Effort to ease Cuba sanctions could snag spending bill

WASHINGTON — A fast-moving spending bill that would weaken sanctions against Cuba took some hits Wednesday, with Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez suggesting he's got a chance to block it.

Among those he's looking to persuade: fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who said he's poised to vote against a motion to take up the legislation unless the Cuba provisions are removed.

Nelson's potential no vote could be critical to the legislation's chances and it came as Martinez, teamed up with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez to muster votes to block the bill because of the proposed changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, including the removal of funding to enforce travel restrictions.

Nelson said Wednesday he sides with President Barack Obama and supports easing travel restrictions to Cuba, but is troubled that the bill also would lift a requirement that Cuba pay for U.S. products before they leave U.S. ports.

Nelson, who has filed an amendment to take some of the changes out of the bill, suggested Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is working on a solution to the standoff. Reid, though, has said repeatedly he wants the Senate to pass the same legislation as the House did to avoid delays.

"If he pulls it off, it ought to solve the problem," Nelson said of Reid. Nelson wouldn't say he opposes the bill which, among other spending, includes $183 million to jump-start stalled Everglades restoration efforts. But he said, "my inclination is . . . if we do not get relief on these Cuba provisions that I would vote against (a motion to consider the legislation)."

A spokesman for Reid said the senator's position hadn't changed since Tuesday when he said he was "not wild" about the Cuba provisions, but that they weren't "enough to bring the bill down."

Menendez has suggested he's unlikely to support the bill with the Cuba provisions and two other Democrats said Wednesday they would oppose the bill because of the cost of the legislation, which boosts domestic spending and includes almost $8 billion in congressional earmarks.

Martinez said he welcomed the opposition — whether to the cost of the bill or the Cuba language.

"We'll take it," Martinez said. "It's not too important to me how we get there, it's that we get there."

The bill would bar the U.S. government from spending any money to enforce rules that keep Cuban Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years.

But the $410 billion spending bill also keeps the federal government running until October, and Democratic leaders in the Senate are anxious to clear the legislation and avoid a government shutdown.

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