In a sharp blow to President Bush's stringent new Cuba policy, 46 Republicans in Congress joined Democrats to declare that rules banning the personal shipment of such items as clothing, deodorant and seeds to the island went too far.
By a vote of 221 to 194, the House decided late Wednesday to block the Bush administration from enforcing the new rules. Opponents argued that the regulations would do more to hurt ordinary Cubans than to squeeze Fidel Castro's one-party government.
"There will be an impact, and there is no question that Cuban families will suffer," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo). "The Cuban people have experienced enough oppression. Let us not fund policies that cut them off from their families, intensifying their hardship."
State Department officials said the rules will be modified to permit the sending of toiletries to Cuba, although the frequency of the mailings and the range of recipients will be cut from the levels preceding June 30, when the new rules took effect. An official described a "continued effort to achieve the right balance."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who chaired the presidential commission that developed the new policy, interceded on behalf of several dozen U.S. medical students from low-income backgrounds who would have been barred from accepting a free education in Cuba under new regulations.
The fate of the House initiative remains unclear. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leading advocate of eased travel and trade with Cuba, yesterday predicted strong rejection of the gift-package rules if the Senate is allowed to vote on them. Dorgan cautioned that Republicans would work to keep the language out of final legislation -- the appropriations bill for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State -- sent to the president for signature.
Both houses voted last year to lift a travel ban to the island, but Republican leaders removed the measure from the final bill.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) made clear his support for Bush's policy. He told his colleagues that Castro "gleefully profits off the generosity of Cuban Americans and the desperation of the Cuban people."
The emotional debate and the rejection of the Bush measure demonstrated the deepening divisions on Cuba, an issue that mixes electoral calculations with a 45-year-old foreign policy conundrum.
The White House is calculating that the stricter policy will motivate Cuban Americans, many of whom are strongly Republican, to turn out on Nov. 2 in what polls are showing will be another close presidential race in Florida.
Yet fresh anger among some Cuban Americans who have been told they cannot visit relatives more than once every three years or send money to anyone outside their immediate family has created a backlash that Florida Democrats aim to exploit.
"It's creating a big divide, the biggest there has ever been," Alfredo Duran, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in advance of a new poll on the issue to be released today.
DeLay took the House floor Wednesday night to say that $1 billion a year reaches Cuba in charitable goods from friends and relatives in the United States.
He said that billion is money that Castro "does not have to spend on services but instead can spend on overtime for his secret police."
But GOP leaders were overwhelmed by the defection of large numbers of Republican free traders and farm state politicians. The amendment's chief sponsor, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), said the rules "only promote a dependency of Cubans on their repressive government."