WASHINGTON -- The Senate joined the House yesterday in striking at the four-decade-old policy of making travel to Cuba a criminal act, putting Congress on a collision course with Bush administration efforts to step up enforcement of travel restrictions.
"The travel ban does nothing to hurt Fidel Castro," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota. "It only harms Americans." He was cosponsor of the measure, passed 59-36, that bars use of government money to enforce current travel restrictions.
Last month, the House approved identical language in its version of a $90 billion bill to fund Transportation and Treasury department programs in the budget year that started Oct. 1.
The votes in the GOP-controlled chambers came despite a White House warning that the president would be advised to veto the bill if it includes the Cuba provision. The legislation contains money for highways, law enforcement, and antiterrorism.
The White House said in a statement that unlicensed tourism "provides economic resources to the Castro regime while doing nothing to help the Cuban people."
In neither the Senate nor House did the Cuba vote reach the two-thirds ratio needed to overturn a Bush veto.
But Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, said the Senate vote was "a strong repudiation of the president's recent announcement that his administration plans to tighten and increase the travel restrictions."
The Homeland Security Department announced this month that it was enhancing efforts to curtail illegal travel and transport of goods to Cuba.
Senator Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, a cosponsor with Dorgan, said fighting terrorism and drug trafficking should be a higher priority than Cuban tourism. He said a Treasury office was spending 10 percent of its budget "to track down little old grammas from the West Coast who through a Canadian travel agency chose to bike in Cuba."
The Treasury Department estimates that about 160,000 Americans, half of them Cuban-Americans visiting family members, traveled to Cuba legally last year. Humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and diplomats are also allowed visits, but thousands of other Americans visit illegally, by way of third countries.
Tourism officials have estimated that as many as 1 million Americans might visit Cuba in the first year after the lifting of the embargo.
President Kennedy imposed the travel ban in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis. President Carter let it lapse in 1977, but it was reimposed by President Reagan in 1982. Violators face criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison.