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Senate Votes to Ease Curbs On American Travel to Cuba

By Christopher Marquis

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

In a rebuke to President Bush over Cuba policy, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to ease travel restrictions on Americans seeking to visit the island.

The 59-38 vote came two weeks after Bush, in a Rose Garden ceremony, announced that he would tighten the travel ban in an attempt to halt illegal tourism there and to bring more pressure on the regime of Fidel Castro.

The House has repeatedly approved legislation to ease the travel ban, including a vote last month approving language virtually identical to that in the Senate measure by 227-188. But on previous efforts, the House leadership has been able to use backroom maneuvers to bottle it up. Thursday was the first time the Senate has voted to loosen the ban, which is in the form of a prohibition on spending more than a token amount of money in Cuba.

Thursday’s vote placed the president and Republican congressional leaders uncomfortably on a collision course, leaving an angry White House threatening to veto an important spending bill that contained the provision easing the travel restrictions and a growing number of lawmakers from both parties demanding an overhaul of the U.S. sanctions against Havana.

In the final dash to approve sweeping appropriations bills at the end of the fiscal year, it remains uncertain whether the White House threat is a negotiation ploy and whether supporters of looser travel restrictions could muster a two-thirds majority to override a veto.

The vote also highlighted a widening split between two important Republican constituencies: farm-state Republicans, who oppose trade sanctions in general or are eager to increase sales to Cuba, and Cuban-American leaders, who want to curb travel and trade to punish Castro. The White House views Cuban-Americans as essential to Bush’s reelection prospects in Florida. The Senate last rejected an easing of travel restrictions in 1999, by a vote of 43-55. But in an indication of how much the political and policy pendulum has swung, 13 senators who voted against easing the travel ban four years ago switched sides and voted for it on Thursday.

Several influential Republican senators voted against the president, including Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the armed services committee, and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the intelligence committee, as well as many conservatives from farming states, including Sens. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who co-sponsored the amendment, criticized what he called a U.S. “stranglehold” on Cuba, a nation of 11 million less than 100 miles from the United States. The decades-old travel ban, he said, merely deepens Cubans’ misery without providing fresh ideas to the communist nation.

“Unilateral sanctions stop not just the flow of goods, but the flow of ideas,” Enzi said. “Ideas of freedom and democracy are the keys to positive change in any nation.”

The White House countered that allowing unfettered American travel to Cuba would provide Castro’s government with an economic bonanza, allowing him to cover up his shortcomings as a repressive dictator.