Senate Battle Over Cuba Provisions Heating Up

WASHINGTON — Senators sympathetic to Florida Republican Mel Martinez’ hard-line positions on Cuba signaled Monday they will join him in trying to block efforts to let Cuban-Americans visit relatives on the island more frequently and ease some trade restrictions with Cuba. 

But it remained uncertain today whether the group will have the numbers to succeed in stripping those provisions from a $410 billion spending bill, or otherwise block the measure from a vote. 

The measure is to be taken up by the Senate this week.

“Is that the sort of thing we want included in this appropriations bill? I think not,” said Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, referring Monday to the Cuba provisions while speaking on the Senate floor. 

“Sinful! Not democratic!” added Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, of what he described as efforts to “sneak” these “changes in policy” toward Cuba without open and vigorous Senate debate. 

Menendez, like Martinez, is Cuban-American. 

The Democratic-controlled Senate is set to act on the omnibus bill that combines nine 2009 appropriations bills into one by Friday, and then send it to President Barack Obama to be signed into law. 

The bill’s language would not outright end the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo with Cuba. But as approved last week by the U.S. House, there is wording tucked into the bill to: 

— allow family members to visit their relatives in Cuba once a year, rather than once every three years; 

— reverse regulations on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba; 

— and eliminate the practice of requiring Cubans to pay for American produce up front before it leaves U.S. ports, and instead let them pay when the products arrive in Havana. 

Martinez, the nation’s first Cuban American senator and a foe of easing sanctions against the island country, promised last week that he will work to block the Cuba provisions as the Senate considers the bill. 

“I am very concerned about any efforts to modify our policies toward the Cuban government so long as the authoritarian regime continues to deny basic human rights to its people,” said Martinez. 

And speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Kyl indicated that Republican Senate leaders will back Martinez’ efforts. 

This is the kind of “serious policy” issue that requires debate in Congress, not inclusion in an appropriations bill, said Kyl. 

Democrat Menendez then took to the Senate floor to register his own opposition to the Cuba provisions. 

Menendez started by ticking off human rights violations and unjust imprisonments he says continue to occur in Cuba under the leadership of Raul Castro, who has taken over the government from his ailing brother, Fidel. 

“Three important foreign policy changes with respect to Cuba have not been subject to debate in this body,” Menendez said, adding that “vigorous” and thoughtful debate is called for. 
“A full and open discussion of the real situation in Cuba is timely,” suggested Menendez. 

“But this isn’t what’s taken place,” he said. “Instead, this body is being asked to swallow these changes in the crudest way I can imagine. 

It is likely that Obama would sign the bill. 

Obama has said that he favors easing some limits on family travel and other restrictive policies toward the island country, although he believes the trade embargo should stay in place as leverage for democratic reforms. 

Later Monday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada noted on the Senate floor that he has “locked arms” in the past with Menendez on various Cuba-related issues. But Reid stopped short of saying he will work to strip the Cuba provisions out of the spending bill as the Senate proceeds on it this week. 

Florida’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, meantime, “supports President Obama’s efforts to allow increased family travel and remittances to Cuba,” according to a statement from Nelson’s office. 

Before Nelson could support any further changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba, however, the statement said Nelson believes “the regime there must release political prisoners, afford basic human rights to the Cuban people and allow democratic elections.”

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