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Posted November 13, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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ALAN FRAM | Associated Press Writer

Congressional bargainers dropped efforts to end the government’s ban on travel by most Americans to Cuba, awarding a victory to President Bush.
Though the House and Senate had each approved provisions earlier this year ending the travel restrictions, negotiators from the two Republican-led chambers omitted that language from a compromise spending bill they shook hands on late Wednesday. The Bush administration had issued repeated threats of vetoing the overall bill if it eased the travel ban to the Caribbean nation.

“There’s no alternative other than dropping the provision” from the final bill, argued Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a chief author of the final bill.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., an advocate of lifting the ban, tried persuading lawmakers to settle for a narrower provision allowing travel to the Communist-run country by farm groups promoting sales of agricultural products.

But it died when House bargainers refused by voice vote to accept it. American farmers can sell to Cuba if they are paid with cash.

The retreat on Cuba travel came as lawmakers agreed to a compromise $88.9 billion measure financing the Transportation and Treasury departments and several smaller agencies for the federal budget year that began Oct. 1.

The bill has $1.22 billion for Amtrak, close to what railroad officials say they need to keep trains running and maintenance projects on track. It also clears the way for members of Congress to receive their latest annual pay raise.

Until now, travel to Cuba has been limited to family visits and trips by educational, humanitarian, media and diplomatic groups. The government estimates about 160,000 Americans traveled legally to Cuba last year, half of them visiting relatives, but thousands of other Americans visit illegally via third countries.

Supporters of the travel ban say lifting it would only help Cuban President Fidel Castro, while opponents say it has failed to dislodge him after more than 40 years.

“There’s an absurdity to this policy. Most of us know it,” Dorgan said.

Within the GOP, the White House and other Republicans determined to woo the strongly anti-Castro Cubans living in Florida are pitted against free-trade Republicans eager to lift restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

Officials of Amtrak, the taxpayer subsidized passenger carrier, had initially said they needed $1.8 billion this year to retain existing levels of service. Bush proposed $900 million, an amount the House approved.

After the Senate voted to provide $1.35 billion, Amtrak President David Gunn wrote lawmakers that anything less would “seriously jeopardize the availability of service and continued operation of the national system.”

The final compromise underlined the clout wielded by Amtrak supporters. Though its busiest line runs from Boston and Washington, Amtrak serves 500 communities in 46 states.

Passage of the overall bill would open the door for a 2.2 percent pay raise for members of Congress in January, bringing their salaries to more than $158,000 a year.

Lawmakers get an automatic pay raise each year unless they vote to block it. Though the Treasury bill does not mention a salary increase, the measure is traditionally the battleground on that issue, and the House and Senate earlier rejected efforts to kill the raise.

The bill also:

* Includes $500 million to help states modernize their voting systems. Lawmakers said they will try to include more money in a huge spending bill Congress plans to approve before it adjourns, perhaps later this month.

* Blocks for the next year federal efforts to let companies use cash balance pension funds, which can help younger workers likely to change jobs during their careers but could cut benefits for older employees.

* Would limit the Bush administration’s ability to shift federal jobs to the private sector.

* Would let the National Archives begin talks with the private Richard Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif., to set up a formal Nixon presidential library there. Until now, Nixon’s presidential papers and tapes have been kept by the National Archives in College Park, Md.

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