WASHINGTON -- The House voted Thursday to allow unrestricted U.S. food and drug sales to Cuba and let Americans freely travel there. The vote was a major victory for farm, business and other groups trying to ease the four-decade-old sanctions against Fidel Castro's government.
With supporters arguing that increased contacts would help weaken Castro's hold over the communist nation, the House voted 232-186 to stop enforcing rules that limit the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba.
It then voted 301-116 to also halt enforcement of rules banning U.S. exports there of food, and of rules limiting sales there of American medicine.
Minutes earlier, lawmakers voted 241-174 to reject a broader proposal by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that would have ended enforcement of United States prohibitions against virtually all trading with the Caribbean island nation.
Even so, approval of the narrower provisions was a major victory for an alliance of conservative, liberal, business- and farm-state lawmakers. And it was an embarrassing setback for House GOP leaders, who have opposed easing the sanctions.
The Senate approved a separate agriculture spending bill on Thursday that would permit food and medical sales with Cuba and prevent a president from blocking shipments of food and medicine to any country without congressional approval.
But it was unclear whether Thursday's votes meant that trade sanctions with Cuba would be lifted this year.
"This improves the likelihood we'll have some sanction reform," Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., sponsor of the provision easing food and drug restrictions, said after the vote. "But there are many members of Congress, including people in the leadership, who oppose lifting sanctions this year."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has said he thinks the Senate language goes too far.
At a minimum, the votes seemed certain to strengthen the hand of Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., the leader of farm-state lawmakers who earlier this year tried to lift the food and medicine embargo against Cuba and four other countries but ran into opposition by Republican leaders.
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