Despite House vote to keep government open, outlook bleak in Senate
Today is D-Day in Washington. Either the Senate approves a temporary spending bill, or a partial government shutdown — along with the blame game — begins.
The House approved the measure, which contained a 6-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, 230-197 on Thursday. Six Democrats — none from Florida — crossed over to join 224 Republicans to send the measure to the Senate.
After returning from the Christmas recess, nearly everyone on Capitol Hill knew this budget extension would be a heavy lift. To get the December extension through, Republicans promised to take up the legislative authorization for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in January.
Democrats wanted DACA attached to the funding extension, but Republicans only promised to provide a DACA fix by the March deadline established by Donald Trump. Trump wants immigration reform and funds for a border wall to coincide with any DACA fix.
Last week, a White House meeting on the issues brought out the accusations of Trump using a vulgar term to describe Haiti and African nations. The ensuing firestorm took the focus away from the issues at hand. It also hardened Democratic resolve to not make a deal with Trump unless it is on their terms.
With no chance to combine all of those issues into a bill this week, the real fear of a shutdown has intensified. Democrats are not the only obstacle to a deal.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, some Republicans stated their reluctance to support the measure was because of insufficient funding for the military. Kendall Republican Carlos Curbelo insisted the DACA fix must be part of the deal, while others wanted immigration reform included.
In the end, joining Curbelo in voting “no” for that very reason was fellow Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach was the other Republican to join all Florida Democrats in voting against it.
Including the CHIP extension was designed to give the GOP additional leverage and force Democrats into casting a vote against CHIP funding. Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor has been a consistent voice in expressing the need to extend the program.
Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan urged a yes vote saying “We cannot allow this program to lapse and jeopardize the health of 9 million children nationwide.” CHIP will expire March 31 unless Congress acts.
St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist voted “no” and said “Unless or until we get serious about the fixes and compromises we know we need to make to move our nation forward, I’m a NO on the continuing resolution.
In the end, GOP leadership got their way, despite yet another misguided missive via Twitter launched by Trump. The president tweeted on Thursday morning “CHIP should be part of a long-term solution, not a 30-day, or short-term extension.”
It was the second time in a week a presidential tweet had undermined his supporters. He nearly blew up the FISA reauthorization vote in the House with a contradictory message that required a correction an hour later (see FISA vote below).
By lunchtime, the White House communications office put out a statement saying Trump was in favor of the House stopgap measure.
The outlook to find 60 votes in the Senate looks bleak, and shutdown seems likely. Unless a near miracle happens on Friday, the finger-pointing is almost ready to begin.
Nelson hauls in campaign cash while drilling politics continue
The three-term Democrat, who is running for a fourth in November, revealed some good news on the fundraising end. Nelson’s campaign revealed is reporting $2.4 million raised over the fourth quarter, bringing his cash on hand total to more than $8 million.
Nelson will undoubtedly need the money as he represents one of 26 Democrats defending seats (compared to 8 for the GOP) in 2018. Of those, Nelson is one of 10 Democrats running for re-election in a state won by Donald Trump in 2016.
If Gov. Rick Scott challenges Nelson, the incumbent will be spending a lot of time dialing for dollars. Florida would again become one of the most expensive Senate seats in America.
Nelson is also in the news again on the oil drilling front. This time, however, he is playing defense.
He has been adamant that oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico “will never happen” as long as he is in the Senate. The Senator also said he has opposed it all of his life while Scott was open to it in the past.
Now, Florida media is digging up comments from 2010 where Nelson did not openly oppose a proposal to drill in the gulf when the Obama Administration considered it. Environmentalists were unhappy.
Deepwater Horizon changed many minds.
Going forward, Nelson will try to steer the discussion toward his sponsorship of legislation that led to the current moratorium on drilling in the Eastern Gulf along with further actions demonstrating his commitment.
For example, on Wednesday, Nelson announced he was placing a hold on three Department of the Interior nominees until Zinke officially publishes a new offshore oil drilling plan that officially takes Florida “off the table” as Zinke announced on January 9.
