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Posted October 15, 2003 by I-rob in US Embargo

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By Bob Cusack | TheHill.com

For the first time, the Senate appears ready to pass legislation that would lift the 41-year-old travel ban to Cuba, despite strong opposition from the White House.

The move will raise the stakes in the debate about U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Over the objections of its leaders, the House last month passed an amendment to a Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill that seeks to lift the travel ban. It was the fourth time the House passed such legislation, but support for the bill had eroded in the wake of Cuba’s crackdown on human rights activists earlier this year.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) will offer his Cuba travel amendment to the Senate’s version of the Transportation-Treasury spending bill when it reaches the floor in the next several weeks, according to congressional aides.
 
Patrick G. Ryan
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) says the Senate leadership wants controversial amendments to be offered from the floor, not in committee.

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The White House has vowed to veto any bill that relaxes U.S. travel restrictions on Cuba. Last week, President Bush held a Rose Garden ceremony announcing enhanced enforcement of travel restrictions to Cuba. Bush said, “Illegal tourism perpetuates the misery of the Cuban people.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is also opposed to relaxing the the ban on travel to Cuba.

In a Sept. 9 floor speech in which he called Fidel Castro a thief, murderer and tyrant, DeLay said, “There is no such thing as a Cuban tourism industry.’ Proponents of this amendment would have us believe that vacationers in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, sipping mojitos at Cuban beach resorts, will somehow improve human rights conditions there.”

Even if the Senate passes Dorgan’s bill, aides say that there is no way DeLay will allow the Cuba travel provision to be sent to the president.

Proponents of lifting the travel ban, including Senate Finance Committee ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.), are expected to argue that identical language passed by both chambers cannot be stripped in conference.

Although that is technically true, observers note Congress has broken the rule many times.

Baucus and other members representing rural areas have said that opening Cuba to trade and travel would boost the agribusiness industry and create jobs.

House and Senate aides say that Dorgan’s amendment is likely to pass. Although some express concern that the amendment may have to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, congressional staffers say that Senate GOP leaders will not attempt to block the bill.

In the spring, 10 senators including Dorgan formed a bipartisan Cuba working group that seeks to change U.S. policies toward the communist regime. In a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the working group said, “The sanction policy of the United States has been ineffective since it was adopted in 1962. Other nations trade with Cuba, and their producers benefit from that trade. The U.S. policy places our farmers, workers and companies at an international competitive disadvantage. By some estimates, the United States loses out on an export market of nearly $1 billion a year.”

This summer, a coalition of travel firms joined forces to lobby for lifting travel restrictions to Cuba. The Association of Travel-Related Industry Professionals is represented by Patton Boggs.

Trade experts tracking this issue were somewhat surprised when Dorgan did not offer his Cuba travel ban bill in committee. But a Dorgan aide said the leadership wanted controversial bills to be offered on the floor.

Bush has vowed to veto several appropriations bills on a variety of other issues, ranging from changes in overtime pay to media ownership regulations. However, staffers note that Bush has not used his veto power and say that until he does, the White House veto threats will not resonate fully on the Hill.

In a related issue, the Senate may also vote on an amendment that would block the Treasury Department from enforcing its new ban on “people to people” exchanges with Cuba. Last month, the House passed an amendment to the Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill offered by Rep. Jim Davis (D-Fla.) that would prohibit the administration from using federal funds to enforce its people-to-people policy.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, Davis’s press secretary. said the lawmaker has urged several senators to sponsor companion legislation but has not yet gotten any firm commitments.

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