A good week for Trump, GOP candidates
In the era of President Donald Trump, there is no longer anything called a news cycle in a normal sense. We are housebroken to breaking news.
Things that are normally big headlines only remain that way for a short period of time, because someone, or something, takes its place. Most of the time he is doing what he said he would do.
On Tuesday, those who care (and everyone should) were waiting for a 2 p.m. announcement on whether Trump would pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. Candidate Trump often referred to the controversial agreement as “the worst deal ever negotiated” and promised to “tear it up” if elected.
He kept that promise and reimposed tough sanctions on the rogue regime. The issue has a chance to play a role in the fall Senate race between incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Nelson strongly condemned Trump’s move, calling it a “tragic mistake.” He took to the Senate floor, saying Trump’s action is “the exact opposite of what we should be doing” and accused the president of deciding to “back off Iran.”
Scott lauded Trump’s move by saying, “The President made the right move today by scrapping the Iran deal and reimposing sanctions against the Iranian regime. The deal has done very little to stop Iran from staying on the path of developing a nuclear regime.”
Among House Democrats weighing in was Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, who acknowledged the threatening actions of the Iranian regime, but said Trump’s decision was “shortsighted and misguided.” Crist’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, a consistent critic of Iran, said: “I regret the President’s decision to weaken American leadership around the globe.”
Even before Trump announced his decision, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio urged Trump to “not hesitate to nix this flawed and dangerous agreement that is beyond fixing.” GOP Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City said, “I commend President Trump for keeping his promise and I continue to support stronger sanctions against Iran.”
While all of that was still being processed, Trump was at Joint Base Andrews at 3 a.m. Thursday welcoming home newly-confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with three Americans freed from North Korea. A few hours later, Trump announced the historic summit with Kim Jong Un will take place on June 12 in Singapore.
Slipped between those two events was the confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee for CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel. It got rowdy at times (see Rubio below), but many now believe Trump will get his way and the CIA will have the first-ever woman director.
This was a good week for Trump and by extension, Republican candidates. Even before the pictures with freed prisoners and showing an enemy the middle finger, the president’s poll numbers were on the rise and the generic ballot was getting closer (see Poll Watch below).
Of course, Trump can also put out a tweet that negates his gains, but for now, things are trending slightly in the GOP’s direction.
Democrats will vote to confirm Haspel, thereby offsetting the opposition from Republican Senators John McCain and Rand Paul.
Nelson seeks cut in student loan interest rates
For the second year in a row, student loan interest rates are set to increase. Nelson believes those rates are going the wrong way.
He is calling on the Senate to take up legislation he filed last year that would cut interest rates for new student loans and allow those with existing loans to refinance under better terms. On Wednesday he wrote to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
“Higher education is becoming unaffordable for low- and middle-income individuals, and the federal government shouldn’t be putting it further out of reach,” Nelson wrote. “I strongly urge you to include S. 1521, the Student Loan Relief Act of 2017, as part of any upcoming Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization to help provide some much-needed relief to both future and past student borrowers across the country.”
Nelson filed his legislation last summer to cap federal student loan interest rates for undergraduate students at 4 percent, graduate students at 5 percent, and PLUS loans at 6 percent. The legislation is currently pending before the committee chaired by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander with Washington Democrat Patty Murray serving as ranking member.
According to Nelson, more than 43 million Americans currently have outstanding student loan debt. In Florida alone, students graduating with a four-year degree leave college with more than $24,000 in student loan debt on average. Federal student loan interest rates are set annually, with new rates taking effect on July 1 of each year.
Rubio responds to Haspel protester
Wednesday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee for CIA Director nominee Gina Haspel went pretty much as expected. She was grilled by Democratic members, politely questioned by most Republicans, and received shouted attacks from protesters.
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio offered Haspel his full-throated support and criticized his Democratic colleagues for what he described as partisanship.
“Ms. Haspel, you embody everything that I respect and admire about the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency and I support you not just because of your qualifications but because I want a young CIA trainee … to know that they too can one day be sitting where are you sitting today and have the opportunity to lead this agency,” Rubio said during the confirmation hearing.
“If someone like you cannot be confirmed to head this agency, then who can? If someone like you is smeared in this process, what message are we sending to the young men and women who are today serving our country in the same role in which you once served our country?”
During the hearing, protesters yelled “What do you do to human beings in U.S. custody” at Haspel for what they believe was her role in waterboarding terrorist captives. Rubio had a response.
“To answer the protester at today’s hearing who shouted at Haspel ‘What do you do to human beings in U.S. custody’, we treat them much better than they treated the innocent people they beheaded on video or killed on 9/11 or in some other terror attack,” he tweeted.
The Trump administration has expressed confidence that enough Democrats will support Haspel’s confirmation to offset the committed “no” votes of Republican Senators Paul and McCain.
Judiciary Committee passes FIRST STEP Act with Gaetz amendment
This week, the House Judiciary Committee passed the FIRST STEP Act, a bill designed to lower recidivism rates among prisoners through rehabilitation. Included was an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz, a committee member.
