These are strange times in Washington. Though this town is accustomed to politicking, today’s climate seems exceedingly fractured. Indeed, as the Pew Research Center noted this week, partisanship among the U.S. public and in Congress is “now wider than at any point in the past two decades.”
On Tuesday, however, we were delivered a sharp rebuke of the current state of affairs, when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to deliver a speech excoriating his congressional colleagues for purportedly putting politics over the country’s best interests. Sen. Flake also used his speech to announce that he will not seek re-election at the end of his term in 2018, because, as he told the Arizona Republic, “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”
His retirement is undoubtedly a loss for congressional bipartisanship, and those pushing for positive legislative changes to Cuba policy will miss having Sen. Flake at their side. In his 17 years in Congress, Sen. Flake has fought vigorously to build a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress who support engagement with Cuba. Nowhere are the fruits of his labor more evident than in his own Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act, a bill to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba which, as the senator has repeatedly noted, “do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”
Sen. Flake originally introduced the bill in January 2015 with eight cosponsors. Gradually, he built support for the common-sense legislation, and in May 2017, reintroduced the same bill with 55 bipartisan cosponsors. In June, he stated of the bill, “I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes.”
The growth represents the widespread support for engagement across the U.S. public. Over 70 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republicans, support ending the trade embargo against Cuba. Meanwhile, this week also saw a bipartisan pair of House Representatives, Democrat John Conyers (MI-13) and Republican Jodey Arrington (TX-19), sign on to Rep. Rick Crawford’s Cuba Agricultural Exports Act to allow for the use of credit in agricultural sales. The bill now has 62 cosponsors, 43 of whom are Republican.
Indeed, support for engagement with Cuba is now a mainstream opinion among the public and in Congress. And yet, somehow, a minority group of lawmakers continues to stymie engagement. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar, herself the sponsor of the bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017, said this week, “We cannot completely derail the relations that we’re building with Cuba, because we know that over 50 years of a failed policy isn’t good for either of our countries.”
For the Executive and congressional leadership to continue to ignore the desires of a majority of the U.S. Senate and the American public is, to borrow a line from one administration official, a dereliction of duty. As Sen. Flake told the Senate Tuesday, “When we remain silent and fail to act … we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.”
While Sen. Flake’s contributions to the Senate will be missed, we remain hopeful that the spirit of bipartisanship and levelheaded decision-making he championed will remain, or rather, soon return, in Washington.
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