The politics of offshore oil drilling now on full display
Last week, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the Trump Administration would put in motion a process that would ultimately expand offshore oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. The move would end an existing moratorium in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico
Bipartisan criticism from the Florida delegation quickly followed. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio urged Zinke “to recognize the Florida Congressional delegation’s bipartisan efforts to maintain and extend the moratorium and remove (the Eastern Gulf) from future planning purposes.”
Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan described the plan as “reckless, misguided and potentially catastrophic to Florida.” Palm City Republican Brian Mast said drilling “puts our economy, environment and marine life at risk.”
These are just a few examples of statements coming from Republicans. All delegation Democrats opposed the plan, but Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is running for a fourth term in November, immediately elevated his opposition into a crusade.
One other key player weighed in. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to run against Nelson in November, said he had “already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration.”
Scott got his meeting with Zinke almost immediately. On Wednesday, Zinke flew into Tallahassee for a meeting and a photo op. Afterward, Zinke told the media “Florida is obviously unique. For Floridians, we are not drilling off the coast of Florida, and clearly the governor has expressed it’s important.”
With the politics there for all to see, Nelson expressed his displeasure with the manner in which he got what he wanted for Florida. He made it clear it’s all about politics and Scott, whom he accused of supporting drilling in the past.
“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts,” he tweeted. “This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career. We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of FL.”
Other coastal states have, of course, cried “foul.” They point to also having scenic coastlines and governors who wish to keep drilling away.
Nelson wrote to Zinke on Wednesday demanding answers to pointed questions centering on what taking Florida “off the table” really means. He also questioned why Florida was singled out. He also took to the Senate floor to announce he had filed legislation permanently banning offshore drilling.
How much did politics play into all of this? When politicians win on policy yet still feel the need to complain, that is all we need to know.
Rubio holds first hearing on cyberattacks against diplomats in Cuba
The two-term Republican held the first hearings on Capitol Hill looking into the mysterious illnesses suffered by 24 American diplomats while serving in Cuba. Going into the hearing, Rubio said he found it hard to believe the sonic attacks occurred without the government’s knowledge.
“If you’re an American government official, you’re so closely monitored when you are in Havana that the idea that someone could attack you in a sophisticated way, or in any way for that matter, and the Cubans not at least know about it, is absurd,” Rubio said on Fox News.
The hearing, held Tuesday, was billed as “Attacks on US Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” Rubio chaired the hearing through his role as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and transnational crime.
“We can say that we don’t know how it happened,” he said. “We can even say we can’t know for sure who did it. But two things we know for sure: people were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it.”
The hearing focused not only on who might have committed the attacks, but also the response of the State Department to those attacks. Rubio had some criticism for the department for not setting up prescribed reviews of the attack in a timely manner.
Nelson urges FDA to help address IV fluid shortages
Florida’s senior senator is expressing concern about a shortage in Florida that is a direct result of the devastating impact Hurricane Maria unleashed on Puerto Rico. Florida hospitals are facing a shortage of intravenous (IV) saline liquids that come in bags manufactured in Puerto Rico.
In a letter to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Nelson said the storm and “the federal government’s sluggish response” in Puerto Rico have created additional problems in the U.S.
“Storm debris and damaged roads throughout the island make it extraordinarily difficult to transport these bags from the island to the port,” he wrote. This forces “some hospitals in Florida and across the country to make tough decisions regarding patient care.”
While understanding the remaining problems in Puerto Rico, “many of which are outside FDA’s jurisdiction, I strongly urge your agency to continue to make this one of your top priorities.”
Nelson, Rubio seek extension of unemployment benefits for Puerto Ricans
With a looming deadline for Puerto Ricans to apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) following Hurricane Maria, both Florida Senators are seeking an extension. On Thursday, they sent a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta asking for his intervention.
“The storm caused extensive damage in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans are still in the beginning stages of recovery,” they wrote. “The current deadline is set for January 11, 2018, but an extension is necessary to allow individuals sufficient time to apply for this much-needed assistance.”
The senators pointed to the continuing struggles of business in Puerto Rico to recover, thereby forcing workers to search for new employment opportunities. The DUA is the temporary lifeline for many.
“We urge your department to extend the deadline to apply for DUA and to provide necessary assistance to Puerto Ricans to ensure they have access to this program,” they added.
Gaetz praises new work requirement for Medicaid recipients
On Thursday, the Trump administration took the significant step of allowing states to establish work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued the new policy to all state Medicaid directors.
States implementing the work requirements could require able-bodied, working-age Medicaid enrollees to obtain employment or participate in job-training or related activity for at least 20 hours per week in order to maintain benefits.
Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz was among the first to weigh in on the new policy.
“I am glad that the Trump administration is encouraging states to implement work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults who receive Medicaid,” Gaetz said in a statement. “This common-sense policy, supported by a majority of Americans, will lift people out of poverty and dependence into the dignity and fulfillment of work. With millions of jobs unfilled in our country, and a booming economy that is creating new jobs daily, America needs workers.”
Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have promised a lawsuit once the first state imposes a work requirement. They maintain Medicaid is a health care program may undermine it.
“Throughout my time in Congress, I have fought for work requirements for welfare, and was successful in my efforts to have this policy included in the House FY 18 budget,” Gaetz said.
Rutherford’s counterterrorism bill passes House
The first-term Republican Representative from Jacksonville saw one of his bills pass the House Tuesday. The DHS Interagency Counterterrorism Task Force Act of 2017, introduced by Rutherford in December, was approved without a dissenting vote.
The bill authorizes the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to assign personnel to overseas interagency counterterrorism task forces. A major goal is to facilitate counterterrorism information sharing and combat threats stemming from overseas sources of conflict or terrorism.
“As terrorists and foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria seek to return home or travel to other regions in the wake of the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield, cooperation among U.S. military, national security, and law enforcement agencies is vital,” Rutherford said in a news release. “This bill will ensure DHS personnel overseas are better able to combat threats in the fight against terrorism.”
For example, assigning DHS personnel to Department of Defense locations would facilitate better collection and sharing of information, recovered from conflict zones, which significantly improves our ability to interdict terrorists before they seek to enter the country.
Rutherford is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. The bill, which was co-sponsored by 6 fellow Republicans, now goes to the Senate.
Demings bill addressing cops’ mental health becomes law
On Wednesday, Trump signed into law the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, a bill pushed in part by Demings to help address issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by law enforcement officers.
Demings, a Democrat who formerly served as Orlando police chief, introduced the bipartisan measure last spring along with Republican U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Doug Collins of Georgia, and David Reichert of Washington, and Democrat Bill Pascrell of New Jersey.
The bill, House Resolution 2228, offers resources to law enforcement agencies to deal with mental health issues faced by officers, and make grants available for peer mentoring, training and support programs such as crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks. It does not address insurance or workers’ compensation issues, matters that have come to the forefront in the Florida Legislature this year in bills seeking to provide comprehensive mental health coverage for first-responders.
“As a former Chief of Police with 27 years in law enforcement, I did everything I could to protect my officers from dangerous situations. But the reality is that this is a dangerous job. Our law enforcement officers are at risk of physical and mental trauma every time they put on the uniform,” Demings stated in a news release from her office.
“We cannot ask our officers to do this work while failing to cope with the consequences. We must take care of them so they can take care of us. This important piece of legislation will ensure that agencies are better equipped and officers have any mental health support they need.”
Webster takes self-imposed pay cut
Clermont Republican Webster delivered a check to the Bureau of the Fiscal Service at the Department of the Treasury, something that he has done every year since being elected — rolling back his salary to 2008 levels.
“For too long Washington has operated under the mindset that if money is collected, it should be spent,” Webster said. “As an advocate of reducing spending, every year I return money from my salary back to the American taxpayers.”
