Christopher Marquis | New York Times
Washington—President Bush’s allies in Congress quietly eliminated a widely supported provision easing restrictions on American travel to Cuba from a major appropriations bill to save him from embarrassment over his political designs in Florida, officials from both parties said on Wednesday evening.
Leaders of a House-Senate conference committee removed the provision on Wednesday before the bill reached the president, who had threatened to veto any legislation that lifted sanctions against Cuba, the officials said.
“You’re not going to put a bill on the floor that potentially embarrasses the president,” said a senior Republican staff member. Referring to the Cuba provision’s bipartisan supporters, he added: “I’m sure there will be some gnashing of teeth.”
The provision, which would bar Treasury Department authorities from enforcing a ban on travel to the island, was approved by the House in September, 227-188, and by the Senate last month, 59-38. Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-5 to scrap the ban outright.
Since the language of the Cuban travel provision approved by the House and Senate was identical, it would not ordinarily have been subject to action by the conference committee, which sought to reconcile differences in bills that finance the Treasury and Transportation departments, advocates say. But GOP committee leaders were determined to remove the Cuba measure, aides said.
The legislation might have drawn Bush’s first veto, and risked derailing important appropriations for highway construction, Amtrak and other programs.
Some congressional officials said they were appalled that the will of Congress could be thwarted in the back-room negotiations that drive conference committees. Republican leaders have removed Cuba-related language at the same juncture in previous years, though never against such an overwhelming mandate from their colleagues.
“The fact that it could be undermined is mind-blowing,” said Steven Schwadron, the chief of staff of Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. “It suggests that a handful of people can vaporize the will of the majority.”
Some conservatives were troubled as well. Steven Johnson, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the administration was missing an opportunity to fine-tune tough sanctions that have failed to bring change in Cuba.
“The administration takes a hard line meant to please a certain crowd in Miami,” he said.
The president’s political strategists attach huge importance to Florida, which was crucial to Bush’s narrow victory over Al Gore in 2000. About 80 percent of the state’s 833,000 Cuban Americans voted for Bush.
HAVANA JOURNAL PUBLISHER COMMENTS: We don’t take political sides here at the Journal but we must make a statement saying that we are disappointed with this outcome. This Cuba language was added by a majority vote in the House AND Senate without changes. It was killed by an UNDEMOCRATIC process and we hope that the main stream media recognizes this.