WASHINGTON - Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg has changed his position on the United States' long-standing Cuba embargo in recent years, moving away from enthusiastic anti-embargo politics to supporting current restrictions on the country.
When Rehberg, a Republican, was first elected to Congress in 2000, he spoke often about his opposition to the embargo, in line with many Montana farmers and ranchers who favor opening up the nearby market. He voted consistently for amendments to spending bills that would have loosened the embargo, including economic and travel sanctions.
Yet in September 2004, Rehberg joined embargo supporters to oppose an amendment that would have lifted all existing economic embargoes on Cuba. Several months later, Rehberg's campaign received $1,000 from a pro-embargo group, the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. Since then, the group has given him $10,500.
In a recent interview, Rehberg insisted the money and the votes were unrelated. He said he changed his vote after two 2003 trips to Cuba, where he met with families of imprisoned dissidents and realized the issue was more complicated than it appeared in quick debates on the floor of the U.S. House.
Rehberg, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, also said he has become "more sensitive" to the difficulties of trying to create policy in wide-ranging spending bills, which have drawn many Cuba-related amendments.
"I have not changed my position on my desire for Montana or other states' ability to have agricultural trade," Rehberg told The Associated Press. "The longer I am here, the less I like attempts on the part of members of Congress to affect policy change through appropriations amendments."
The pattern of Rehberg's votes on Cuba, recently discovered by the Montana Democratic Party and pointed out to The Associated Press, shows a more complicated picture.
Rehberg visited Cuba twice in 2003. During the second trip, in September of that year, Rehberg led a delegation of Montanans with agricultural ties. Upon his return, Rehberg's office said the trip had produced an agreement for the sale of $10 million in Montana agricultural products.
At the time, Rehberg praised the agreement and a recent House vote to loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba.
"If we are going to help the Cuban people break free of the shackles of communism, then we must permit a flow of people, commerce and ideas," Rehberg said in October 2003.
For almost a year after that, Rehberg continued to vote as he had previously - to loosen the embargo. On July 7, 2004, Rehberg voted for an amendment that would have softened new restrictions on the shipment of gift parcels to Cuba. He also voted with embargo opponents on Sept. 21, 2004, for an amendment that would have made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit family in the country.
But the next day, his vote abruptly shifted.
On Sept. 22, 2004, Rehberg voted the opposite way and opposed the amendment that would have lifted economic embargoes on Cuba.
Recently questioned about the shift, Rehberg said his September 2003 trip had influenced him, despite the anti-embargo votes made in June 2004. He maintained he is still committed to opening up agricultural trade but has voted against broader amendments.
"Having traveled with a group down there, my position is starting to coalesce around 'OK, it's much more complicated than open or not open,'" Rehberg said. "Let's have an open discussion in the authorizing committees to find a way to best solve the human rights issues."
Beginning in March 2005, about six months after Rehberg's votes shifted, he began receiving donations from the pro-embargo U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. Those donations have continued since then, with the most recent on July 16, 2007, when the committee gave Rehberg $5,000.
Eleven days later, Rehberg voted against an amendment to the farm bill - which is not considered a spending bill - that would have made it easier to sell agricultural crops to Cuba.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Washington, D.C., director of the political action committee, said he talked to Rehberg when the congressman returned from his 2003 trip but doesn't remember when and didn't elaborate on the conversation.
"It's not unprecedented," Claver-Carone said of Rehberg's shift. "A lot of folks, when they travel there and see the reality of the island … they get to meet real people and see the reality of Cuba."
The Cuba PAC has given to a broad spectrum of members of Congress, including many Democrats. They donated a total of $514,500 to candidates and other political committees in 2007.
The Montana Democratic Party has attempted to use the votes to portray Rehberg as out of touch with the state.
"Ask any farmer or rancher and they'll tell you, the livelihood of Montana producers relies on opening foreign markets for their goods," said Dennis McDonald, chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a rancher.
Dave McClure, the president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says his group is aware of the votes and has discussed them with Rehberg. The group has long supported loosening restrictions on Cuba.
"All of our representatives know our positions so we continually visit with them," McClure said. "We tell them what we think and try to influence their vote."
He conceded they can't win every time.
"We never have any representative or senator who is 100 percent with us," he said.