- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2014

Defending its historic policy reversal on Cuba, the White House on Thursday aligned itself with one potential 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, while launching an all-out assault on another — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Obama administration distributed via email highly supportive comments from Mrs. Clinton, who said she fully backs the president’s decision to end more than five decades of isolation and re-establish formal diplomatic ties with the communist island.

But the White House was forced to take a very different tack with Mr. Rubio, Florida Republican and a Cuban-American who over the past two days has emerged as the leader of opposition toward the revamped Cuba policy.

With a potentially explosive political fight looming on Capitol Hill — Mr. Rubio has hinted he’ll block funding for a U.S. embassy in Havana and may halt the confirmation of an ambassador — the White House went on offense.

A clearly prepared White House press secretary Josh Earnest tried to use Mr. Rubio’s own past statements to paint him as a hypocrite on the issue.

“It occurs to me that it seems odd Sen. Rubio would be reluctant and, in fact, actively seeking to block the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba when earlier this year he voted to confirm the ambassador to China that the president nominated,” Mr. Earnest told reporters.

SEE ALSO: Obama hails ‘new chapter’ in diplomatic relations with Cuba

He then read a quote from Mr. Rubio during confirmation hearings earlier this year for former Sen. Max Baucus, now the U.S. ambassador to China. Like Cuba, China’s communist regime has come under heavy fire for its human rights record.

“Our embassy should be viewed as an ally of those within Chinese society that are looking to express their fundamental rights to speak out and to worship freely,” Mr. Rubio said at the hearing.

The senator’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the specific charge made by Mr. Earnest on Thursday.

A day earlier, Mr. Rubio denounced the notion that an American presence in Cuba will help bring about positive change.

“All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power,” he said during an emotional press conference.

As part of the agreement, the U.S. will break down some trade and travel barriers with Cuba, will allow Cuban-Americans to send more money to family members on the island, and will officially restore the diplomatic ties severed in the early 1960s.

The deal — which came after Cuba released American aid worker Alan Gross and the two nations engaged in a spy swap — won broad support from the business community and religious leaders such as Pope Francis, who personally pushed for the move.

Mr. Obama already has spoken by phone with Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro. Mr. Earnest said Thursday the White House may take the previously unthinkable step of welcoming Raul Castro to Washington sometime in the next two years.

Among the strongest supporters of the newfound U.S.-Cuba relationship is Mrs. Clinton, former secretary of state and the Democrats’ 2016 presidential front-runner.

“As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world,” she said in a statement that was later distributed to reporters via a White House email list. “The goal of increased U.S. engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people.”

Moving forward, some analysts question whether Mr. Rubio will draw a line in the sand and stand in the way of funding an embassy or confirming an ambassador.

It may be more likely, specialists say, that lawmakers opposed to the agreement rally around the Cuban embargo, which limits most American exports and virtually all Cuban imports. It remains in place despite Mr. Obama’s moves and can only be undone by Congress.

“If I were to guess, it seems unlikely the Republicans, even in the next Congress, will die on that hill to oppose this,” said Bill Watson, a trade policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “It’s much more likely the Republicans will successfully resist any legislative change on the embargo.”

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