U.S. President Barack Obama will be accompanied on his historic visit to Cuba this month by up to 20 members of the Senate and House of Representatives, U.S. congressional sources said on Monday.
Details were still being worked out, but the sources told Reuters the White House hoped the delegation would include Republicans as well as Obama's fellow Democrats, to underscore bipartisan support for his moves toward normal relations with the Communist-ruled country.
Congressional aides and sources outside the government who were consulted on the matter said the administration was also considering more moves to ease travel and trade restrictions before the trip.
"They will unveil a regulations package as it gets closer to the trip, further easing of travel, and further commerce and trade (changes)," said one person familiar with the administration's discussions.
The White House said on Feb. 18 that Obama would visit Havana March 21 and 22 in another step toward ending decades of animosity between the former Cold War foes.
News of his plans prompted sharp criticism from some members of the Republican-controlled Congress, where there is strong opposition to normalizing relations with Havana, led mostly by Cuban-American Republican lawmakers.
Some congressional Republicans want more normal relations with Cuba, as do most Democrats. But the issue is complicated on Capitol Hill because two senators vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are among the Cuban-Americans strongly opposed to Obama's policy shift.
Obama said the trip would help accelerate changes in Cuba since he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced moves to reopen ties in late 2014. Administration officials hope it will give Washington more leverage to make progress on opening business opportunities for U.S. companies.
Opponents say Obama has demanded too little from Cuba's government, particularly in the area of human rights, to end the embargo first imposed in 1960.
Obama has used his executive powers to ease some restrictions on trade and travel since announcing his new Cuba policy 15 months ago. Some major U.S. airlines have already begun asking regulators for approval to start flying specific routes to Cuba.
Observers say establishing U.S.-Cuban business relationships would make it difficult for the next U.S. president to roll back Obama's policy changes after he leaves office next January, if a Republican opponent of the policy wins the election.
Businessman Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate, told the Daily Caller in an interview published in September that he supports the Obama administration's opening with Cuba.
But the embargo cannot be lifted without Congress' approval and Republicans say that will not happen while Obama is in office.
White House officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by James Dalgleish)