WASHINGTON A congressional panel voted on Wednesday to lift a decades-old ban on travel to Cuba and remove other hurdles to food sales to the Caribbean island.
The 25-20 vote in the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee sets the stage for a potentially blistering debate this year in both the full House and the Senate.
"We have tried isolating Cuba for more than fifty years and it has not worked," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said. "Today's vote demonstrates that Congress is ready to change our nation's approach on this issue."
A broad coalition of farm, business and human rights group have backed the bipartisan bill as an important step toward ending the almost five-decade-old embargo on communist-led Cuba and promoting positive change on the island.
"By increasing food exports and repealing the travel ban, this legislation will provide more jobs for Americans and Cubans," said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an advocacy group.
But opponents, who say Washington must keep pressure on Cuba's communist government to force democratic change, vowed to use every tool available to keep it from becoming law.
Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, called the bill the latest U.S. government bailout program.
"Only this time we'd be bailing out a brutal dictatorship on the brink of collapsing," Rooney said.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he would filibuster any attempt to pass the bill in the Senate.
"The big corporate interests behind this bill couldn't care less about whether the Cuban people are free or not. They only care about padding their profits," Menendez, whose parents where Cuban immigrants, said.
Proposals to lift the ban have died in Congress over the last decade due to concerns about human rights abuses in the one-party state built since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
President Barack Obama has taken some steps to improve relations with Havana, such as allowing unlimited family travel and remittances and greater telecommunications links.
But Washington says the Cuban government has failed to reciprocate, making it politically difficult for the White House to move further in easing the Cold War-era embargo.
Cuban officials have encouraged recent U.S. trade delegations visiting Havana to work to abolish the travel ban because the arrival of more American tourists would give the government more money to buy U.S. goods.
Congress exempted farm sales from the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba in 2000 as long as Havana paid in cash and money transfers were handled by a third-country bank.
President George W. Bush's administration angered many farm-state lawmakers by interpreting the cash payment rule narrowly, insisting on payment before shipment.
The bill addresses that issue.
U.S. farm exports to Cuba reached a record $710 million in 2008, before dropping to $528 million in 2009 in the midst of the global financial crisis.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing Anthony Boadle)