- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

The House yesterday voted to allow Americans to travel to Cuba during a contentious day of debate over the fiscal 2002 budget for the Department of Treasury.

"I am elated," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, after the House voted 240 to 186 to pass his amendment.

"I am [Cuban President Fidel] Castro's biggest critic," Mr. Flake said. But "the surest way to get rid of him is to open Cuba up."

A similar measure passed the House last year, but it died in negotiations with the Senate. Mr. Flake said that changes in the Senate's political makeup since then give the proposal a better chance now.

"It represents a good compromise between those who would continue to isolate Cuba and those who would go so far as to lift the embargo completely," Mr. Flake said.

Whatever the congressional sentiment, the White House opposes the bill, which it reiterated in a statement last night after the vote.

President Bush "strongly opposes any amendment that weakens sanctions against the Castro regime."

"The benefits of free trade do not flow to people ruthlessly oppressed," added House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. "This tyrant is teetering on the abyss. Why in the world would we reach out and bring him back from the brink?"

"If we raise the restrictions on trade, Castro will benefit by $5 billion in hard currency" flowing to the government-controlled tourist industry, said Rep. Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey Democrat.

The amendment would prohibit the Department of Treasury from enforcing regulations prohibiting U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba.

U.S. citizens are prohibited from traveling to Cuba unless they have a special license from the Office of Assets Control within the Department of Treasury. Licenses are granted to academics, journalists, government officials and people on humanitarian missions.

The House rejected 227 to 201 an amendment offered by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, that would have lifted the trade and economic embargo against Cuba entirely.

The overall bill, a $32.7 billion fiscal 2002 bill to fund the Treasury Department, was approved later yesterday on a 334-94 vote, sending it on to the Senate.

The House yesterday also decided, in effect, to accept a cost-of-living adjustment to lawmakers' pay next year.

The annual pay raises are automatic, but lawmakers have acted in past years to block it with a legislative rider to the annual appropriations bills for the Treasury Department. This year, as in 2000 and 2001, congressional Republican and Democratic leaders agreed to block any such amendment.

"It's just demagoguing an issue that behind closed doors everyone wants," said one leadership aide about previous efforts to block the pay increase.

Still, the House provided political cover to those for whom accepting a pay raise, even if it is just a cost-of-living adjustment, would be problematic. That cover came in the form of a procedural motion that failed 293 to 129.

Now, unless the Senate acts to block the pay raise, it will take effect automatically on Jan. 1, 2002.

The House next rejected by voice vote a proposal that would have given the Bush administration new sweeping power to make nominations in the face of congressional objections.

Under current rules, if the Senate fails to act on a nomination, then the president may go ahead and make that appointment when the Senate is not in session. The White House had sought the right to make such a "recess appointment" even if the Senate had rejected the nomination.

The Clinton administration had sought, but failed to get, a similar rule.

The House also voted to allow Vice President Richard B. Cheney to send the Navy utility bills for his official residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. An amendment to bar the Navy from paying failed on a 285-141 vote.

"This amendment should be better known as the cheap-shot amendment. This is a shell amendment to try to demean the vice president," said the normally unflappable Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican.

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