- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Senate defied a presidential veto threat in voting yesterday to end the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba.

“Today’s vote sends a very strong message that we are on the way to winning this issue,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, who sponsored the amendment to the Transportation and Treasury spending bill.

The Cuba amendment passed after senators ended up one vote shy, 59-36, of blocking it. Nineteen Republicans and the chamber’s lone independent joined most Democrats in supporting ending the ban, while six Democrats joined the rest of the Republicans in voting to maintain the ban.

Right now, U.S. citizens are banned from spending more than $300 during visits to Cuba unless they receive a special waiver from the Treasury Department. Earlier this month, the president told a group of Cuban exiles, a politically potent group of voters in Florida that strongly supports the ban, he would tighten enforcement of it.

The amendment that passed yesterday prohibits the Office of Foreign Assets Control from enforcing travel restrictions. Coupled with a House vote last month to lift the ban, both chambers are now on record opposing the president.

Usually, that would make the provision a sure bet to pass when House and Senate negotiators hammer out a final bill, but with the appropriations process stumbling this year the provision could still be dropped. That’s what happened last year, when the House passed an end to the ban but the provision didn’t make it through consolidation into an omnibus spending bill.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and sponsor of the House amendment, which passed 227-188 in September, said sanctions just haven’t worked.

“Right now, [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro has nearly absolute control of the information and ideas that Cubans are exposed to. By letting Americans travel to Cuba, where they’ll be interacting with ordinary Cubans, Castro loses that control,” Mr. Flake said.

But opponents said Cuba’s recent crackdown on human rights activists in Cuba should not be rewarded with weakened sanctions.

“It’s unconscionable that, after the recent crackdown and arrests by Castro of nearly 80 dissident human rights activists and opposition leaders, that this comes up now at this time to sort of reward him for that activity,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

After the vote Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a Cuban American, said it was “a blow against the U.S.-led war on international terrorism.”

“The Senate voted to provide the Castro regime with a very similar amount of financial assistance to what the former Soviet Union used to provide Castro and his international terrorist apparatus,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said.

Yesterday, the administration repeated its threat to veto the final House-Senate bill if it contained the Cuba language, but Mr. Dorgan said the threat rang hollow.

“You can see how much heed the Senate paid to that [threat] this morning,” Mr. Dorgan said, adding he doesn’t believe Mr. Bush, who hasn’t yet used his veto, will make the Cuba language cause for his first veto.

Last evening, the $90 billion bill passed 91-3, with three Republicans voting against it.

As part of the same bill, the Senate upheld the president’s policy by voting to maintain his competitive-sourcing initiative. An amendment by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, to end the program of contracting government tasks to private companies failed 47-48, but only because three Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts were absent.

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