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Ban on Travel to Cuba May Survive

Republican leaders hope to strip language easing restrictions from a bill to avoid Bush's first veto.

October 25, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Determined to avoid a showdown with President Bush that might prompt his first veto, Republican congressional leaders will try to drop an amendment loosening restrictions on travel to Cuba from the final version of a government spending bill, senior GOP officials said Friday.

Republicans signaled their intentions the day after the Senate voted to ease the restrictions. The House had earlier passed an identical provision. The White House has threatened a veto of any measure that includes an easing of travel restrictions.

Growing bipartisan sentiment in Congress against long-standing U.S. limits on commerce with Cuba has produced several votes in recent years against Bush's oft-stated, hard-line policy toward Fidel Castro's dictatorship. But legislation opposed to the administration position has never reached the president's desk.

Advocates of open commerce with Cuba, including influential farm-state senators, argue that a policy of engagement will hasten the development of democracy on the island and benefit U.S. tourism and agriculture. Opponents, led by Bush, say that such a shift would only reward a repressive communist regime sharply condemned this year for cracking down on dissidents.

The latest congressional rebellion on Cuba came Thursday, when the Senate, following the House, approved on a voice vote a measure that would end enforcement of a ban on tourist travel to the Caribbean island. Only journalists, academics, researchers, missionaries, Cuban Americans and certain other tightly defined groups can go there legally now, though many other Americans travel there through another country, such as Mexico. Enforcement of the restrictions is spotty.

The Senate's 59-36 vote followed an initial vote by the same margin against tabling, or killing, the amendment. In September, the House voted, 227 to 188, for the amendment. Each time, a sizable bloc of Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the amendment, which was attached to a bill funding the Treasury Department and other government agencies.

Nonetheless, congressional Republican leaders often are able to strip controversial language from bills during House-Senate conferences. That is likely to occur on the Cuba issue this time.

"We're going to try to pull it out," a House Republican leadership aide said. "Our general strategy has been to not have the president veto one of our bills. I don't think we want to embarrass him."

A Senate Republican leadership aide agreed. "Nobody wants a veto," this aide said. However, in a sign of the bipartisan backing for the measure, neither aide would flatly predict that the effort to shield Bush from a potential veto fight would succeed.

Before the Senate vote, the White House issued a warning against interference with its Cuba policy. "The function of the travel sanctions is to prevent unlicensed tourism to Cuba that provides economic resources to the Castro regime while doing nothing to help the Cuban people," the statement said. If the final version of the bill were to include an amendment to block the travel sanctions, the statement said, "the president's senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."

Nearly three years into his presidency, Bush has yet to put his veto pen to paper, though he and his aides have often brandished it as a threat. The lack of any recorded vetoes reflects the president's occasional willingness to sign bills he dislikes and, more often, his success at bending Congress to his will.

But one critic of the current Cuba policy said Congress should call Bush's bluff. "They threaten vetoes on a lot of things," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "But I'm not convinced they would proceed to issue a veto on an appropriations bill on something that was supported by both the House and the Senate."

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