Tags: obama | cuba | spending | bill

Sen. Martinez: Obama Trading Cuba Rules for Spending Bill OK

Tuesday, 10 Mar 2009 07:21 AM

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's administration is working to quell some senators' concerns about proposals to ease restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba in order to get their support for a massive government spending bill, Republican Senator Mel Martinez said on Monday.

Martinez said the Treasury Department had suggested that one proposal involving agricultural sales to Cuba would not be implemented.

Such assurances could help the $410 billion government funding bill to get through the Senate, where it has been bogged down by various objections from senators.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expects the legislation to pass on Tuesday, his spokesman said Monday evening.

The Cuban-born Martinez and two Democratic senators, Bill Nelson and Robert Menendez, dislike provisions in the legislation that would ease limits on trade and travel to Cuba and make it easier for the U.S. farm industry to sell to the communist-run island.

The provisions do not lift the decades-old U.S. embargo, but would prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring cash-in-advance payment for agricultural shipments to Cuba.

They would also allow Cuban Americans with relatives in Cuba to travel there more frequently - once a year instead of once every three years - and stay longer.

Martinez said the Treasury Department had written a letter to Nelson and Menendez late last week suggesting that if the provision passed lifting the cash-in-advance requirement on U.S. food sales to Cuba, "the White House intends to reissue a regulation that will be very similar, requiring cash be paid before it goes."

Martinez said he had seen the Treasury letter and as a result he would "probably" give up trying to change the bill to take out that cash-in-advance provision, because the Obama administration "is going to fix it anyway."

"Once I saw the letter ... and had a chance to digest it, we felt like it fixes the problem," Martinez said outside the Senate. His state, Florida, is home to many staunchly anti-Castro Cuban exiles such as himself.

Martinez thought Nelson, who is also from Florida, and Menendez, who is from New Jersey, would also be satisfied with the assurances from Treasury. But neither Democrat would stop to talk on his way into the Senate Monday evening. A Treasury spokesman could not be reached for comment.

"Senator Menendez is negotiating with the White House (about the Cuba provisions). Negotiations are ongoing, and there has been no resolution as yet," a Menendez spokesman, Afshin Mohamadi, told Reuters.

Obama has made clear he favors relaxing limits on family travel and cash remittances by Cuban Americans to their homeland, although he has said the U.S. trade embargo should stay in place to press for democratic reforms.

Many U.S. lawmakers favor a rethink of Cuba policy. They say that since Fidel Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution, retired last year, it is time to review U.S. policies shunning the island.

The massive $410 billion spending bill before the Senate funds the U.S. government through September 30, and most of its provisions would expire then.

Reid was forced to delay a vote on the bill last Thursday as he and other Democratic leaders struggled to collect the 60 votes needed to get past Senate procedural hurdles. The Nevada Democrat said then he was one vote short. The Cuba provisions were one of several controversial parts.

Democratic leaders have been resisting all amendments to the bill -- which has already passed the House in its current form -- so that they can send it straight to Obama for signing into law.

© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

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