WASHINGTON – The House defied a threatened presidential veto Tuesday in moving to lift four-decade-old restrictions on travel to Cuba (search). Lawmakers also voted to lift the caps on money that can be sent to Cuban households.
The restriction on visits to Cuba, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is "not only ineffective, it curbs the basic American freedom to travel and to export American ideals and values."
The 227-188 vote to open travel to Cuba was not as decisive as a similar vote last year, a reflection of the Castro government's crackdown on political dissidents in recent months.
It's unconscionable after the arrest of close to 80 dissidents, said Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (search), R-Fla., "to be here seeking to reward the dictatorship for its deplorable action."
There has traditionally been support in the House for lifting the embargoes on trade and travel to Cuba, but moves in that direction have been thwarted either in the Senate or by the White House. House-Senate negotiators removed the travel provision from a spending bill for this year's budget, also because of an administration promise to veto the bill.
Lifting sanctions now, the White House said in a statement, "would provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime at the expense of the Cuban people."
House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, opposed the amendment. "Fidel Castro (search) -- thief, murderer, and tyrant -- is the only Cuban who will benefit from this amendment," he said.
The Cuban measures were part of an $89.3 billion bill to fund the Transportation and Treasury departments in the budget year starting Oct. 1. The bill, passed 381-39, includes $33.8 billion for highway spending and meets the president's request of $900 million for Amtrak. It also includes a 4.1 percent cost-of-living raise for civilian and military federal employees, an action that in effect also guarantees that members of Congress will receive a 2.2 percent raise to more than $158,000 a year.
The House courted another veto threat by passing, by 220-198, an amendment by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would block the White House from proceeding with new rules to increase competition between the private and public sector for federal contracts. Van Hollen said the rules were stacked against federal workers, but the White House said the measure was "akin to mandating a monopoly regardless of the impact on services to citizens and the added costs to taxpayers."
The Treasury Department says about 160,000 Americans, half of them Cuban-Americans visiting family members, traveled to Cuba legally last year. Humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and diplomats also can visit the island. Thousands of Americans also visit illegally, by way of third countries, risking fines and imprisonment.
The administration this year proposed new rules to restrict people-to-people educational exchanges, saying there was a need to stop deception by groups whose only purpose in going to Cuba was tourism.
Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., who said he had supported the overall travel restrictions in the past, proposed an amendment to stop the administration from enforcing the new tighter rules, saying they could curtail many important exchanges. The measure passed, 246-173.
Former President Clinton expanded the people-to-people program in January 1999.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., also won 222-196 approval of an amendment to lift the caps on remittances to families in Cuba. "Dollars from American relatives can make a huge difference in the quality of life for a Cuban family," he said.
Opponents argued that the Castro government siphoned off the money to bolster its repressive and anti-American policies.
Currently Americans are limited to sending $300 a quarter to a Cuban household. Visitors to Cuba can carry $300 each for up to 10 households.
The House also approved, 258-160, an amendment by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders barring the government from using federal funds to overturn a federal court ruling against cash balance pension plans. The court ruled that IBM discriminated against older workers when it switched to the plan, which could benefit younger workers who are more likely to change jobs during their careers but could cut benefits for older workers.
The Senate has yet to take up its version of the bill.