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For First Time in 40 Years, U.S. May Allow Sale of Food to Cuba

By Eric Pianin and Dan Morgan

House and Senate negotiators neared agreement Thursday night on a plan to allow the sale of food to Cuba for the first time in nearly four decades, a move that would clear the way for a substantial easing of sanctions against communist leader Fidel Castro’s regime.

The agreement would end the unilateral trade embargo against Cuba and four other countries blacklisted by the State Department: Iran, Sudan, Libya and North Korea. Farmers would be allowed to begin selling grain and rice to these countries, although in the case of Cuba they would not be able to use U.S. banks to finance the deals.

The Cuba deal was one of the last remaining items as negotiators worked through an $80 billion agriculture spending bill for the coming year. They were also putting the final touches on a GOP-crafted drug reimportation measure designed to increase American consumers’ access to lower cost drugs marketed overseas.

Republicans are pushing the plan to counter Democratic criticism that Congress will not approve a new prescription drug benefit for seniors this year. However the White House and Democratic lawmakers complained that the provision was riddled with loopholes that would undermine the effectiveness of the legislation.

“It’s so loophole laden, drug companies will laugh all the way to the bank,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).

The agriculture spending bill still must receive final approval in the House and Senate, and critics vowed to oppose it. But the underlying measure is so packed with election-year spending for farmers that it will be hard for members to turn it down. Senate Majorty Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the bill contained enough pork-barrel spending “to gag a horse.”

Meanwhile, Congress completed work on an interior spending bill containing a dramatic expansion of federal land conservation efforts. Two days after the House approved it, the Senate voted 83 to 13 for an $18.8 billion measure financing the Interior Department -- including a six-year program for purchasing fragile lands, maintaining parks, preserving wildlife and other initiatives.

But environmentalists were rebuffed on other fronts. Negotiators reached agreement on a nearly $109 billion bill for housing, veterans and environmental programs, including a measure that would slow Environmental Protection Agency plans to move against urban air pollution.

The high-stakes, politically charged negotiations over the Cuba legislation has spanned the better part of a year and pitted farmers, grain merchants and humanitarian groups demanding an end to the sanctions against lawmakers representing the anti-Castro Cuban-American community in Florida, a key presidential battleground.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) Lott and other prominent critics of Castro’s policies sided with the Cuban-American lawmakers and repeatedly sought to derail efforts to lift the sanctions. But with a clear majority of lawmakers arguing the sanctions have been ineffective in promoting social change in Cuba while denying farmers access to a potentially lucrative foreign market, the leadership had no choice but to try to forge a compromise.

Moreover, the leadership had to do something to help GOP lawmakers from farm states who are locked in tough re-election battles.