The amendment from the Fort Walton Beach Republican implements youth mentorship and dog training programs in at least 20 federal prisons for 5 years, doubling the number of prisons and the time frame provided in the original bill.
In mentorship programs, young inmates are paired with volunteers from faith-based or community organizations, as well as former inmates. In dog training programs, inmates train dogs in various skills, ranging from basic obedience to skills required to be a service or therapy dog.
“I am proud that the Judiciary Committee passed the FIRST STEP Act today, and even more pleased that the bill received such widespread bipartisan support,” Gaetz said in a news release. “This bill makes important improvements to America’s prison system, and it will help keep prisoners from returning to a life of crime upon their release.”
The bill passed out of the committee by a 25-5 vote. It has the support of Trump as well as daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a longtime advocate for prison reform and dog programs.
“I am grateful that the FIRST STEP Act passed; this humane bill improves America’s prison system,” said Lara Trump. “The pilot programs authorized by the bill, and strengthened by Mr. Gaetz’s amendment, will improve inmates’ quality of life, and the lives of our four-legged friends.”
Dunn’s bill passes VA committee
On Tuesday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed another bill sponsored by a delegation member. The committee unanimously approved the Veterans Opioid Abuse Prevention Act sponsored by Dunn.
The bill directs Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care providers to share prescribing data across a national network of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP’s).
“Veterans across our country are suffering from addiction and opioid abuse,” Dunn said in a release. “As a doctor and a veteran, I have met heroes who need help but aren’t finding it at the VA. We can change that.”
The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis issued a preliminary report in July of 2017 that mentioned the lack of cooperation between states as one of the significant shortcomings of state PDMP’s. Dunn’s legislation cooperates with the White House’s recommendation that the VA lead efforts to have all state and Federal PDMP’s share information.
“Our veterans are true American heroes, let’s give them a fighting chance and ensure no one slips through the cracks and becomes a victim of the opioid crisis,” added Dunn.
Rutherford, Demings file law enforcement protection bill
Two bipartisan delegation members who both headed Florida law enforcement agencies before their election to Congress have introduced a bill designed to protect law enforcement officers. Republican Rep. John Rutherford, and Democratic Rep. Val Demings, this week introduced the Protect and Serve Act of 2018.
The bill would create federal penalties for individuals who deliberately and maliciously target local, state, or federal law enforcement officers with violence.
“With an uptick in ambush attacks on law enforcement, like we saw last month in Trenton, Florida, we must ensure that there are steep consequences for anyone who targets our law enforcement officers,” said Rutherford in a joint release. “The Protect and Serve Act will serve as a significant deterrent for anyone who deliberately targets officers with violence.”
During the first four months of this year, 87 officers have been shot in the line of duty, 28 of whom lost their lives.
“There has been a 75 percent increase in officers shot and killed this year. Ambush-style killings have taken numerous officers’ lives,” said Demings. “Last month, two sheriff’s deputies here in Florida were assassinated while eating lunch. We must give our officers the tools, training, and protections needed to be safe on the job. I call on my colleagues in Congress to do our job so our officers can do theirs.”
The Protect and Serve Act has the endorsement of the National Association of Police Organizations, Major County Sheriffs, Sergeants Benevolent Association, and the National Fraternal Order of Police.
VA committee passes 3 Bilirakis bills
The House Veterans Affairs Committee was busy this week passing legislation designed to help veterans in different ways. Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who serves as vice chairman, been involved in several bills that passed out of the committee on Tuesday.
Among those was a measure that rectifies the exclusion of Navy veterans, known as Blue Water Navy Veterans, who have been excluded for presumptive status for exposure to Agent Orange. This has prevented them from receiving benefits and care for which they would otherwise be entitled.
“This was an important and long overdue step forward in the fight to get justice for these heroes,” Bilirakis said in a statement. “But we are not finished. I will continue to shepherd this bill throughout the remainder of the legislative process.”
The Committee has also passed legislation that has made improvements to the “Choice” program, which allows veterans to seek private care within their community when the VA is unable to treat them properly or meet their needs within a certain amount of time. While expressing commitment to “a strong VA system of care,” Bilirakis said veterans deserve options when their needs are not being met.
Finally, the committee advanced Bilirakis’ SITREP bill which disqualifies veterans from penalties when their place of education receives a late payment from the VA when processing their GI benefits.
“Today was a good day for our nation’s heroes. All of these initiatives will help improve the lives of those who have sacrificed so much on behalf of our country,” Bilirakis noted when speaking after the hearing.
Deutch joins bipartisan gun violence bill
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton joined with three colleagues from both parties to introduce the Jake Laird Act. The bill is named after an Indianapolis police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty by a man with mental illness.
The bill provides grants to encourage states to adopt laws, similar to Indiana’s 2005 Jake Laird Law, that enable local law enforcement, with probable cause, to seize and retain firearms from individuals who are determined to be an imminent danger to themselves or others. Families of the victims of the February 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wrote a letter to the bill sponsors in support of the bill.
