U.S.-Cuba Relations

Lawmakers Slam Obama Over Cuba Relations

Obama Announces Release of American Prisoners From Cuba 1:54

The release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison as part of a larger agreement to move toward more normalized relations with the island nation is another dramatic foreign policy decision by President Barack Obama that has stirred controversy as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing outrage.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat and usual Obama ally, issued a scathing response to the prisoner swap that led to the release of Gross, a government contractor who has been held in a Cuban prison since 2009.

"President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government," Menendez wrote Wednesday. "Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips."

It's noteworthy, however, that support of President Obama's announcement is also bipartisan. But the critics are vocal.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, who like Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants, also slammed the president's action to open diplomatic relations, calling it "disgraceful."

"The White House has conceded everything," Rubio said at a news conference just moments after the president spoke, calling Obama the "worst negotiator" who has ever taken occupancy at the White House.

Rubio said the U.S. policy change has resulted in no commitment from Cuba to ensure freedom of the press, speech and elections.

While Congress is responsible for lifting the trade embargo, which Obama can't do unilaterally, Rubio promised to use his power as incoming chair of a Foreign Relations subcommittee next year to pressure the administration on Cuba policy. He said he is likely to be very skeptical in his role to oversee the administration's efforts to confirm diplomats to Cuba and an embassy there.

Rubio on Gross Release: 'The White House has Conceded Everything' 1:47

House Speaker John Boehner also slammed the new policy. "Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom - and not one second sooner. There is no 'new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."

Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, also denounced the policy change with Cuba. "It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world," the duo wrote in a statement.

Sen. Ted Cruz, another potential 2016 contender and whose parents are Cuban immigrants, said the agreement with Cuban leader Raul Castro has made the situation "worse."

"Fidel and Raul Castro have just received both international legitimacy and a badly-needed economic lifeline from President Obama. But they remain in control of a totalitarian police state modeled on their old state sponsor, the Soviet Union," Cruz said in a statement.

While not a lawmaker, another potential presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was asked about the news Wednesday morning after attending a charity event. He said he was "delighted" with Gross' release, but added that restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba is a "misstep" that "undermines America's credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba."

Obama offered details of the agreement during a midday news conference that re-establishes diplomatic relations for the first time since 1959. He called it "the most significant changes in 50 years."

"People are not well-served by something that took place before most of us were born," Obama said of the agreement to ease travel and trade restrictions and restore diplomatic ties with the nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Not all members of Congress are opposed to Obama's action. Retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D- MI, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he will "never forget" watching Gross walk off the plane with this wife.

"Alan's return home also sends a message to Americans held around the world that our nation will not rest until they come home. I support the president's courageous decision."

And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, one of the longest serving members of the Senate who has visited Gross in prison twice and flew on the military transport with Gross from Cuba to the U.S., also praised the president for doing "the right thing."

"Today President Obama and President Raul Castro made history. After 64 years of animosity rooted in the Cold War, they have finally put our two countries on a new path. I congratulate them both," Leahy said in a statement.

Senator Jeff Flake, R-AZ, who also flew with Gross from Cuba, also expressed his support of normalized relations. "The policy that we have in place has done more to keep the Castro regime in power than anything we could have done," Flake said.

NBC's Frank Thorpe V contributed to this report.