WASHINGTON The Senate's majority leader signaled on Tuesday that provisions to ease limits on trade and travel to Cuba were likely to be approved because they were attached to a larger bill that he did not want to stall.
"I'm not wild about some of the Cuba provisions in this bill myself," Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, told reporters. "There are a couple of those that I don't like very much, but it's not enough to bring the bill down, in my opinion."
With Congress facing a deadline on Friday to pass the massive $410 billion bill to fund many government operations, an aide to Reid told reporters it did not appear that foes of loosening sanctions on the communist-run island had enough votes to strip the provisions.
The House of Representatives last week approved the bill with the Cuba provisions. Supporters say since Fidel Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution, retired last year due to poor health, it is time to review decades-old policies that have shunned the island 90 miles off the Florida coast.
The proposals do not lift the overall U.S. embargo on Cuba, but would prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring payment of cash in advance for agricultural sales to Cuba.
They also would allow Americans with relatives in Cuba to travel there more frequently and for longer time periods.
Republican Senator Mel Martinez, who represents Florida which is home to many fiercely anti-Castro Cuban exiles such as himself, said he may offer an amendment to strip the provision or rally enough opposition to block the bill from passing.
In the Senate, 60 votes are often required to clear procedural hurdles and move to passage. While Democrats control 58 Senate seats, Martinez said he already has support from two Senate Democrats: Bill Nelson, also from Florida, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
"If we can defeat the bill, that's better than an amendment," Martinez told reporters. Reid "needs 60, so you do the math, I don't know how he gets there."
President Barack Obama has made clear he favors relaxing limits on family travel and cash remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba, although he has said the U.S. trade embargo should stay in place to press for democratic reforms.
Most of the changes in the spending bill would expire on September 30 -- the end of this fiscal year -- unless there is a move to extend them by Congress or Obama.
Some Democrats as well as Republicans oppose the changes, saying Cuba's authoritarian regime, now headed by Fidel Castro's brother Raul, does not deserve them.
"We simply cannot let up our pressure on the regime without seeing symbols of progress," Menendez told the Senate on Monday.
Reid said he was happy to work with people who were concerned about Cuba, but "we're not going to be able to change at this stage unless there's enough votes."
Senate leaders are not keen to change the larger spending bill because they would like to approve the House-passed version and send it to Obama to be signed into law.
Congress must act by Friday to fund government operations through September 30 because a temporary spending measure expires then.
The Senate on Tuesday rejected a bid by Obama's foe in the 2008 presidential election, Republican John McCain, to scrap the entire bill and merely fund most government departments still waiting for their funds at 2008 levels.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
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