Obama Will Ignore Cuba Provision in Omnibus

Mar 10, 2009 3:30pm

ABC News’ Z. Byron Wolf reports:  Democrats were one vote short last Thursday when they postponed a vote in the Senate on the omnibus spending bill that will fund the government for the remainder of this year.

One reason is that at least two Democrats who might otherwise have supported the bill were extremely concerned about provisions in it that have to do with relaxing the embargo on Cuba.

Those Senators have been given some wiggle room in their votes by the Obama administration, which today distanced itself from the provisions in the bill that were inserted last year by other Democrats on Capitol Hill.

In doing so, Obama could open himself up to more criticism that he is selectively interpreting language passed by Congress. Obama was critical of President Bush for interpreting laws from Congress with so-called "signing statements" that the Bush administration would publish and has called for a full review of all Bush era signing statements. Obama said he would only rarely publish his own. "It’s like a presidential signing statement except it’s not the president and it’s not a signing statement," said Robert Gibbs, when asked about the letter from Tim Geithner by Jake Tapper. He argued that every law must be interpreted, and deferred questions about Tim Geitner’s letter to the Treasury Department. The Senators concerned with the Cuba provisions in the spending bill have been told in writing by Treasury Secretary Geithner to essentially ignore one of the Cuba provisions in the spending bill and not to worry about the Obama administration’s interpretations of another one. Geithner, in a letter to Democratic Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida, argues that Obama had nothing to do with the Cuba provisions and that the Treasury Department will ignore them, for the time being, after the bill is signed.

“As you know, the Obama administration had nothing to do with these or any other provisions of that bill,” said Geithner in his letter. The same bill received veto threat from President Bush, so Democrats passed a temporary spending plan last year and delayed funding the government for this year until the new president took office.

One provision would have lifted restrictions on financing imports of U.S. food and medicine into Cuba. Current rules put in place by the Bush administration allow the imports, but require they be paid for up front.

"Exporters will still be required to receive payment in advance of shipment and will not be permitted to export to Cuba other than through third-party banks,” Geithner wrote, arguing that the provision in the spending bill does not negate an earlier law requiring that food and medicine exported to Cuba be paid for in cash and up front.

The spending bill also includes a provision to ease some travel restrictions to Cuba. But Geithner told the lawmakers in his letter that the provision would be narrowly interpreted.

Nelson said on the Senate floor today he would support the easing of some Cuba policies that President Obama supported as a candidate — allowing family members to visit the country every year instead of every three years and sending more money home to that family.

But Nelson said it will be the responsibility of the "current administration to lay it out, not from the tinkering of a few lawmakers in a must-pass piece of legislation without any debate."

Both Nelson and Menendez said they would support the omnibus with Geithner’s assurances.

A number of Republicans are expected to vote to cut off debate on the measure. At least two Democrats have said they will oppose the bill because of earmarks. Reid said last week that he will need Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is ailing from brain cancer, to vote to reach the magic number. — Z. Byron Wolf

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