WASHINGTON - A U.S. Senate committee on Thursday approved amendments that would end restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba and ease some trading barriers, advancing efforts to implement President Barack Obama's rapprochement with the communist island.
The Appropriations Committee voted with bipartisan support for a measure that would ease travel limits, making it the first legislation to pass any congressional committee to facilitate the drive to normalize relations.
The committee also passed other amendments to the Senate Financial Services appropriations bill to allow private financing for U.S. agricultural sales and lift restrictions on ships that operate in Cuban ports.
Introducing the measures as amendments to the larger appropriations bill was intended to make them more difficult to block. The full Senate would have to reject the entire financial services bill to stop them.
To become law, a version of the bill with the amendments also would have to pass the House of Representatives.
"This is a first step by the Senate to dismantle a failed, discredited and counterproductive policy that in 54 years has failed to achieve any of its objectives," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime opponent of Cuba sanctions.
"These votes were not about the repugnant policies of the Castro regime, but about doing away with unwarranted impediments to travel and commerce imposed on Americans by our own government," he said in a statement.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on December 17 that they would move toward normal relations between the former Cold War foes for the first time in half a century. Cuba opened its embassy in Washington on Monday as the countries restored diplomatic relations.
But the policy has strong opponents among majority Republicans in Congress. The broader, half-century-old U.S. trade embargo remains in place and only Congress can lift it.
The measures were passed a day after a closed-door meeting at the White House with dozens of Cuban Americans and academics and business leaders with an interest in Cuba who support Obama's policy of engagement.
U.S. officials told the group that the administration has no plans to announce new measures regarding Cuba and is still refining regulations announced in January to ease travel rules and financial and banking changes.