U.S. post-election vote seen best chance for Cuba bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With time running short on the congressional calendar, the best chance of passing a bill this year that lifts the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and removes hurdles on food sales to the island is after the November 2 congressional elections, a top U.S. lawmaker said on Tuesday.

“I think this would be a candidate for a ‘lame duck’ session,” House of Representatives Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said, referring to the period after the elections and before the new Congress is seated in January.

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 on the island.

The House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 in favor of the bill in late June after a spirited debate.

Congress, which is returning this week from a long break, will work for two to four weeks before lawmakers go back home to campaign intensively for re-election.

They are expected to return after the November 2 election to deal with a number of pieces of legislation, including potentially the Cuba travel bill.

If they don’t vote on the measure, it dies at the end of this year’s session and 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 many senior Republicans oppose any loosening of the embargo.

Related Coverage

Peterson, a Democrat who spoke at a National Farmers Union event to tout the bill, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had told him that she strongly supports the legislation.

But the bill needs to clear one more hurdle -- the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- before the full House can vote on the measure, he said.

A number of proposals to lift the travel ban have died in Congress over the past decade due to concerns about human rights abuses since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Many farm and business groups argue the embargo has proved ineffective in changing Cuba’s government and has allowed other countries to dominate what should be a natural market for the United States.

Meanwhile, Cuba announced plans this week to lay off more than 500,000 state employees by March and expand private employment to give them work in the biggest shift to the private sector since the 1960s.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman still needs to round up a few more votes before scheduling committee action on the bill, Peterson said.

“We just need a couple of people and this thing is off to the races and we’re done,” Peterson said, predicting that it would clear the House and then also the Senate.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, another Democrat at the National Farmer Unions event, said current restrictions on agricultural cash sales to Cuba meant the United States was losing sales to competition from countries such as Britain, France, Spain, Canada, Mexico and “of course, China.”

In brief remarks to Reuters, she said the Senate was unlikely to vote on the bill before the election.

“It’s possible in the lame duck, but more likely next year,” Klobuchar said.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Beech