Negotiators Reverse Course, Maintain Cuba Travel Ban

House-Senate bargainers bowed to a White House veto threat on Wednesday and upheld the four-decade old ban on most travel to Cuba.

Though the Republican-run House and Senate had separately approved provisions earlier this year lifting the ban, negotiators dropped the language from a compromise bill.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., an advocate of lifting the ban, tried persuading lawmakers to settle for a narrower provision allowing travel to the Communist-run country by farm groups promoting sales of agricultural products. But it died when House bargainers refused to accept it on a voice vote.

"It means nothing if this bill is not signed into law," said Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, the chief House negotiator.

The travel provision was dropped as bargainers from the two chambers agreed to a compromise $88.9 billion measure financing the Transportation and Treasury departments (search) and several smaller agencies for the federal budget year that began Oct. 1.

That measure also contains $1.22 billion for Amtrak (search), close to what railroad officials say they need to keep trains running and maintenance projects on track. It also clears the way for members of Congress to receive their latest annual pay raise.

Despite crackdowns on dissidents in recent months by Cuban President Fidel Castro (search), both chambers of Congress voted in recent weeks to lift restrictions on Americans traveling to the Caribbean island.

The amendments would have ended a policy that has limited travel to Cuba to family visits and trips by educational, humanitarian, media and diplomatic groups.

Even so, the Bush administration repeatedly threatened to veto the overall bill if the restrictions were eased, most recently in letters Treasury Secretary John Snow and Secretary of State Colin Powell sent lawmakers this week.

Supporters of the travel ban say lifting it would only help Castro, while opponents say having more Americans in Cuba could undermine his government.

"Traveling to Cuba would help show Cuban citizens what democracy is all about," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Within the GOP, the White House and other Republicans determined to woo the strongly anti-Castro Cubans living in Florida are pitted against free-trade Republicans eager to lift restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

The government estimates about 160,000 Americans traveled legally to Cuba last year, half of them Cuban-Americans visiting relatives. Humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and diplomats can also visit, but thousands of other Americans visit illegally via third countries.

Officials of Amtrak, the taxpayer subsidized passenger carrier, had initially said they needed $1.8 billion this year to retain existing levels of service. President Bush proposed $900 million, an amount the House approved.

After the Senate voted to provide $1.35 billion, Amtrak President David Gunn wrote lawmakers that anything less would "seriously jeopardize the availability of service and continued operation of the national system."

The final compromise between the two Republican-run chambers underlined the clout wielded by Amtrak supporters. Though its busiest line runs from Boston and Washington, Amtrak serves 500 communities in 46 states.

Passage of the overall bill would open the door for a 2.2 percent pay raise for members of Congress in January, bringing their salaries to more than $158,000 a year.

Lawmakers get an automatic pay raise each year unless they vote to block it. Though the Treasury bill does not mention a salary increase, the measure is traditionally the battleground on that issue, and the House and Senate earlier rejected efforts to kill the raise.

The bill also:

-- $500 million to help states modernize their voting systems. Lawmakers said they will try to include more money in a huge spending bill Congress plans to approve before it adjourns, perhaps later this month.

-- Blocks for the next year federal efforts to let companies use cash balance pension funds, which can help younger workers likely to change jobs during their careers but could cut benefits for older employees.

-- Would limit the Bush administration's ability to shift federal jobs to the private sector.

-- Would let the National Archives (search) begin talks with the private Richard Nixon library (search) in Yorba Linda, Calif., to set up a formal Nixon presidential library there. Until now, Nixon's presidential papers and tapes have been kept by the National Archives in College Park, Md.