WASHINGTON — Opponents of the nation's longtime hard-line stance toward Cuba see a crack in the door, and they are starting to push.
A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill Tuesday that would permit Americans to travel to the communist island. An identical measure is collecting signatures in the House.
After years of frustration, backers of a softer Cuba policy think their moment has come. They point to several new factors, including an Obama administration that is more open to engagement with U.S. foes, and unprecedented opposition from Latin America to Washington's policy of isolation toward Cuba.
Advocates insist the bill, which enjoys the backing of senior Republicans and Democrats and several business and human rights groups, is building enough momentum to pass during this session of Congress, and they see it as the first step toward ending the 47-year-old U.S. embargo that severely restricts U.S. dealings with Cuba.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., supports it, her office said, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Tuesday he believes the Senate has enough votes to pass it.
"I think we have finally reached a new (level) on this issue," Dorgan said.
Supporters say allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba — and spend money there — would help spread democratic ideals and eventually create opportunities for trade and development.
The bill has 121 sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Dorgan and other senators were joined at their news conference Tuesday by representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Human Rights Watch, which has concluded that U.S. policy is not advancing justice and freedom.
But efforts to relax America's Cuba policy have a history of failure, and easing the travel rules faces significant hurdles: Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill prefer to let the White House take the lead on foreign policy, including toward Cuba. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — a strong backer of the embargo through the years — appeared on Tuesday to give the travel bill a chilly reception.
"Rarely a year goes by since I've been in the Senate that we don't have a vote on Cuba, and I'm sure this year will be no different," he said.
Those who back the restrictions remain fiercely opposed to change, insisting that allowing Americans to frolic on Cuban beaches will only enrich and legitimize the communist government, led by President Raul Castro and his ailing elder brother, Fidel.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, backed a recent measure allowing Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba more often, but says this goes too far. "Unrestricted travel would just allow Castro to rake off the 25 to 30 percent that he rakes off everything."
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was born in Cuba, said the Castro regime has continued to punish dissidents and doesn't deserve more favorable treatment. Plus, he said, tourists from Europe, Canada and Latin America have been visiting Cuba for years, with no apparent benefit for the freedom of the Cuban people.
"I believe there can be nuanced changes in policy toward Cuba, but that has to be earned by the Cuban government," he said.
Meanwhile, with Congress and President Barack Obama consumed with major initiatives on health care, climate change and revival of the economy, the White House and Democratic leaders may be reluctant to engage in an ugly sideshow fight over Cuba now.
"Those are the front-burner issues," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who supports easing travel restrictions for all Americans but has not signed on to the bill. "Cuba is not garnering a lot of attention and discussion."
Some members of Congress and outside observers say a strong showing of support for the travel bill may push the White House to act.
"The wild card here is Congress. I think Congress might drive this as much as the administration," said Daniel Waltz, a trade expert who follows Cuba policy at the Washington law firm Patton Boggs.
During the campaign, Obama pledged to lift Bush-era restrictions on family travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans. A spending bill he signed in March permits them to visit immediate family on the island yearly.
Obama has called for a "transition" in U.S. policy toward Cuba, recognizing that the embargo has failed to bring about political change on the island, yet saying the embargo should stand until Cuba moves forward with political reforms of its own.
This month, Obama will travel to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where he is sure to get an earful about Cuba from fellow heads of state. Many observers expect him to loosen rules that restrict how much money Cuban-Americans can send relatives on the island.
"Obama needs to have made tangible changes before he goes, or have something to announce at the summit," Waltz said. "Our Cuba policy has antagonized many people to our South. So, Obama needs to make a gesture."
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577. David Adams reported from Miami.