A prior post reported about the planned meetings in Havana of a delegation of congressional Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy. Now we have news of what happened on their three-day trip.
Here is a photo of the delegation in Havana (left to right): Representative Chris Van Hollen, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Peter Welch and Senator Patrick Leahy. (Senator Richard Durbin is the other member of the delegation.)
On Saturday, January 17th, they “met with officials from Cuba’s Culture Ministry in order to discuss possible Cuban participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, a summer celebration of traditional art and culture on Washington’s National Mall.
On Sunday, January 18th, they met with more than a dozen dissidents including critics of the 18-month-old secret negotiations that led to last month’s announcement. All but two of them expressed support for the opening.
One of these two, Antonio Rodiles, said it “was a friendly meeting, they heard the different positions, but the senators are very much in favor of Obama’s measures and want to hear that we agree.” Rodiles, however, criticized the Obama administration for failing to win enough guarantees of reform from the Cuban government. “I said the process [of negotiating the U.S.-Cuba accords] took place without transparency or taking the full range of opinions into account.”
Another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a Cuban non-governmental organization tracking political detentions, said that the Cubans at the meeting “had delivered a list of 24 long-term prisoners whom they wanted to see released in addition to the 53 on the Obama administration’s list.”
On Monday, January 19th, the U.S. delegation met “for several hours with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who told the legislators that Cuba welcomed President Obama’s loosening of the U.S. trade embargo, which would permit more travel to Cuba and economic links including exports of telecommunications equipment and wholesale goods for use by the country’s small private sector.” According to Leahy, Rodriguez is “open to every issue from trade to communications. He talked about the travel back and forth, medical issues. Name an issue, he’s involved.” (To the right is a photo of this meeting.)
Also participating in this meeting were Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, and Cuba’ chief diplomat at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, the latter of whom visited Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church last October.
The U.S. legislators also had hoped to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro, but that did not happen apparently because the Americans had met with Cuban dissidents on Sunday.
This trip is designed to seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, to develop a sense of what Cuba and the U.S. are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible, to impress upon Cuban leaders the importance of concrete results and positive momentum and to convey a sense of Americans’ expectations and congressional perceptions.
They intend to meet with Cuban government officials, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, representatives of Cuba’s civil society, personnel at the U.S. Interests Section and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.
Diplomats of the two countries will hold talks in Havana’s Convention Palace on January 21 and 22, 2015.
Under the countries’ Migration Accords of 1995, they have migration talks every six months, and this will be the focus of the first day’s session. They will assess progress under this Accord and other agreements and actions taken by both parties to tackle illegal migration and trafficking in migrants. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba. The Cuban delegation will be led by the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.
Restoration of Diplomatic Relations
The January 22 session will be devoted to the process of restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including opening of embassies. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, while Josefina Vidal Ferreiro again will be in charge of the Cuban delegation.
Jacobson has said that this “process of restoring diplomatic relations is relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, but the parties have to agree on the process for such restoration. This can be done via an exchange of letters or of notes; it does not require a formal treaty or agreement. The U.S. also will need to terminate its 53-year agreement with the Swiss Government as our protecting power [in Cuba], and the same for the Cubans [in the U.S.]; that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon the U.S. would post a new sign “Embassy of the United States of America” on the building currently housing its mission. A list of all of the U.S. diplomatic officers would be declared directly to the Cuban Government.
What the current U.S. Interests Section does, and what the Embassy will do, Jacobson said, “is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes providing uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals and processing requests for visas for thousands of Cubans every year (nonimmigrant visas for many thousands and immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year). U.S. diplomats also check on whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are harassed by the Cuban government.
Having led the migration talks in 2011, when Jacobson was the principal deputy assistant secretary, she said human rights are always part of the migration-talks agenda and will be again. One issue is whether Cuba is harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section. Another issue is how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave. We often will talk about freedom to leave Cuba; that is different since Cuba now permits most of its citizens to leave without exit visas.
I expect and pray that these meetings will advance the further reconciliation of the two countries. We await the reported results of the meetings.
 On December 17, 2014 Senator Leahy was on the U.S. plane that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. Afterwards, the Senator said, “By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, President [Obama] has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world. Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.” On January 8, 2015, Senator Leahy and seven other senators offered a Senate resolution commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the governments of the [U.S.] and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship.
 On December 17, 2014, Senator Durbin also was on the U.S. plant that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. His subsequent statement expressed support for President Obama’s moves towards reconciliation with Cuba. Senator Durbin was a co-sponsor of the previously mentioned Senate resolution commending Pope Francis.
 On December 17th Senator Stabenow announced her support of President Obama’s changes of policies regarding Cuba.
 On December 17th Senator Whitehouse issued a statement applauding the changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.
 On December 17th Congressman Van Hollen also was on the U.S. plane bringing Alan Gross home and gave thanks for his release and for the “vision of a new day in the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”
 Representative Welch on December 17thapplauded President Obama’s “bold leadership” and the “new era of openness and cooperation” with Cuba.
 The U.S. building, which was completed in 1953, was designed in the Modernist-Brutalist style by the architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which also designed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City. The former is a long, six-story concrete and glass building located directly on the Malecon overlooking the Bay of Havana. The building was not used by U.S. personnel between 1961 and 1977. U.S. diplomats returned to Havana in 1977, and the building was transformed into the United States Interests Section in Havana. Renovations were subsequently completed on the complex in 1997.
On January 3rd the U.S. Senate convened for the first time in the 113th Congress. Since amending its rules is one of the first orders of business, four resolutions were offered to do just that. But no debate and action were taken on those resolutions and instead were postponed to January 22nd when the Senate will resume its business after today’s recess.
