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GOP lawmakers blast Obama’s Cuba policy shift

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). (Larry Downing/Reuters)
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This post has been updated.

Key lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for moving to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba on Wednesday, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and one Senate Democrat who called it "misguided."

Other members of Congress hailed President Obama's decision to end the longstanding divide with Cuba as well as the release of American contractor Alan Gross from Cuban custody.

The clash over the landmark foreign policy development could lead to an extended battle that does not fall completely along party lines.

"This is a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve, and this announcement only perpetuates the Castro regime’s decades of repression," outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a sharply-worded statement. He challenged Republicans, who will assume Senate control next year, to hold hearings "on this dramatic and mistaken change of policy."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), incoming chairman of the panel, said he "will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."

Three lawmakers — Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — returned to the Washington area Wednesday morning on a flight with Gross and his wife, Judy. In a statement, Leahy lauded Gross's release and said Obama "wisely charted a new course" on Cuba "that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world."

Leahy was referring to Obama's decision to have the United States reopen its embassy in Havana and ease restrictions on travel and commerce with Cuba.

Even as some lawmakers lauded Gross's release, they expressed deep skepticism about the president's decision to remove long-standing barriers against Cuba.

"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Obama's announcement "another concession to tyranny" by his administration.

Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he supports Rubio's views.

"I think he knows more about this than almost anybody in the Senate, if not everybody in the Senate, and I wouldn't differ with his characterization," he said in a previously scheduled interview with The Associated Press.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) released a statement saying the Obama administration's agreement did "nothing to resolve the underlying problem. Indeed, it has made it worse."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took to Twitter after Obama's remarks to say he will "do all in my power" to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. "Normalizing relations with Cuba is  bad idea at a bad time."

Republican House members representing Miami-area districts railed against Obama's decision.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) issued a statement calling Obama's decision an "outrage." Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) released called the president's move "misguided."

Flake, who was involved deeply in Gross's return, emerged as the highest-profile GOP lawmaker to support the president in this instance.

"I just want to say to those who say that this is a concession to the Cuban regime, these moves that are being made today, I think that that is the wrong way to look at this," he told reporters.

The long-standing U.S.-Cuba restrictions had "done more, in my view, in many’s view, to keep the Castro regimes in power than anything we could have done. So I am just pleased that these actions have been taken," he added.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), meanwhile, questioned why any restrictions would remain on travel to Cuba for Americans.

“I think there is an issue of freedom,” Chaffetz, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

"It’s amazing to me, post-Cold War, that the United States of America will not allow me to travel to Cuba," he added. "I think we should allow all Americans to make those choices. You can travel to North Korea, you can travel to some pretty awful places, Americans should be able to make those decisions all by themselves."

Chaffetz said he not yet examined the president’s entire plan but that he wanted to know more about the prisoner swap: “Any time there is a prisoner swap, I have major questions; this president has a horrendous track record on that.”

The delegation of lawmakers traveling with Gross was greeted in Washington upon landing by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Flake tweeted a picture Wednesday morning:

An aide to Durbin tweeted this photograph:

Levin said in a statement that seeing Gross walk off that plane with his wife "was a sight I'll never forget. His unjust imprisonment and his family’s nightmare are finally over."

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who put forward a 2012 resolution calling for Gross's release, also praised the move. "Today, news of Alan’s release brings great relief to his loved ones and to every American who has called for his freedom. I admire Alan’s strength and that of his wife Judy, who has worked tirelessly for years to free Alan and reunite her family."

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, said that he learned recently that the Obama administration and the Vatican have been working together for more than a year to secure Gross's release from Cuba.

“I’ve spoken to this president many times over the years and I know that it was his goal to change our relationship with Cuba," Durbin said in an interview. "I also knew that the administration was quietly behind the scenes doing a lot to free Alan Gross."

The White House also informed Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and others of the release Tuesday night, but it was not immediately clear whether top Republican leaders had also been informed.

Other lawmakers closely tracking U.S.-Cuba policy said they were given just a 30-minute advance warning that a "major announcement" regarding Cuba policy was imminent.

Aaron Davis contributed to this post.