Washington The House dealt an election-season setback to President Bush on Wednesday by voting to overturn restrictions his administration has issued on the gift parcels that Americans can send to family members in Cuba.
The 221-194 vote was won by a coalition in which Democrats were joined by nearly four dozen farm-state and free-trade Republicans to rebuff the president. The vote came just four months from an Election Day in which Bush would like to once again win Florida, the pivotal state in his 2000 victory, by gaining the support of that state's Cuban-Americans.
The House vote followed a familiar pattern of recent years in which the Republican-run House -- and sometimes the Senate -- has voted to block Bush policies restricting trade and travel with Cuba, which communist leader Fidel Castro has now run for more than four decades. Last year, both chambers voted to end curbs on travel to Cuba by Americans, only to see lawmakers back away after Bush issued a veto threat.
Wednesday's debate was an emotional one, as the debates over Cuba policy often are.
"It's hard to think of an economic sanction that does more harm to the welfare of families in Cuba, or does more to make the U.S. seem mean-spirited toward families who already have the misfortune to live under communism," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the sponsors.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a Cuban-American, said the proposal was "dishonest" and "condescending," adding, "It seeks to undermine an entire policy President Bush has just implemented ... to hasten the Democratic transition in Cuba."
The new Commerce Department rules, which took effect July 1, bar people from shipping items including clothing, seeds, veterinary medicine and soap-making ingredients to Cubans.
No items at all can be shipped to relatives who are not parents, grandchildren, spouses or other immediate relatives. And nonfood gifts cannot be shipped more than monthly to each household of relatives -- down from the current limit of once a month per individual relative.
The administration and its supporters have said the restrictions are aimed at weakening Castro. They say the Cuban government seizes the packages and demands money from families before the parcels are delivered -- payments they say garner Castro millions of dollars annually.
Opponents say the rules -- like others limiting trade and travel -- will do little to hinder Castro. They have also accused Bush of politically motivated restrictions aimed at courting Florida's Cuban-American voters.
The amendment was offered to a $39.8 billion measure financing the departments of Commerce, Justice and State next year. The Senate has yet to write its version of the bill.