Majority Leader Reid’s Statement
Majority Leader Harry Reid gave the reason for such postponement after noting that the Senate needed to change its rules to improve its efficiency and that the “beginning of a new Congress is customarily a time that the Senate addresses changes to its rules.” He complimented Senators Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Tom Harkin and Sheldon Whitehouse for making a persuasive case for reform of such rules in the last Congress and then noted that in “recent months, Senators on both sides of the aisle set about trying to broker a compromise. This group was led by Democratic Senator Levin and Republican Senator McCain. I thank them for their many hours of work and negotiation.”
Senator Reid said that because of preoccupation with other matters, including the fiscal cliff, in the final days of the last Congress, there had not been sufficient time to explore this compromise effort. On January 3rd, he added, the Senate would “reserve the right of all Senators to propose changes to the Senate rules . . . [would] explicitly not acquiesce in the carrying over of all the rules from the last Congress . . . [and would] recess today, rather than adjourn, to continue the same legislative day, and allow this important rules discussion to continue later this month [on January 22nd].” This extra time, he confidently added, would allow “the Republican leader and I . . . [to] come to an agreement that allows the Senate to work more efficiently.”
Resolutions To Amend the Filibuster Rule
The four resolutions to amend the filibuster rule were offered by Democratic Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.
Senate Resolution No. 4 (Senator Udall)would (1) eliminate the filibuster on motions to proceed while allowing two hours of debate on such a motion; (2) require a talking filibuster whereby Senators who filibuster actually have to speak on the floor, greatly increasing public accountability and requiring time and energy if the minority wants to use this tool to obstruct the Senate; (3) expedite nominations by reducing post-cloture debate on nominations from 30 hours to 2 hours, except for Supreme Court Justices (for whom the current 30 hours would remain intact); and (4) eliminate the filibuster on motions to establish a conference committee with the House of Representatives to work out differences on bills.
In a conference with reporters after the abbreviated January 3rd session, Senators Udall and Merkley said that they already had the support of at least 48 of the Democratic and Independent Senators and were confident that they could gain the backing of at least three of the other seven Democratic Senators to give them the 51 votes necessary for adoption under the so-called “constitutional” or “nuclear” option. Udall and Merkley admitted, however, that it was most difficult to obtain the additional support for the talking filibuster component.
If the chamber were deadlocked at 50-50, it is anticipated that Vice President Joe Biden, who is the presiding officer of the Senate and who supports filibuster reform, would break the tie in favor of reform.
Senate Resolution No. 5 (Senators Harkin and Mikulski) would amend the rules to permit a decreasing majority of Senators to invoke cloture. On the first cloture vote, 60 votes would be needed to end debate. If one did not get 60 votes, one could file another cloture motion and two days later have another vote. That vote would require 57 votes to end debate. If cloture was not obtained, one could file another cloture motion and wait two more days. In that vote, one would need 54 votes to end debate. If one did not get that, one could file one more cloture motion, wait two more days, and 51 votes would be needed to move to the merits of the bill. The resolution also would guarantee a certain number of germane amendments.
Senator Harkin in a press release stated, “The abuse of the filibuster in recent years has fundamentally changed the character of the Senate and our entire system of government. The notion that 60 votes are required to pass any measure or confirm any nominee is not in the Constitution and until recently would have been considered a ludicrous idea that flies in the face of any definition of government by democracy.”
Harkin added, “At issue is a fundamental principle of our democracy – majority rule in a legislative body. I am not afraid of democracy and my colleagues should not be afraid either. Issues of public policy should be decided at the ballot box, not by manipulation of arcane procedural rules. After ample protections for debate, deliberation and amendments, the majority in the Senate should be allowed to carry out its agenda, to govern, and to be held accountable by the voters.”
In addition to their own resolution, Harkin and Mikulski also support the Udall-Merkley “talking filibuster” proposal and the concept that those who wish to obstruct should at the very least be required to come to the floor to debate.
Senate Resolution No. 6 (Senator Merkley). This resolution is a more limited measure. It would limit the two-thirds requirement for amending the rules to only those Senators attending and voting and would modify the rule regarding extended debate.
Senate Resolution No. 7 (Senator Lautenberg) would force Senators to engage in actual debate on the Senate floor after cloture (a call for 60 votes to break a filibuster) is filed on a motion, nomination, or legislation. If, at any time after the first degree amendment filing deadline has passed, debate ceases and the Senator or Senators conducting the filibuster give up the floor, the Senate could move to an immediate vote. The same would hold true for the thirty hours of post-cloture time attached to motions to proceed and executive nominations.
Senator Lautenberg in a press release said, “It has become all too common for Senators to block legislation and never explain why they are stopping business dead in its tracks. My ‘Mr. Smith’ resolution would cut down on obstruction in Washington by requiring filibustering Senators to defend their position to the American people. The talking filibuster is a common-sense approach to breaking gridlock and getting the Senate back to doing the people’s business. The Senate has become a deadlocked—not deliberative—body, and reform of the Senate rules will be important as we start the 113th Congress.”
 The formal title of Resolution No. 4 is “A resolution to limit certain uses of the filibuster in the Senate to improve the legislative process.” Its full text is online as are are Senator Udall’s remarks.
 The formal title of Resolution No. 5 is “A resolution amending the Standing Rules of the Senate to provide for cloture to be invoked with less than a three-fifths majority vote after additional debate.” The full text of this resolution is online.
 The formal title of Resolution No. 6 is “A resolution to modify extended debate in the Senate to improve the legislative process.” Its full text is available online.
 The formal title of Resolution No. 7 is “A resolution to permit the Senate to avoid unnecessary delay and vote on matters for which floor debate has ceased.” Its full text is available online.