WASHINGTON - Advocates of lifting sanctions against Cuba say momentum is on their side after victories last week, but congressional leaders still could block the legislation many farm-state lawmakers hope to pass this year.
The House voted 301-116 Thursday to stop enforcing provisions that ban U.S. food exports and limit sales of American medicine to Cuba and four other nations - Iran, Libya, North Korea and Sudan
The Senate passed a bill the same day to permit food and medical sales to the five countries. The Senate measure also prevents a president from blocking such shipments without congressional approval.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the votes were ''a huge step forward'' and said they ''ought to break the back of the opposition.''
Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., called the votes ''the best day we've had in history on this topic.''
Sanctions are a major consideration for American farmers and the U.S. economy because agricultural exports add billions of dollars to the country's earnings and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the work force.
Cuba is important both as a symbol and as a customer. President Fidel Castro's government has been under agricultural and other trade sanctions since July 1963, longer than any other country except North Korea.
Until 1962, Cuba was the largest export market for U.S. rice. It has imported none since then.
Another measure: The United States produces 250,000 metric tons of peas annually, almost all in Washington state, Montana and North Dakota, and growers say they could produce more if they could sell to Cuba. Cuba imported 170,000 metric tons of peas last year, all from Canada.
Farmers look to Cuba, an easy-to-reach market just 90 miles from U.S. shores, as a bellwether for trade with the four other countries. Business interests also back trade, as does a coalition of liberals and conservatives who feel increased Cuban contact with American products and people would accelerate Castro's downfall.
But Senate Majority Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Thursday's votes do not change his opposition to lifting the sanctions against the communist-run island. The overwhelming House passage ''doesn't impress me at all,'' Lott said Friday. ''Somebody still has to care about freedom.''
The House vote also did not change the mind of the speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
House leaders agreed in June to sanctions language that is more restrictive than the latest legislation in that it denies any U.S. financing of Cuban imports. Hastert plans to stick with the original agreement, said his spokesman, John Feehery.
House lawmakers want to change Hastert's mind.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., said that while he is willing to defend the June agreement, he wants leaders to consider dropping its restrictive language. Otherwise, he said, the original agreement may not have enough votes for passage.
''It's something we should talk about,'' Nethercutt said. ''It's unavoidable.''
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., said Thursday's vote should put House leaders on notice of the rank and file's intentions.
''I would say that if our leadership tries to back out or tries to bury this issue - if for some reason we do not end up with a better agreement than we've got - then I think our leadership is going to have a real price to pay with the members of the House,'' Emerson said.
The House sanctions language was on a bill financing the Treasury Department, which enforces trade sanctions, and smaller agencies.
The Senate legislation was the spending bill for the Agriculture Department. Its version of the Treasury bill, expected to come up this week, has no language on Cuba trade, but Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., plan to offer amendments.
Lawmakers expect the big battle over sanctions to occur in September, when a House-Senate conference committee meet to settle differences over the agriculture spending bill.
Senate conferees will advocate the language they approved Thursday, which has no prohibition against financing of trade by the U.S. government or industry. House conferees are expected to push the language in the June compromise.
Critics of the House language say the financing restrictions would eliminate most sales to Cuba.
On the Net: U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council: http://www.cubatrade.org
Cuban American National Foundation: http://www.canf.org/