Dem Senator Holds Up Science Nominees to Force Continuation of Cuba Embargo

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a strong supporter of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, is launching a full-on battle this week to remove several provisions from the 2009 government spending bill that would open a small crack in the slammed door of relations with Havana.

Menendez fired a broadside at the Obama administration yesterday for backing a provision buried in the $410 billion spending bill, which must become law by next week in order to keep the government running. The New Jersey senator, a Cuban-American, objects to language in the bill that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba.

Menendez even suggested yesterday that he might oppose the spending bill if the Cuba provisions were not removed, saying in a floor speech that they “[put] the omnibus appropriations package in jeopardy, in spite of all the other tremendously important funding that this bill would provide.”

Polls suggest that the majority of Cuban-Americans side with the administration, rather than Menendez — an influential poll of the community, conducted in Florida every year since 1991, found in December that 55% of Cuban-Americans supported lifting the embargo against Havana.

But regardless of where public opinion stands, Menendez’s effort is no longer confined to the spending bill. The WaPo reports today that the senator has held up two Obama science nominees in an attempt to twist the arms of his fellow Dems:

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has placed a “hold” that blocks votes on confirming Harvard University physicist John Holdren, who is in line to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, Obama’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to sources who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, Menendez is using the holds as leverage to get Senate leaders’ attention for a matter related to Cuba rather than questioning the nominees’ credentials.

That Menendez has resorted to holds on nominees isn’t surprising. Anonymously delaying nominees is an unfortunate yet time-honored tactic in the Senate, where the 2007 ethics bill imposed a six-day limit on the “holding” power but did not eliminate it outright.

But the nominees Menendez has chosen to hold are pivotal presidential allies in the push to regulate carbon emissions — and Menendez has been admirably outspoken about the need to act on climate change. Was holding up Holdren, a longtime critic of Bush-era science policy, the best way to start a reasoned dialogue on Cuba policy?

ed. note. This post was revised to include recent quotes from Menendez relating to the coming vote on the spending bill.