After the Zinke announcement, Nelson wrote a letter to the Secretary requesting specific details on any changes made to the agency’s five-year drilling plan. Nelson has also said Floridians should view Zinke’s promise as “just empty words” until he follows through with a new plan officially excluding the Sunshine State.
Rubio bill seeks to punish election meddlers
While the final results of the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections are at least months away, Florida’s junior Senator wants to put the Russians on notice. In other words, stay out of our elections or there will be consequences.
Rubio, along with Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen this week filed the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, which would punish nations that seek to disrupt American elections, attack candidates, campaigns, or voting infrastructure.
“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said in a news release. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”
It is already known Russia manipulated social media channels and hacked political campaign committees and local elections boards to undermine the democratic process in 2016. The senators said they expect the threat will grow in future years — and we must do everything possible to prevent these attacks.
The DETER Act uses key national security tools to dissuade hostile foreign powers from meddling in U.S. elections by ensuring that they know well in advance that the costs will outweigh the benefits.
Delegation, with few exceptions, solidly behind foreign surveillance authorization
With all the drama surround budgets and government shutdowns, Congress has approved the reauthorizing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for another six years. The House voted in favor last week by a final count of 256-164, while the Senate gave it a thumbs up with a 65-34 vote on Thursday.
It wasn’t easy getting the bill passed in either chamber. On the morning of the House vote, Trump sent out a confusing Thursday tweet almost blaming the law for facilitating surveillance on him and his campaign in 2016.
“I definitely heard from some other members that they’re like ‘Well, fine, I’m voting no then,’” recalled Okeechobee Republican Tom Rooney, who is chairman of the House National Security Agency subcommittee. “If he doesn’t care, then I don’t care.”
Trump sent out a subsequent tweet that he was in favor of the reauthorization and the vote sailed through.
In the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul did all he could to keep the bill from coming to the floor via a filibuster. After some deal-making, supporters gained the 60 votes necessary to advance the bill to a vote.
Among the Florida delegation, 24 voted to reauthorize. Both Senators and 23 House members went along while Miramar Democrat Alcee Hastings, Orlando Democrat Darren Soto, Orlando Republican Daniel Webster and Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho voted no. Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson did not vote.
Gaetz believes DOJ, FBI officials could go to jail
The Republican from Fort Walton Beach has made it clear he is no fan of Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller, but is especially critical of former FBI Director James Comey and leadership at the Department of Justice, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
On Thursday, he took it a step further saying some of the leadership at both institutions may have committed criminal acts. The latest missive comes following a review of a memo by several members of Congress “that contained previously undisclosed information involving the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ).”
Soon after viewing the information, Gaetz shared his opinions of what he saw.
“The House must immediately make public the memo prepared by the Intelligence Committee regarding the FBI and the Department of Justice,” Gaetz said in a statement. “The facts contained in this memo are jaw-dropping and demand full transparency. There is no higher priority than the release of this information to preserve our democracy,”
Later on Thursday, he appeared on the Sean Hannity television show and took it a step further.
“I think that this will not end just with firings,” Gaetz said. “I believe there are people who will go to jail. I was very persuaded by the evidence.”
Toward the end of the interview, Gaetz and Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, who joined him on the set, expressed confidence that when the information is made public, the Mueller investigation will crumble. Gaetz described the inquiry as “a lie built on corruption.”
DeSantis touts second high-profile endorsement in race for Governor
First, it was President Trump. Now, radio host and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity has given the Ponte Vedra Congressman his endorsement for Governor of Florida.
“I’ve known you all these years,” said Hannity. “I cannot more enthusiastically endorse and completely support your run, and I really think the people of Florida will be blessed because I know what a strong leader you are. You’re going to be my future governor, I hope,” Hannity, who owns a condo in Naples, added.
Click the image below to hear Hannity’s endorsement:
The latest public polling shows a close contest for the GOP nomination between DeSantis and Commissioner of Agriculture and former Congressman Adam Putnam. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is also expected to enter the race.
But with two high-profile endorsements and some big money Republicans backing his candidacy, DeSantis will be a player in the fall.
He expressed his gratitude for the Hannity endorsement.
“That means a lot to me,” replied DeSantis. “We’ve got a good opportunity to build on the success that Governor Scott has had. I think this tax bill is going to give us a tremendous, competitive advantage in Florida to create a lot of jobs. We have an opportunity to fix our activist courts and live under the rule of law.”