If all government spending was rolled back to the 2008 amounts, Webster’s office said the country would have a balanced federal budget. In coming days, the congressman plans to announce the return of taxpayer dollars saved from his office budget in 2017. Webster said he has been committed to evaluating his purchases, discovering areas of waste, and carefully handling the funds that he has been allotted.
Castor’s bill promoting caregivers headed for president’s desk
The Democrat from Tampa celebrated the Senate’s passages of a bipartisan bill designed to assist the efforts of those who serve as caregivers. The RAISE Family Caregivers Act will develop a national strategy for caregivers with input from professionals in areas such as training, workplace policies, and others to offer better support.
“I was proud to work with my colleague, (Mississippi Republican) Rep. Gregg Harper and the AARP to bring attention to the importance of family caregivers,” Castor said in an email to constituents. “We have made much progress in recent years in elevating the role of caregivers, but as the complexity and intensity of family caregiving increase, a nationwide blueprint will help boost families and be smart and efficient with our resources.”
The strategy includes identifying recommended actions from the federal, state and local governments as well as communities, health care providers, and long-term provider services. A focus on family-provided health and long-term care is a major goal for patient well-being as well as minimizing the fiscal impact on federal, state and local budgets.
In addition to Castor, among the 113 co-sponsors were Democrats Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. Republicans Brian Mast of Palm City and Carlos Curbelo of Kendall also signed on.
Mast opens district office inside VA facility
The Republican from Palm City this week announced he is opening a new district office. Mast, a wounded warrior veteran, will soon have a new office at the West Palm Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“This is going to be a better path forward to advocate for all of our veterans,” Mast said on Fox News. He said he has been working on the idea for more than a year and thanked Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
“This idea came to fruition because this is the biggest stack of casework I get,” he explained.
Mast will also share the space with some of his colleagues in Congress. Democrats Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings and Lois Frankel, who also represent portions of the region, will use the office.
According to Mast, this is the first time members of Congress will hold office hours in a VA facility. He tweeted “If you want to understand a problem, you’ve got to be present for it.”
South Florida duo teams up to protect veterans from pension poachers
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the Preventing Crimes Against Veterans Act, bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Deutch of Boca Raton and Republican Tom Rooney of Okeechobee that would protect veterans from scam artists who target them for profit.
In recent years, financial predators have increasingly targeted veterans, particularly elderly veterans in low-income housing or Assisted Living Facilities, in an effort to defraud them out of their Veteran’s Affairs (VA) benefits. Currently, it is illegal for unauthorized individuals to charge veterans a fee for aid in receiving their benefits, like VA pensions.
However there are no legal or financial repercussions for those who choose to blatantly violate this law, and these scammers often get away with charging veterans exorbitant fees while the veteran has no guarantee that they’ll receive any help with their VA benefits.
“Pension poaching is not only illegal, it’s a despicable and immoral practice,” said Deutch. “These scammers are getting more and more sophisticated in how they identify and deceive vulnerable veterans with lofty promises to help them with their pensions while charging outrageous fees.
If enacted, the bill would close existing loopholes by levying heavy fines, imprisonment of up to five years, or both, on any individual who blatantly engages in schemes to defraud veterans (or their spouses) of their benefits.
“Anyone who seeks to financially exploit the men and women who have served our country and cheat them out of their hard-earned VA benefits should have to face a harsh punishment for their criminal actions,” Rooney said. “This common-sense legislation will help give prosecutors the tools they need to protect our veterans and go after these criminals.”
In addition to Rooney and Deutch, the bill had 20 additional co-sponsors including Orlando Democrat Darren Soto, Kendall Republican Carlos Curbelo and Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart.
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is sponsoring the companion legislation in the Senate.
Diaz-Balart: Trump’s handling of immigration meeting was ‘masterful’
According to the Republican from Miami, the Donald Trump people saw at the bipartisan immigration meeting on Tuesday was the Trump he has come to know. Diaz-Balart was the only Floridian among the 25 invited lawmakers and said afterward those critics who question Trump’s mental capacity have it all wrong.
