WASHINGTON — Opponents of opening Cuba to American tourists are touting a letter signed by 53 Democrats in the House of Representatives, saying it shows that they have the votes to derail an effort to lift the ban on travel to the island.
The letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urges the House leadership to maintain the current U.S. policy to Cuba, seeking to blunt the momentum that proponents of lifting the travel ban have claimed under a Democratic president and Democratic-led Congress.
"Any legislation that would seek to ease or lift sanctions ... would send a devastating message to Cuba's opposition movement and legitimize an ailing dictatorship," the letter says. Among the signees are Reps. Ben Chandler of Kentucky, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Brad Miller, Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Jim Marshall of Georgia and Ike Skelton of Missouri.
Democratic Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who helped gather the signatures, said the letter was aimed at showing that a number of Democrats opposed easing sanctions against Cuba, a stance that's traditionally associated with Republicans.
"We felt it was important to show that when push comes to shove, the votes aren't there," Wasserman Schultz said. "The number of Republicans opposed, combined with these Democrats, would seem to spell that it would not be successful."
Proponents of lifting the decades-old travel ban, however, said they had 180 sponsors to repeal it and that the letter didn't change the outlook for getting the bill passed.
"We're continuing to gather support," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who's sponsored one of several bills that seek to allow Americans to travel to Cuba. "People are realizing it's simply anathema to common sense to deny the American people the right to travel to Cuba when they have the right to travel to North Korea, to Iran."
The issue — though not the legislation — will be the subject of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
With 218 votes needed for passage and 258 Democrats in the House, pro-embargo lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone said the letter presented supporters of lifting the ban with a math problem.
"Democrats alone cannot pass any legislation to unconditionally lift the ban," he said. "There are some Republicans who support it, but they'd require a larger number than have ever supported such changes in the past."
Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one Republican who's championed easing sanctions, said the letter suggested that backers of the embargo were getting nervous.
"We're still working very hard on the other side," he said. "They certainly see it slipping away."
The letter notes that President Barack Obama has lifted travel restrictions for those with family members on the island but that he's said he backs further sanctions against the island.
"It is our strong belief that any effort to upend the president's agenda would undermine the goal that he shares with so many House Democrats: fostering respect for justice and freedom in Cuba," the letter says.
"I think we need to see some signs from the Cubans," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who signed the letter. "They've got to indicate they're willing to go in the right direction."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington