Tuesday, September 21, 2010

U.S. Representative Howard Berman still hopes to relax Cuba policy

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON | Tue Sep 21, 2010 7:37am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Advocates of easing restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba have not given up on legislation this year, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Monday.

Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat, said he wanted his committee to vote on a bill that would relax Cuba policy in the next few weeks, before Congress recesses to campaign for congressional elections in November.

But he acknowledged he does not know if there is enough support among lawmakers to approve the measure. The committee's top-ranking Republican, Cuban-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is a known opponent.

The legislation would lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and remove hurdles on food sales to the island. A broad coalition of farm, business and human rights groups support the legislation as an important step toward ending the almost five-decade-old embargo on communist-led Cuba and promoting positive change there.

"I am totally committed to getting rid of the travel ban" affecting Cuba, Berman told the Reuters Washington Summit. "I'm not as focused on the agricultural stuff, but I've been trying since 1986 to get rid of the travel ban."

But he would not bring the measure up in committee unless he had the votes to pass it, he said. "I'm not going to bring it up to lose."

The bill has already passed the House Agriculture Committee and is sponsored by that panel's chairman. But Berman's committee also has a say in whether it goes to the House floor.

Berman said the matter could spill over into the "lame duck" session of Congress that is expected to follow the November elections -- a gathering of the old Congress to finish its work before the new Congress is seated in January.

"We're lame, but we're not paralyzed," he said.

Otherwise lawmakers would have to start over from scratch in the new Congress. A Republican takeover of the House, as many think possible, would complicate chances for the bill because some senior Republicans oppose any loosening of the embargo. But there are also opponents of lifting the travel ban among Democrats in both chambers.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to "recast" ties with Cuba, and last year renewed outreach efforts to the island. He eased limits on travel by separated family members and cash remittances by Cuban-Americans to their relatives. U.S. advocates for better ties with Cuba hope he will go farther.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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