“I made a promise to the Stoneman Douglas community that I’d do everything I can, work with any Member of Congress, and consider all options to help prevent gun violence,” said Deutch. “The Jake Laird Act is based on an existing state model that was passed with bipartisan support after the tragic death of Officer Laird. We are introducing this successful model in Congress, also with bipartisan support, to help the remaining states and territories without gun violence restraining order laws pass what could be life-saving tools.”
Joining Deutch as bill co-sponsors were Republicans Susan Brooks of Indiana and Fred Upton of Michigan, along with Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell.
Delegation impacts national defense funding bill
On Thursday, the House Armed Services cleared the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), directing billions into the country’s military and homeland security operations. Within the bill are provisions from three delegation members.
Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy and Kendall Republican Carlos Curbelo inserted a provision to help active duty personnel transfer to the civilian workforce. Murphy was the sponsor and Curbelo the co-sponsor of the BATTLE for Servicemember Act, which was woven into the NDAA.
“I’ve worked hard on the Armed Services Committee to ensure this bill supports our troops and veterans; combats emerging threats like cyber; and strengthens Orlando’s modeling, simulation, and training sector — all as part of a bipartisan effort to keep our country safe,” Murphy said.
“We owe it to our service members, and their families, to better help them transition back to the civilian job market,” Curbelo said when the original bill was launched.
Murphy worked with Palm City Republican Brian Mast to earlier file the Deterring and Defeating Rocket and Missile Threats to Israel Act. The provisions of that bill were also incorporated into the NDAA.
“Following my time in the Army, I chose to volunteer alongside the Israeli Defense Forces because our countries share the common ideals of freedom, democracy and mutual respect for all people,” said Mast. “This bipartisan legislation makes a strong statement that we will always work with Israel to promote peace and global security.”
The NDAA also contains language from Murphy’s Microloan Modernization Act which allows entrepreneurs more access to low-interest loans up to $50,000 and her proposal to send $20 million to the National Guard Bureau to combat opioids.
Poll watch: Trump, Scott, GOP trending up
Some polls of interest have come out in recent days that should be of interest to Florida politicos. Combined, they show some good news for Republicans, but they still have a tough road ahead to even maintain their status quo.
A poll from Florida Atlantic University shows Trump’s job approval rating has come up to nearly even. A total of 43 percent of Floridians give him favorable marks while 45 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Over the past 6 months, his approval has risen by two points and disapproval has dropped by two points.
At the same time, 49 percent of respondents would rather have Obama as president with 43 percent preferring Trump. All of these poll numbers reflect neither public opinion of Trump’s decision to leave the Iran deal nor the release of three American citizens from North Korea, for which Trump is earning significant credit.
The same FAU poll showed Scott leading Nelson 44-40 percent in their race for the U.S. Senate. Just two months ago, Nelson held a 10-point lead over the yet-unannounced Scott.
A CNN survey announced this week shows Democrats holding a 47-44 percent lead in the generic ballot and a Reuters/Ipsos poll showing only a one-point advantage. Less than three months ago, Republicans trailed in the CNN poll by a 54-38 percent margin, prompting predictions for a Democratic tsunami.
While the Real Clear Politics average of polls also shows the gap shrinking, it is still at 6.1 percent.
Florida Chamber flies-in
Florida’s delegation and leaders of federal agencies will be visited by members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which holds its latest “D.C. Fly-In” May 14-16.
According to the Chamber website, the Fly-In is a “dynamic event … to support private-sector job creation, regulatory reform, and creating opportunities for economic prosperity.” Previous meetings included Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Vern Buchanan, and others. Among the topics is common sense regulatory reform, lowering health care costs, economic growth, creating better outcomes, investing in infrastructure, entitlement and pro-business tax reform.
The cost to attend is $495 per person. Reservations are now available on flchamber.com; space is limited and invitations are nontransferable.
On this date in the headlines
May 11, 1973 — Former Attorney General John Mitchell and ex-Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans were indicted Thursday on charges of influence peddling, conspiracy and perjury. The charges were based on a secret $300,000 contribution to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.
U.S. Attorney Whitney North Seymour, Jr. said there was “nothing to indicate” President Nixon knew of the purported conspiracy. Seymour had tears in his eyes as he announced the indictment of his old Justice Department boss, Mitchell.
May 11, 2013 — The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status. IRS agents singled out dozens of organizations for additional reviews because they included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their exemption applications, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees the tax-exempt group.
“I call on the White House to conduct a transparent, governmentwide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Flight delayed; baby was early
Airline delays can be annoying, inconvenient, or sometimes costly. For Army Specialist Brooks Lindsey, it was life-changing.
As Brooks was rushing home to hopefully catch for the birth of his child, who was arriving early, he was told his flight had been delayed. Not to worry.
While sitting at the gate, his mother contacted him through FaceTime. Brooks was then able to watch his daughter’s birth via video chat.
Upon hearing the first cries of the newborn little girl, Brooks’ fellow passengers forgot about their agitation with the status of their tardy flight and broke into cheers.