WASHINGTON – Sen. Amy Klobuchar said on Thursday she is leading a band of senators to lift the Cuban trade embargo — legislation that would eliminate all existing legal barriers for Americans to do business in Cuba.

The proposal builds on a growing set of measures emerging from both chambers since President Obama in December took executive action to open up business, trade and travel relationships with the island 90 miles south of Florida.

"There's been a sea change in terms of how people are thinking about Cuba," Klobuchar said Thursday. "I think it's really important to get people from the Midwest involved. Our interests are different than some of the other people traditionally involved in this issue. … We come at it from a production perspective, from the perspective of wanting to sell things there."

Minnesota's delegation, sensing opportunities for the state's agricultural interests and a desire among city folk to travel to the island, has fingerprints all over efforts to crack open Cuba.

National polls have shown growing support for ending the embargo. Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison are pushing an effort in the House, and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum visited the country last summer and recently reintroduced legislation to end funding for American propaganda aimed at Cuban television and radio networks.

Business backs free trade

Minnesota-based Cargill is urging an end to the 54-year-old embargo, and company officials plan to fly to Havana in March to meet with Cuban government officials. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long supported an end to trade restrictions, calling Obama's move in December a way to "unleash the power of free enterprise to improve the lives of the Cuban people."

Nevertheless, the legislation faces head winds in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

If Klobuchar's bill comes up through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, higher-ups on that committee — New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — could prove serious obstacles.

Menendez's office declined to comment on Klobuchar's bill, but he has staunchly opposed previous efforts to lift the ban. Rubio said in an e-mail Thursday that it would be a "mistake to give away our leverage without any irreversible commitments being made that will allow the Cuban people to freely exercise their human rights and determine their own future through the democratic process."

The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act would repeal the 1961 trade embargo and shipping limitations between U.S. and Cuban ports, but it would not repeal human rights provisions or provisions relating to property claims against the Cuban government. The two Republicans on Klobuchar's bill, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, did not return calls for comment on why they supported it.

Obstacles expected

Klobuchar acknowledged that the Foreign Relations Committee's obstacles "are clearly something to be reckoned with … but it doesn't mean that two people can stop the whole thing." She said the legislation could come up through the Banking Committee or be passed in piecemeal fashion through other bills.

Peterson, who attempted to shepherd a House effort through the last Congress, called the odds of lifting an embargo "thin."

The next generation does want the embargo lifted, he said, "but the politics now … the older generation still carries sway in these congressional districts." Asked whether an embargo lift would improve the lives of farmers in his district, Peterson said the business effects likely would be minimal.

"It will help a little bit, the effect on the soybean prices, corn, it would be positive, but it's marginal in the whole scheme of things," he said. But, he said, the best way to get Cuba on the path to democracy and individual freedoms "is open up trade and open up travel and open up interaction to the United States."

Staff writer Jim Spencer contributed to this report.

Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120