“The American people got to see the person I’ve dealt with,” Diaz-Balart said Wednesday morning on The Laura Ingraham Show. “There’s been all this innuendo and statements that the president is not stable,” he told guest host Raymond Arroyo. “He’s not real … He doesn’t know anything … He’s stupid.”
“Well, you know something? That’s just not true.”
Some analysts speculate that Trump’s decision to let the television cameras stay in the room Tuesday — for 55 fascinating minutes — was a direct rebuke to the uproar in the past week over passages from “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff.
He said he was extremely impressed by the manner in which conducted the meeting, which lasted 90 minutes. Expecting a “dog and pony show,” Diaz-Balart claimed Trump handled the meeting “masterfully.”
While the media was giving him generally good marks for his performance, some conservatives criticized his willingness to bargain on areas involving illegal immigration.
“I think people underestimate the president,” Diaz-Balart continued. “I don’t think the press underestimates him — they want to destroy him. But I think that a lot of folks who support him underestimate him a lot.”
National Democrats name CD 26 hopeful Mucarsel-Powell to ‘Red to Blue’ program
National Democrats named Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which highlights Democratic recruits meeting certain campaign goals.
Mucarsel-Powell is running in Florida’s 26th Congressional District race against GOP incumbent Curbelo. She was one of seven Democrats added to the program, bringing the list to 18 candidates nationwide who stand to benefit from DCCC guidance and staff resources.
“As a working mom, a Latina and an immigrant to the United States, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell will fight every day to ensure that the American dream — which she’s lived — exists for her kids and the kids of so many others in South Florida,” said DCCC Chair Ben Ray Luján in a statement. “And it’s clear what’s at stake for South Florida families — Debbie has centered her candidacy from day one on protecting access to high quality, affordable health care for the families she will represent. Debbie is running a people-driven, grassroots campaign built on earning voters’ trust and their votes this November.”
For months, the DCCC has been targeting Curbelo. Although Curbelo defeated Democrat Joe Garcia by 12 points in 2016, Hillary Clinton also won CD 26 by double digits over Donald Trump that year.
Also competing against Mucarsel-Powell in the Democratic primary are Steve Smith and Steven Machat, a Miami Beach music producer and attorney who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2016. The DCCC says that her inclusion into the Red to Blue program does not constitute an endorsement in the Democratic primary.
Help on the way for endangered Florida Republicans
The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a Super PAC backed by House leadership has reported record-breaking fundraising in 2017. Going into the 2018 elections, the group reports $15 million cash on hand.
That is good news for Mast and Curbelo. Mast is seeking re-election to his seat in F’orida’s 18th Congressional District while Curbelo is running for a third term in the 26th District.
CLF is operating two field offices in each district. No such presence exists in the 27th District held by the retiring Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, providing evidence the GOP believes it will lose the seat.
The American Action Network (AAN), in conjunction with CLF, reported raising $66 million in 2017, the best off-year total in the organization’s history. AAN has regularly run ads supporting Mast and Curbelo, along with other Republicans in marginal districts, throughout 2017.
— American Action Network (@AAN) January 10, 2018
Mast and Curbelo are among the fundraising leaders within the delegation through the third quarter. Mast had $921,000 cash on hand through October 30 while Curbelo had $1.35 million.
“CLF’s record-setting off-year fundraising is a testament to Speaker [Paul] Ryan’s leadership and House Republicans’ conservative agenda,” said CLF and AAN Executive Director Corry Bliss. “Knowing history is against us, CLF’s field program has laid the groundwork to protect the Republican House majority well ahead of Election Day, opening 27 field offices and making over 5 million voter contacts to date.”
Campaign finance reports for the fourth quarter are due this month.
Curbelo’s opponent, Mucarsel-Powell, raised $161,000 in October while Mast’s leading opponent, Lauren Baer, announced she had raised $575,000 by the end of 2017.
The Cook Political Report lists Mast’s seat as “Likely Republican” and Curbelo’s race a “Tossup.” Ros-Lehtinen’s district is listed as “Leans Democratic.”