Facing strong opposition from lawmakers with large Cuban-American constituencies, the Obama administration pledged — in writing — that changes to U.S.-Cuba policy tucked into the giant 2009 spending bill will have no teeth.
The promise worked: Lawmakers Tuesday night approved the $410 billion spending bill, which included the controversial provisions that make travel and trade to Cuba easier by cutting off the funding for enforcement of restrictions.
It cleared the Senate by a voice vote, after senators voted 62 to 35 to end debate.
In a quest to secure two of the votes from senators who had vowed to block the entire budget bill, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner assured Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey that the government would interpret the new law so strictly that it will be ineffective.
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Geithner's letter to the two senators persuaded them to change their votes and approve the spending package. Rep. Jose E. Serrano, the New York Democrat who wrote the Cuba amendments in the bill, warned that the law is not subject to "creative interpretation" and vowed "a showdown."
"The Treasury Department is going to try [to find loopholes], and the [House] appropriations committee will have to remind them who Congress is," Serrano toldThe Miami Herald. "Treasury will be in violation of the law. There will be a showdown. The bigger issue will not be Congressman Serrano. It will be that they are behaving just like the Bush administration did."
The budget bill, which already passed the House, creates a general travel license for Americans who want to travel to Cuba to cut agricultural and medical sales deals with the communist government. It also lets Cuba pay for goods on arrival — instead of before the products leave U.S. ports — and removes funding for enforcement of family travel restrictions enacted by former President George W. Bush.
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