- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

House approval of permanent trade relations with China is just one more complication for another thorny trade question that Congress has postponed until after its Memorial Day recess exports to Cuba.

Politicians from agricultural districts have been gaining votes in their battle against anti-communist factions in their effort to lift the 40-year ban on sales of food and medicine to Cuba. The House will debate the issue as part of the agriculture appropriations bill after it returns June 6.

Some observers say it will be more difficult for Republican leaders to argue against lifting the Cuba sanctions when the same lawmakers worked hard to assure normalized trade with China, also a communist nation. That happened last Wednesday.

Alex Jackson, director of governmental affairs for trade at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the China vote will influence lawmakers on Cuba "particularly because of the margin of victory." Although the vote was expected to be very close, supporters of extended trade with China ended up winning with 19 votes to spare, a relatively comfortable victory.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, an outspoken critic of the communist regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has been trying to block an amendment by Rep. George Nethercutt, Washington Republican, that would lift the Cuba sanctions.

Mr. Nethercutt, who represents a district plentiful with apple growers, attached the provision to the agricultural-spending bill this year after failing in his effort last year. The House Appropriations Committee this spring approved the measure, which would also allow food sales to Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Libya.

But the House Rules Committee, which sets guidelines for floor debate on all legislation, bowed to leadership pressure and approved a rule to allow the sanctions provision to be stripped from the bill on the House floor without a vote.

Tom McArthur, a spokesman for Mr. Nethercutt, said Friday the Cuba amendment is still attached to the agricultural bill, but said the Rules Committee may need to revisit the issue when Congress returns.

An aide to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a hard-line Castro foe, said Republican leaders have given their assurances that the Cuba sanctions will not be lifted.

"We feel we have an ironclad commitment on that," said Stephen Vermillion, administrative assistant to Mr. Diaz-Balart. "We're confident we have the votes. My boss still thinks it's wrong to trade with dictatorships."

Anti-Castro forces have gained an ally in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which recently told the House International Relations Committee that it opposes lifting the sanctions against Iran.

"Such changes would be particularly untimely coming the very month that the government of Iran is engaged in a major show trial of 13 Iranian Jews," AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr wrote in a letter to Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and committee chairman.

"Any action taken to help Iran at this time would send exactly the wrong message to the Iranian regime, particularly coming on the heels of the outrageous decision … by the World Bank to proceed with new loans to Iran," Mr. Kohr wrote. "Now is the wrong time to be seen as helping Iran."

U.S. farm and business groups eye Cuba as a huge market. They say trade with Cuba would promote democratic reforms, much as proponents of normalized trade with China argued last week.

Cuba buys about $700 million worth of food annually. The Commerce Department said in a recent report that from 1994 to 1999, it approved 665 export licenses to Cuba that resulted in a total of $13.6 billion worth of food, medicine and other items being shipped to Cuba from the United States.

The Senate voted 70-28 for the Cuba exemption last year, but House Republican leaders killed the measure in conference committee.

An aide to Mr. Nethercutt said House leaders pulled the agricultural-appropriations bill from a floor vote on Thursday because they feared supporters of trade with Cuba would win. But Mr. Vermillion said the spending bill bogged down over how to pay for another amendment offered by Mr. Nethercutt, this one providing $100 million in aid for apple growers.

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