Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami), who sponsored the amendment together with three Cuban-American representatives, was able to insert it into the budget bill in June and keep it there until hours before a government shutdown deadline, with the backing of the Republican House majority.
Even the rider's opponents admitted it was a major tactical achievement to turn Cuba travel into a make-or-break political issue.
"DC wouldn't be what it is without power struggles, complicated and indiscernible Hill jargon and impending government shutdowns. But what we have never witnessed before in the nation's capital is a hold placed on the funding of the entire U.S. government over the right for Cuban-American families to travel and see their relatives in Cuba," the Latin American Working Group said in a message to supporters.
However, the backlash proved insurmountable. Opponents that took action included President Barack Obama, a Tampa Congresswoman, the Senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, a Miami business group, the Cuban American National Foundation, Human Rights Watch, charter companies, dissidents in Cuba, and liberal foreign-policy advocacy groups in Washington.
Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, who insisted on stripping the Cuba language, said the Cuba rider was "the last sticking point" in the bipartisan haggling over the budget bill, according to the New York Times. On Thursday night, the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), agreed to reopen the nine-bill spending package and take out the Cuba language. Rogers' concession, according to the National Journal, was meant to address President Obama's concerns over a roll-back of family travel to Cuba, and to win the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Rogers, according to Republican sources quoted by the National Journal, was reluctant to cut the Cuba language. In return, according to the Miami Herald, he was able to eliminate a bill sponsored by Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) that would have ended a rule forcing Cuba to pay cash in advance for food purchases in the United States.
"We held firm and fast and solidly on this issue," said Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the backers of the rider, according to The Hill. "But when the president of the United States says that he's going to veto a bill based on this provision, it makes it very hard for us to insist."
Not surprisingly, normalization advocates were grateful to Obama.
"President Obama has placed all of his power behind supporting Cuban-American families," the Latin American Working Group said in its message. "The President deserves our kudos and gratitude. It was a courageous stand."
In a sign that economic interests are softening the Florida delegation's once-unanimous hardline stance on Cuba, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) sent a letter to the members of a House-Senate conference committee, urging them to eliminate the rider.
"In addition to limiting access to families, this proposed language would impact the local economy in Florida and impede on current prospects for business investments," Castor wrote. More than 43,000 passengers are expected to use Tampa-Cuba flights in 2012.
Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami), another backer of the rider, voted against the budget bill and introduced separate legislation to restrict family travel.