By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are preparing a series of bills to ease U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba, with plans to introduce them in the Senate in the next two months, senior congressional aides said on Monday.
These would be the first practical steps toward lifting the U.S. trade embargo on the communist island following an announcement by the two countries in December that they would improve relations after five decades of hostility.
One piece of legislation being drafted would allow U.S. telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba and another would specifically target the market for agricultural products. A third bill would be a broader effort to lift the embargo.
One Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plan was to generate debate on Cuba policy, despite pockets of opposition in Congress. Public opinion polls show most Americans favor more normal relations.
"This is a long-term strategy," the aide said.
Republican and Democratic senators introduced a measure last week aimed at ending legal restrictions on travel between America and Cuba. A companion bill, also with bipartisan support, is being introduced in the House of Representatives.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they would work toward normalizing relations between their countries.
The shift has largely bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress but faces stiff resistance from a number of mostly Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of Florida.
Rubio, chairman of the Senate's Western Hemisphere subcommittee, will hold a hearing on U.S.-Cuba policy on Tuesday with testimony from senior Obama administration officials and Cuban activists.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican majority leader, has no plans now to let the travel bill come up for a vote in the chamber, a spokesman said.
But the bill's supporters, including Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, said they would consider introducing it as an amendment to a spending bill later this year.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Storey and Lisa Shumaker)