WASHINGTON – The 1,128-page budget bill that will begin to work its way through Congress this week contains key paragraphs that alter the shape of U.S.-Cuba policy and ease Cuba family travel restrictions by not funding enforcement.
The provisions were written when the bill was first drafted last year – and faced the threat of a veto by former President George W. Bush. But the new White House resident, President Barack Obama, campaigned promising to lift the family restrictions, so the proposed changes are unlikely to meet much resistance by the administration, which is conducting its own review of Cuba policy.
The bill, which is expected to be voted on by the House today, already has some lawmakers balking.
The budget bill would:
•Prevent the U.S. government from spending any of its budget enforcing 2004 rules that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years.
•Create a general travel license for Americans who sell food and medical supplies to Cuba.
•Let Cuba pay for the American produce it buys in cash when the products arrive in Havana. Current law forces Cuba to pay upfront before products leave U.S. ports.
•Require the U.S. Treasury Department to issue a report showing how much of its staff and funding is spent on enforcing the ban on travel to Cuba.
Amendments were added by Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. That means he controls the Treasury Department’s purse strings – and it’s the Treasury that investigates people who violate the Cuba travel ban.
“I have been working on this issue for a very, very, very long time,” Serrano said.
“Now I am chairman of a committee that appropriates those dollars, and I can do something about it.”
But his measures are bound to meet stiff opposition.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who backs the current restrictions, said she believes the travel measure wouldn’t pass on its own, because most Republicans and about 80 Democrats are opposed.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., has informed Senate leadership that he will oppose any legislation that would change U.S.-Cuba policy – a move that could make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the legislation to clear the Senate.
“Modifying our nation’s policies at this point would be counterproductive and reward a repressive, authoritarian regime that has shown little concern for the security or well-being of its citizens,” Martinez said.
If Obama does not make his own policy change, most of the new measures expire Sept. 30.
The restrictions were imposed in 2004 by Bush, who created a rule that tightened Cuban-American visits to see immediate relatives every three years for two weeks. If that goes unenforced, then Cubans living here would be allowed to visit a wider array of relatives once a year, and they could spend up to $179 a day on the island.
“The American people do not see Cuba as a threat,” Serrano said, “and they can’t figure out why we do not deal with them.”
Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida said he had enough votes to oppose the measures, but House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not allow votes on specific amendments.
“That’s blatantly undemocratic,” he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said she was disappointed that the regulations would be relaxed without a concession from the Castro government. She was particularly disappointed that House budget writers didn’t include any money in the House bill for dissidents in Cuba, she said.
“Not to get any concessions from the Castro regime,” she said, “the Castro brothers will be very happy.”