House Majority Whip Steve Scalise on Wednesday blasted President Barack Obama’s plans to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, arguing that doing so would “encourage bad behavior” and could lead other nations to imprison Americans in hopes of gaining concessions from the United States.
The proposed foreign policy shift, kicked off by the release of an American contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 and three Cubans convicted of spying in the United States in 2001, should have come after consultations with Congress and should not be pursued because of Cuba’s bad human rights record, the Jefferson Parish Republican said after delivering a speech to the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce’s 10th anniversary luncheon.
“This will reward Cuba for its illegal actions,” Scalise said, referring to the detention of contractor Alan Gross. “The people of Cuba deserve freedom.”
Scalise, who was elected to the third-highest position in the Republican House leadership earlier this year, also pushed back against criticism from conservative groups that have targeted him for his role in passing a spending bill this month that they said did not go far enough to block administration policies related to immigration.
Scalise urged patience, arguing that the next session of Congress — which will see Republicans in control of both houses — will provide opportunities for a conservative agenda.
Scalise’s response to the Obama administration’s moves on Cuba was less fiery than those of some of his colleagues. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, referred to Obama’s actions as a “dangerous and desperate attempt to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
The Republican Congress will block any part of the administration’s efforts that requires legislative approval, Scalise said. And he condemned any actions to move toward normal relations with Cuba until the country improves its record on human rights.
“They need to prove on the ground that they can treat their people properly,” he said.
As the lame-duck session of Congress wraps up and Republicans prepare for control of both chambers next year, Scalise said Republican priorities would be at the forefront.
In recent weeks, Scalise has found himself the target of some conservative groups and media outlets critical of his role in passing a $1.1 trillion spending package that will keep the government operating through most of next year. Senate Conservatives Action, a right-wing political group, launched radio ads this week saying Scalise “caved” by not using the measure to block an executive order by Obama that would prevent 5 million people who are in the country illegally from being deported.
But Scalise noted the spending bill provides funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration enforcement, only through February. That means the issue will be raised again early in 2015, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress instead of only the House.
“People want a fight, and the good news is there will be a fight,” Scalise said.
In his prepared remarks to the chamber membership, Scalise largely focused on similar efforts that will be pushed by Republicans once they control both houses. And he pointed to the spending bill as an example of the power of the purse.
He touted provisions that will slash the budget of the Internal Revenue Service and reduce Environmental Protection Agency staffing levels to historic lows. The EPA, he said, stood in the way of chemical plants that would spur economic development and has imposed regulations that should require legislative approval.
“They have gotten out of control, so we’re rolling that back,” he said.
Scalise also called for the elimination of a decades-old ban on oil exports. He said that sharing the revenue generated by oil exploration between the federal government and the states that would have rigs off their coasts could increase offshore activity and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
The Republican Congress also will continue its efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also referred to as “Obamacare,” a vote that has become routine in the Republican-controlled House but that has died in a Senate controlled by Democrats.
While the likelihood of such a bill getting Obama’s signature is virtually nil, Scalise said the president could find himself under pressure to sign other legislation that makes it through Congress.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.