The House Agriculture Committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation that ends the ban on American travel to Cuba and eases regulations on sales of U.S. agricultural products to the island nation.
The bipartisan vote was 25-20, with four Republicans joining Democrats in favor of the measure. The vote was a major victory for House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, who noted that the committee had made more progress on the issue of relations with Cuba than any group had made in years.
Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., co-sponsored the legislation with Peterson, but other Republicans bitterly opposed it. The four committee Republicans who voted for the bill were Moran and Reps. Tim Johnson of Illinois, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. Panel Democrats against the bill were Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, Mark Schauer of Michigan, Joe Baca of California and Jim Marshall of Georgia. House Agriculture ranking member Frank Lucas, who had not taken a position on the bill earlier, voted against the measure.
Agricultural, business and humanitarian groups favored the legislation while groups against Fidel Castro, Cuba's former president and current first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, opposed it.
Baca and Republicans proposed a series of amendments to take out the travel language or delay implementation of the bill, but Peterson ruled all of them out of order. The Republicans appealed those rulings, but lost on roll call votes on each.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Foreign Trade Council and the National Farmers Union, which favor the legislation, said that they would include votes on the measure in compiling scorecards on members of Congress. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which also favored it, said it does not score the performance of legislators but would publish the vote in its newsletter.
Farm leaders were most interested in making permanent changes to rules implemented in the George W. Bush administration that make financial arrangements on sales to Cuba more difficult, but they also said that increasing tourism to Cuba will increase the market for agricultural sales because hotels catering to U.S. tourists would need more American food.
Opponents of the bill argued that making it possible for Americans to travel to Cuba would put more money in the hands of the Castro government.
The bill must also be referred to the House Foreign Affairs and House Financial Services committees, but there have been rumors they may waive action on it, which would pave the way for it to move to the House floor.
Supporters of the bill have said they believe that if it passes the House it would also pass the Senate. President Obama has made some moves to improve relations with Cuba, but the administration has not been satisfied with the Cuban government's response. Peterson said, however, that he believes Obama would sign the bill if Congress passes it.