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Republican vs. Republican on Cuba


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It's Republican vs. Republican on Cuba


WASHINGTON, July 27 In a fierce political family feud, President Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, has been pressuring Republican lawmakers from farm states not to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Mr. Rove had a confrontational meeting with the lawmakers on July 10, and their accounts about it provided a rare and telling glimpse into the hardball lobbying of one of the most powerful White House advisers. Some lawmakers said they were surprised by the ferocity of Mr. Rove's arguments and his intense focus on the issue during the sessions.


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It is unusual for Republican House members to describe private meetings with members of the Bush White House, where secrecy, discipline and loyalty are prized commodities.

The issue of easing the travel restrictions raises particularly loud alarm bells among Cuban-Americans in Florida, a constituency and state that are vital to Mr. Bush's electoral fortunes as well as those of his brother Jeb, the state's Republican governor, who faces re-election in November.

"The sense I got was there is no middle ground on this," said Representative George Nethercutt, Republican of Washington, who attended the meeting with Mr. Rove. "I personally think there is a political component to it."

White House spokesmen said Mr. Rove and President Bush oppose easing the travel restrictions because of human rights abuses in Cuba, and in the meeting, the lawmakers said, Mr. Rove said that the president's support for sanctions against Cuba was a moral issue.

"The president's Cuba policy is part of his overall foreign policy of promoting freedom and democracy around the world," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.

While he did not discuss potential political fallout over the issue in Florida, several Republicans said they were convinced that Mr. Rove was worried about the domestic political consequences of easing travel to Cuba.

This week, the Republican lawmakers, who are from agricultural states that seek to increase commerce with Cuba, rolled over the White House's objections. On Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to stop enforcing the ban on travel and limits on cash payments to the island. The White House immediately threatened a veto.

Before the vote, Mr. Rove met twice with Representative Jeff Flake, a conservative freshman Republican from Arizona and a harsh critic of President Fidel Castro. Mr. Flake said he had contended that the best way to promote change in Cuba and dislodge Mr. Castro was to swarm the island with American tourists.

Mr. Rove was described by participants in the meetings as unyielding, even as Mr. Flake and his Republican colleagues warned that they had the votes to pass the measure affecting travel. Mr. Flake said he and other lawmakers repeatedly tried and failed to get Mr. Rove to discuss the domestic political implications of easing the Cuba policy.

"I feel at some point that the farm state politics will overwhelm the Florida politics," Mr. Flake said.

Mr. Flake said he believed that his position would ultimately prevail because the needs of farm state lawmakers would trump White House concerns about losing favor with Florida voters.

Representative Jo Ann Emerson, Republican of Missouri, who helped lead an easing of restrictions on food and medicine sales to the island two years ago, said she made the point to Mr. Rove that the administration was increasingly out of step with a growing number of Cuban-American voters who favor a looser policy on Cuba.

"There's a large group of Cuban-Americans in Miami who are very much on our side," Ms. Emerson said. "We hoped very much there was a dialogue going on with that group."

After talks that Ms. Emerson called "very lively" but cordial, Mr. Rove was unmoved. "We knew going in that we weren't going to make much headway," Ms. Emerson said.

A Republican aide familiar with the talks said, "Rove doesn't accept that the farm states constitute a counterweight to Florida."

Mr. Nethercutt said, "There are people from all regions of the country who don't think Florida should set the policy, that it ought to be a national policy."

Mr. Rove's lobbying on the Cuba travel issue was the latest instance of his injecting himself into a major foreign policy matter. Mr. Rove has denied a profound role in foreign affairs, though White House advisers acknowledge his hand in decisions affecting the Middle East, steel tariffs and Mr. Bush's trip with the president of Poland to Michigan, a heavily Polish state that Mr. Bush lost in 2000.

The president has been especially attentive to Florida, the state that plunged the 2000 election into limbo and where his brother is seeking re-election. Although Governor Bush has a comfortable lead in the polls, White House officials are missing few opportunities to help him on popular issues, like preventing offshore oil drilling and restoring the Everglades.

Cuban-Americans in Florida have been a core constituency for the president and the governor, with American policy toward Havana a central concern. In May, President Bush endeared himself to hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles by stating that he would not lift sanctions until the Cuban government made sweeping democratic reforms.

But Republicans in the House and in the Senate are increasingly calling that policy failed and outdated, and they say American interests would best be served by trade and other contacts with Cuba.

In this week's House vote on travel, 73 Republicans helped advocates secure a 262-to-187 victory.

Dennis Hays, a representative of the leading Cuban exile lobby, which favors maintaining the hard-line policy, said that Mr. Rove read the Republican lawmakers the "riot act" and that they "went out with their tails between their legs."

"Here you have a group of House Republicans who have deliberately, publicly, repeatedly gone in direct opposition on an issue that the president cares deeply about," said Mr. Hays, who is vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Sally Grooms Cowal, a former American diplomat who leads the Cuba Policy Foundation and advocates opening up Cuba to trade and travel, said the Republican lawmakers were not deterred by what she called Mr. Rove's "mildly threatening" tone.

The White House is "determined to stay the course," Ms. Cowal said, "at least through the Florida elections in November."

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the Bush brothers viewed Cuban-Americans as must-have voters in a state that gave the president his narrow victory in 2000 and is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

"Each party is fearful of losing any part of their base, and for Republicans in Florida, that Cuban-American base is critical," Ms. MacManus said.

Sergio Bendixen, a veteran pollster in Miami who tracks Hispanic issues, said the White House was especially worried about protecting Jeb Bush's re-election bid from a possible late surge from Janet Reno, the former attorney general and leading Democratic contender. The governor leads Ms. Reno by 15 to 17 points in the polls, Mr. Bendixen said, thanks in part to Ms. Reno's poor showing among Cuban-Americans who revile her decision to repatriate Elián González.

"They're being cautious, they're being conservative," Mr. Bendixen said. "They don't want to do anything in Cuba policy that would disillusion their hard-core supporters."

Mr. Bendixen cited a poll by his own agency in April showing that Cuban-Americans had increasingly moderated their views toward Cuba, with a slight majority in favor of letting Americans travel there. Younger, more recent arrivals from Cuba favor easing sanctions, Mr. Bendixen said, but they are still about a decade away from displacing the political influence of older exiles, who remain opposed to any overtures to Havana.

A day after the July 10 meeting with Mr. Rove, the administration dug in its heels, circulating a letter from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill saying they would urge the president to veto a lifting of the travel ban.

Meanwhile, the Florida delegation sprang into action. Representative Porter J. Goss, the influential chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, proposed an amendment that said the travel restrictions should be lifted only after the president certified that Cuba was not developing biological weapons or harboring terrorists.

The three Cuban-American members of Congress fought strenuously for the Goss proposal and sought to link Mr. Castro to nations supporting attacks on Americans. The effort failed by a vote of 247 to 182.

Farm state Republicans say they expect the family fight to continue. The drive to open up Cuba has "broad-based support from Republicans and Democrats," said Representative Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas.

But, Mr. Moran added, "I don't have any indication from the administration that there's any flexibility on this issue."