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For most Americans, it's been a crime for the past five decades to visit Cuba. For years, a bipartisan group in Congress has been trying to change that, and they think their chances of doing so are better now than ever.
NPR's David Welna reports on lawmakers' efforts today to drum up wider support for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.
DAVID WELNA: North Dakota may be away from Cuba, but letting Americans travel freely to that island is near and dear to the heart of one of that state's Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all.
DAVID WELNA: Dorgan is one of the Senate's lead co-sponsors of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. So is his Democratic colleague from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd.
Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): What an irony it is. Tonight, I can go out to Dulles Airport, get on a plane, and I can fly to Iran, I can fly to North Korea, I can fly to Syria, Libya. Now, they may not let me in, but my country doesn't prohibit me from going. The only country in the world, which my country doesn't allow me to go to an airport and go anywhere, is to Cuba, the only country in the world.
WELNA: Dodd, Dorgan and others have tried before to lift the Treasury Department's restrictions on travel to Cuba. Wyoming Republican Senator Mike Enzi, who's also co-sponsoring the bill, says past efforts have been stymied by what he calls the downside to introducing such legislation.
Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): The downside to it is that Castro has always done something that really violated human rights and raised the ire of the American people, who said how can you possibly eliminate any of the restrictions on Cuba?
Well, that's exactly why they do those things. They don't want us to reduce any of those restrictions. They don't want the interoperation, the intercommunication with American citizens.
WELNA: The bill that lifts the travel ban has the backing of the group Human Rights Watch. It's also back by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber's Myron Brilliant says the U.S. is losing out on more than $1 billion worth of sales to Cuba every year.
Mr. MYRON BRILLIANT (United States Chamber of Commerce): We see the end of the travel ban as an important first step, but ultimately what we want to see is also an end of the trade embargo.
WELNA: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain got the chamber's endorsement last year when he was running for president, but would McCain vote for lifting the travel ban?
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
WELNA: And New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who's the son of Cuban immigrants, says he'll oppose any legislation that means more foreign income for Cuba.
Senator BOB MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): The Castro regime has had huge influxes of money that have helped it maintain its dictatorship, and so I don't know that the United States wants to add to that ability to continue a dictatorship that ultimately oppresses its people, that has political prisoners in jail and that doesn't allow the basic rights that we observe here in America.
WELNA: Still, bill sponsor Dorgan says this bipartisan legislation is on a glide path.
Sen. DORGAN: I think that we've finally reached a new watermark here on this issue. I think there is sufficient votes in both the House and the Senate on a bill like this to finally get it passed and get it to the president for signature.
WELNA: First, though, the Senate has to take up the measure. Majority Leader Harry Reid had this to say today when asked when that might happen.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Every year, we have votes on Cuba. I'm sure this year will be no different.
WELNA: A similar measure has also been introduced in the House. David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.
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