Washington Congress is still a long way from from allowing U.S. producers to ship food and medicine to Cuba, but two midwestern Republicans, Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas, helped score key victories this week.
The House voted 301-116 Thursday night for Moran's language ending enforcement of current restrictions against drug and food sales to the communist nation. The House also voted 232-186 to stop enforcement of restrictions against travel to Cuba.
"It's a clear message that a majority of the members of the House of Representatives want to change a failed policy that hurts Kansas farmers far more than it's ever done damage to Fidel Castro," Moran said.
Meantime, the Senate on Thursday approved a separate farm spending bill with a broader sanctions-lifting provision, pushed by Ashcroft, that allows food and medicine sales to Cuba as well as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. It also would prevent presidents from blocking shipments of food and medicine to any country without congressional approval.
Ashcroft called the votes "the best day we've had in history on this topic." A little more than a year ago, he said, passage seemed impossible.
"Both of those (votes) are approaching a 3-to-1 margin, and I think that has value and importance -- not just for Congress but also for the administration," he said. Clinton has said he favors drug and food sales to Cuba.
The most serious opposition comes from the House, where the vote on Moran's amendment was a breakthrough for farm and business groups seeking expanded markets and a blow to powerful foes including House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
The House provisions were offered as amendments to a measure financing the Treasury Department and other smaller agencies in the coming fiscal year. The overall bill was approved on a 216-202 vote.
The Senate version of that bill has no language affecting trade with Cuba, but Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., plans to change that, offering similar food and medicine and tourism amendments next week.
House GOP leaders, even those who want trade with Cuba, saw the votes on Thursday's amendments as a violation of a compromise reached last month with DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Under the agreement, food and medicine sales would be allowed to Cuba and four other countries, but Cubans could not pay for the transactions with credit from U.S. banks or the U.S. government.
Key players negotiating that narrower pact included Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who as a member of the Appropriations Committee will negotiate differences in House and Senate versions of the Cuba measures, and Missouri GOP Rep. Roy Blunt, Delay's top deputy. The two were involved in behind-the-scenes maneuvering Thursday.
Emerson voted "present," instead of yes or no. Blunt voted against adding the sanctions legislation but in favor of final passage of the bill.
"They (GOP leaders) had asked me to vote no, so that I would abide by the agreement; I said I felt that voting 'present' was an equal commitment," Emerson said in an interview Friday. "Quite frankly, I don't feel it's the same thing. This was a different piece of legislation. I feel that I have to go to conference on treasury postal to reflect the will of the House, and it was a three-to-one vote."
All four Kansans supported Moran's amendment, as did Missouri Republican Reps. Kenny Hulshof and Jim Talent and Missouri Democratic Reps. Pat Danner, Karen McCarthy and Ike Skelton. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., voted no, and Democratic Rep. Bill Clay of Missouri did not vote.