WASHINGTON, March 10, 2009 (AFP) - The US Senate late Tuesday passed a 410-billion-dollar package that pays for government operations until October 1 and eases Cold War-inspired restrictions on Cuba.
Senators voted 62-35 to end bitter debate on the measure, then approved the legislation by voice vote two weeks after the House of Representatives passed it, sending it to US President Barack Obama for his signature.
The bill's chiefly Democratic supporters beat back a series of amendments on a range of issues, including an effort by foes of Cuba's government to block measures seen as lifting pressure on Havana.
Obama has said he supports easing travel to the island and cash remittances from relatives working in the United States to loved ones in Cuba, but has resisted calls to lift the entire decades-old US embargo.
The budget bill would block enforcement of rules that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years, allowing them to visit once per year instead.
It would also expand the definition of "close relative" to allow Cuban-Americans to visit cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, in addition to parents, grandparents, children and siblings.
The bill would allow Cuban-Americans to spend up to 179 dollars per day while in Cuba, and would also ease some restrictions on food and medicine sales to Cuba - but it does not lift the US embargo.
The legislation's mostly Republican foes immediately urged Obama to veto what they have repeatedly denounced as a bloated and wasteful bill larded with pet projects rather than genuine recession-fighting measures.
"President Obama should veto this bill," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement. "A recession is not an excuse for politicians to spend taxpayers' hard-earned money with reckless abandon."
Republicans had also denounced the package's eight-percent spending increase overall and a multitude of pet projects in the mammoth measure. The measure includes about 20.5 billion dollars for the US Department of Agriculture, including two billion to help the Food and Drug Administration to improve food security.
One clause forbids the department from allowing imports of potentially harmful poultry from China.
The US Justice Department would get some 57.7 billion dollars, including 7.1 billion for the FBI in a bid to help the bureau hire 280 new agents and 271 analysts.
Foreign affairs monies run about 36.6 billion dollars, including 2.4 billion for Israel and 1.5 billion for Egypt.
The legislation also includes hundreds of individual pet projects known as "earmarks" that have drawn fire, chiefly from Republicans, with government revenues feeling the pinch of the global financial crisis.