go around you in a confrontational way."
Serrano and his allies said an unwritten rule existed on the Appropriations Committee directing members to defer to subcommittee chairmen -- known as cardinals -- and air their objections with the full committee.
Subcommittee splits, but not on party lines
A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, who joined the Appropriations Committee earlier this year, said she never intended to antagonize anyone.
"Obviously both Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Serrano feel passionately about the direction our country should be taking with regard to Cuba," spokesman Jonathan Beeton said in a statement. "The congresswoman respects both the formal and informal traditions of the Appropriations Committee and did not intend to offend either Mr. Serrano or any other member of the committee."
It was unclear how many votes Wasserman Schultz had secured in the subcommittee. But Democratic sources said that at least one other Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), was prepared to side with her against Serrano.
With the subcommittee split between eight Democrats and five Republicans, the opposition of just two Democrats, along with all the Republicans, would have been enough to sink the proposal.
"I don't favor overly restrictive measures that impede the ability of family members to visit their loved ones in Cuba," Schiff said. "At the same time, I have concerns about lifting the entire trade, travel and tourist embargo, given the implacable hostility of the Castro regime."
Sensing an uphill battle, Serrano abandoned the idea.
Serrano "has been so passionate about this issue. It was really a shame that it was handled this way," said a House Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The online Cuban-American magazine Nuevo Accion quickly picked up on the fight, even though it had not been publicized, and branded it an "overwhelming defeat" for Serrano.
The attention was not welcomed in the Serrano camp. Serrano had received death threats in the mid-'90s from hard-line anti-Castro activists for his pro-normalization views.
Several lawmakers have tried to mediate between Serrano and Wasserman Schultz in the dispute as animosity has escalated.
Ruppersberger talked to both sides.
"There are certain protocols," he said. But "sometimes you have to get a pass on something when it's so important in your district."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) spoke personally with both lawmakers, said an aide close to the Hoyer camp.
"He's very close with both of them, and he was stuck in the middle about this," the aide said, adding that Hoyer had advised Wasserman Schultz that challenging Serrano was "not a good idea."
Still, one former senior House staffer argued that Wasserman Schultz had been justified in pushing the issue, even at the subcommittee level.
"It's not an iron-clad rule," a former staffer said. "If she was working behind the scenes to get support for an amendment, then Serrano could say, 'Chairman's prerogative.' (But) that prerogative doesn't usually apply to high-level, authorizing policy questions like the Cuba issue."
Wasserman Schultz, along with Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American, has been very active this year on Cuba-related issues.
In the wake of the Democratic takeover of Congress, groups on both sides of the Cuba issue have stepped up their outreach to Democratic lawmakers. The GOP Congress was reliably in favor of the trade embargo, but Democrats have had more diverse views.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill earlier this year to lift the travel ban, and more than 100 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors.
JG: It looks to me like Rep. Wasserman is working undercover and in favor of the Republican Party. Is she getting "campaign contributions" from the extremists in Miami? I hope Serrano wins.