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Senate committee vote signals a slight GOP thaw in Cuba policy

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) leaves a GOP caucus luncheon at the Capitol in 2014. Moran offered a successful amendment to an appropriations bill Thursday to end the longstanding Cuban travel ban. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Most congressional Republicans have been deeply critical of President Obama's recent efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, but one GOP-controlled panel voted Thursday to ease significant restrictions on American links with the island nation.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to attach three amendments regarding Cuban relations with Cuba to one of the 12 yearly federal spending bills — including a measure that would end the travel ban that has prevented most Americans from visiting Cuba since 1963.

The amendments represent the first legislation approved by a congressional panel to ease U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"I'm of the view that we have the opportunity to increase the likelihood that the Cuban people have greater liberties and freedom with the ability to connect with them," said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who offered the travel-ban amendment. "But I would also say that, as Americans, we have certain freedoms that we cherish. And Americans can travel round the globe today ... [and] no country is totally prohibited with the exception of Cuba."

"After 60 years, we might try something different," he added.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a longtime advocate of normalizing Cuban relations, seized on the second point, noting that U.S. citizens are free to travel to nations, such as North Korea and Iran, that are even more virulently at odds with America. "The only country where Americans are told they can't go and spend their own money is Cuba," he said. "It does not make sense. We ought to be allowed to go there."

The amendment was approved on an 18 to 12 vote. The committee approved two other amendments pertaining to Cuba on voice vote.

One, offered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), would end restrictions on merchant ships' travel to and from Cuba, while the other, from Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) ends a ban on the financing of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.

It is unlikely that the language adopted Thursday will make its way into law. But the Senate panel's adoption of pro-normalization language could play into future negotiations with House, which has sought to use the appropriations process to halt or reverse Obama's push for greater openness.