WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. business group on Tuesday urged the House of Representatives to quickly approve a bill that chips away at the U.S. embargo on Cuba by ending decades of restrictions on travel to the island.
“It is time to end the unproductive preoccupation with an aging and moribund Communist regime, and begin to lay the groundwork for a U.S. role in the future of Cuba,” the Chamber of Commerce’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, said in a letter to leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 in June to approve a bill lifting the decades-old ban on travel to Cuba and to remove hurdles to food sales to the Caribbean island.
The chamber urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee to approve the legislation when lawmakers return from their recess in mid-September so the full House can vote on the bill.
The Senate would have to approve the measure for it become law. But the Senate has opponents of loosening travel restrictions while Cuba’s present government is in power, and Senate rules allow a single senator to use procedural hurdles to delay and sometimes block legislation.
Senators Byron Dorgan and Mike Enzi, who support lifting the travel ban, have said they have the votes to pass such a bill. It takes 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate.
U.S. business and advocacy groups have said they expect President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to relax travel restrictions to Cuba for some Americans.
The small steps would make it easier for groups of Americans to once again go to the Communist island as part of academic, cultural or religious exchanges, as thousands of them did during the Clinton administration, a congressional aide told Reuters last week.
Completely lifting the travel ban would require an act of Congress, something that supporters of the embargo have been able to thwart in the past.
In a letter last week to Obama, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and four other Cuban-American lawmakers underscored their opposition to loosening travel restrictions.
“We are deeply troubled that such changes would result in economic benefits to the Cuban regime and would significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives,” the group said.
It also included Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Albio Sires, both New Jersey Democrats, as well as Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.
The letter from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came as the Catholic Church in Cuba said it expected the Cuban government to soon release another six political prisoners with the condition that they go to Spain, bringing the total to 32 in recent weeks.
Under an agreement reached in June with the Catholic Church, the Cuban government is expected to release 20 more dissidents imprisoned by the island’s Communist government in a 2003 crackdown against opponents.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Stacey Joyce