WASHINGTON – The House voted Thursday against permitting Cuban-Americans to visit their families in Cuba (search) more frequently and for retaining a trade embargo that has been in place since 1960.
The 211-208 vote reversed a trend in Congress in recent years toward relaxing some travel sanctions on Cuba. A similar vote last year — to permit Cubans who have claimed asylum in the United States to visit the island more frequently than every three years — produced a 225-174 tally to ease travel rules.
Congressional supporters of maintaining the U.S. government's tough regimen of trade and travel sanctions credit a redoubled lobbying and education effort for their success — as well as continued bad behavior by communist dictator Fidel Castro (search).
"Castro's been our best friend in winning the votes around because his conduct has been so reprehensible in the past two years," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (search), R-Fla. "Cubans from all around the United States are doing a greater lobbying effort, more organized than before."
The votes came as the House passed, by a 405-18 vote, a bill funding the Transportation and Treasury departments for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The Senate has yet to act on the bill.
The sprawling spending bill also provides a $603 million federal payment to the District of Columbia and allows the city to spend $8.7 billion of local funds.
Earlier in June, the House voted 216-210 against relaxing rules on the shipment of gift parcels to Cuba. Last year the House had voted to ease rules on such parcels, which U.S. relatives often use to ship toiletries and staples to Cuba.
The chamber Thursday also voted 250-169 to keep the economic embargo in place.
President Bush and GOP leaders in the House and Senate are stout supporters of economic sanctions against the Castro regime, and Bush has vowed to veto any effort to weaken the embargo. When the House has passed measures to relax sanctions on Cuba — such as lifting the ban on travel — they have invariably been dropped during negotiations with the Senate.
One exception has been exports of food and medicine, which have widespread support among rural, GOP-friendly districts. Such exports have been allowed for more than three years.
A veto threat hangs over the Treasury bill since it includes language by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., to ease restrictions requiring Cuba to pay in advance for agricultural imports.
The underlying Transportation-Treasury spending bill is a magnet for debates unrelated to the spending decisions in the measure.
For example, the House voted 333-92 to put the House on record against permitting the Treasury Department to recommend selling the Unocal Corporation, the California-based oil and natural-gas producer, to China National Offshore Oil Company Ltd.
An amendment by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., approved 222-203, to block an administration plan to farm out many government functions to private contractors has also earned a veto promise. It's sure to get dropped during talks with the Senate, as it was last year.
In a blow to consumers, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., struck a provision to block banks and other issuers of credit cards from raising a cardholder's interest rate simply because of negative information from a credit report. House rules had left the provision — added by Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., during committee consideration of the overall bill — vulnerable to being killed by any single lawmaker.
Obey said the provision was aimed at credit card issuers — "well-connected shysters" — that jack up interest rates even when consumers pay their bills on time. His plan would allow card issuers to raise rates only for activity related to that account, such as missing a payment.