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Obama gains support for spending bill
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Under a Wednesday deadline to pass a bill funding the U.S. government, President Barack Obama's administration gained ground after reassuring some senators that proposals to ease restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba would have only marginal impact.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who had opposed the spending measure because of the Cuba provisions, told reporters he would now vote for the bill "because of the correspondence and clarifications I received from the Treasury secretary."
A second senator, Florida's Bill Nelson, also said he had decided to support the measure.
With their backing, Obama's Democrats appear to have cleared an important milestone and party leaders now hope to pass the $410 billion spending bill later on Tuesday.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to delay a vote after he said he was one vote shy of the 60 needed in the 100-seat Senate to get past procedural hurdles.
Reid must hold a vote on the spending bill by Wednesday, when the legislation currently funding the government expires.
The measure, to fund most of the government for the remainder of the fiscal year through September 30, has already passed the House of Representatives.
The bill has been bogged down in the Senate by various objections, including from senators like Menendez with large numbers of anti-communist Cuban-Americans in their states who oppose taking U.S. pressure off the Cuban government to move toward democracy.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent a letter on Monday to Menendez and Nelson, saying provisions affecting travel to sell certain goods to Cuba would not amount to a major reversal of the decades-old U.S. policy of isolating the communist-run island.
Geithner's letter said only a "narrow class" of businesses would be eligible to travel to Cuba to market and sell agricultural and medical goods, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.
"Any business using the general license would be required to provide both advance written notice outlining the purpose and scope of the planned travel, and, upon return, a report outlining the activities conducted, including the persons with whom they met, the expenses incurred, and business conducted in Cuba," Geithner's letter said.
It followed another message from the Treasury to the Democratic senators last week, according to Florida's other senator, Republican Mel Martinez, who said he had seen it.
Martinez said the first Treasury letter dealt with another proposal in the bill -- defunding enforcement of the cash-in-advance requirement on U.S. food sales to Cuba and so making it easier for the U.S. farm industry.
The Treasury suggested it would fix that problem by reissuing another regulation similar to the one being eased, the Cuban-born Martinez told Reuters.
The Cuba provisions, which stop short of lifting the U.S. trade embargo on the country, were one of several controversial parts of the spending bill.
Others include provisions to allow Cuban Americans with relatives in Cuba to travel there more frequently -- once a year instead of once every three years -- and to stay longer.
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.
Many U.S. lawmakers favor a rethink of Cuba policy. They say that since Fidel Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution, retired last year, it is time to review U.S. policies isolating the island.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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