Republican lawmakers from farm states say they have the votes in place to pass a bill permitting the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, marking the first legislative weakening of the embargo in 40 years.
But critics of the Cuban regime, who have a perfect record of stopping such legislation, say the bill is a long way from passage when it comes to a vote in both houses within the next two weeks.
“There are a variety of ways that can lead to the slaying of this bill,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, an opponent of any softening of the sanctions on Cuban President Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
Introduced by Rep. George Nethercutt, Washington Republican, whose district includes a number of wheat growers, the anti-sanctions legislation would make it legal to sell food and medicine to nations facing U.S. economic sanctions, including Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq.
The House bill, which is part of the Agriculture Department appropriations bill, also would make the introduction of future economic sanctions subject to congressional approval.
“I believe we have the votes to sustain our position,” Mr. Nethercutt said Thursday.
The Senate’s Agriculture appropriations bill contains a similar rider, sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft, Missouri Republican.
Both bills have been passed by their respective appropriations committees. The Senate’s version could come to the floor this week. The House version is not scheduled to come to the floor until later this month.
Mr. Menendez, who opposes any softening of the embargo on Cuba until its communist government begins democratic reform, said some Democrats, who might normally support the softening of the embargo, are lining up against the bill because the “language is too broad.”
For example, he said, it might allow terrorist nations to purchase fertilizers that could be used in bomb making. He said others are cautious of abrogating the president’s ability to impose sanctions without congressional consent.
“It strips this administration and future administrations of one of the few tools available for peaceful diplomacy,” he said.
Mr. Menendez would not name Democrats opposed to the bill, but others said Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut were concerned about aspects of the bill.
A White House official said President Clinton was “vehemently opposed” to provisions that would remove the authority to impose sanctions from the administration. But he did not say whether the president would use his veto.
The biggest threat to the bill may come from its timing.
Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert met Wednesday with House Republicans to map out a strategy to pass 13 appropriations bills before the fall elections. If the bills come to the floor with too many “riders” that have little to do with funding, they could be stalled by partisan bickering.
“[Mr. Hastert] does not want any riders on any appropriations bills,” said John Feehery, Mr. Hastert’s spokesman.
Even supporters admit the bill is “mostly symbolic” because it prohibits Cuba and the other nations from using credit for purchases, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which represents U.S. companies.
But Mr. Nethercutt said Cuba spends between $780 million and $1 billion a year on food. “We’d like to get some of that,” he said.
A total of 39 groups are backing the bill, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Farmers Union and the National Food Processors Association. Corporate supporters include Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., ConAgra Inc., and Land O’ Lakes Inc.
“They see Cuba as the weak link. But Cuba has no money. What they really want is Iran and Libya, which have oil reserves,” said Mr. Menendez.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.