Murphy, Orlando delegation, fight decision to take border/customs agents from airport
Border security is a priority of the Trump administration, but concerning the Orlando delegation are recent actions that could have negative consequences for Orlando International Airport and the region. In December, the administration announced ten border patrol and customs agents would shift to the southwest border with Mexico.
Airport officials sent letters to both U.S. Senators from Florida and the Orlando delegation that included Democrats Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto and Val Demings as well as Republican Dan Webster.
“We believe taking 10 CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officers from their important and critical duties at OIA will pose a serious and noticeable safety and security problem for the traveling public and the thousands of employees at OIA,” said the letter signed by Frank Kruppenbacher, the chair of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which oversees the Orlando airport, and the airport’s CEO Phillip Brown.
This week, Murphy invited senior border patrol officials to her office to make Orlando’s case. There was some good news, but still some problems with the decision.
“Met (Tuesday) evening with senior @CustomsBorder officials to discuss the agency’s troubling decision to transfer officers from @MCO (Orlando International Airport) to the southwest border for 90 days,” she tweeted. “I received clarification that it is four officers, not 10 — which is better, but still concerning.”
Murphy also revealed the agency would assess after 90 days if and where to divert additional agents.
“I’ll be pushing hard to prevent this,” she said. “These officers are needed at @MCO to protect our security and keep our economy moving.”
Murphy joins task force colleagues for intelligence briefings
The first-term Democrat from Winter Park, along with her colleagues from the House Democratic Caucus’ National Security Task Force, received detailed intelligence briefings this week. During a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in McClean, Va., Murphy, Jimmy Panetta of California, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, co-chairs of the Task Force, learned more of the inter-workings of the NCTC.
The NCTC leads U.S. counterterrorism efforts by gathering information on foreign and domestic threats, providing expert analysis, and supporting members of the policy, intelligence, law enforcement, defense, homeland security, and foreign affairs communities.
“Honored to meet men and women who protect our nation from terrorists,” Murphy said. “Lessons we learned will help us promote principled policies that keep us safe.”
The Task Force co-chairs visited the NCTC as part of their broader effort to promote smart, strategic, and strong national security policies in Congress. During their visit, the co-chairs received a comprehensive overview of the NCTC’s mission by Acting Director Russ Travers, as well as in-depth briefings at the Operations Center by NCTC senior staff.
“The NCTC is at the forefront of the fight against terrorists, and it was an honor to meet with the men and women of the NCTC who work tirelessly to keep our country safe,” they said in a joint statement. “The briefings we received will help the Task Force as we work to promote well-informed and principled policies that protect our nation.”
Soto’s comments to town hall audience questioned
U.S. Rep. Soto of Orlando had come under fire for statements he made last Friday at a Puerto Rico town hall meeting in Kissimmee, when he urged evacuees to state that they intend to stay in Florida.
Soto’s comments had come during a question-and-answer period after he, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and others (including Florida Gov. Scott) had addressed more than 500 people gathered at the Kissimmee Civic Center about issues surrounding Puerto Rico, evacuees who have fled to Florida following Hurricane Maria, and federal, state, and local assistance and recovery efforts.
“One thing for those who recently arrived need to know is, you’re going to be asked the question, ‘Do you intend to stay?’ I urge you to say ‘yes, for now,’” Soto told the town hall. “Because otherwise you’re going to get rejected, and then you’re going to find yourself without health care. So I urge you to watch for that pitch-fall question.”
A report on WFTV-News in Orlando, and posts on Facebook other social media, raised the question of whether Soto was encouraging people to make false claims about their intentions to stay in Florida or not.
In a written statement provided by his office Wednesday morning, Soto denied he made any such overture.
“I do not encourage anyone who is planning to leave our state to falsely claim otherwise,” Soto said. “Many recently arrived Puerto Ricans have a high probability of staying in Florida. The intent of my statement was to encourage them to err on the side of caution and declare their intent to stay if they are in doubt about their future plans.” Soto said.
One of Soto’s GOP 2018 opponents felt the issue was an ethics, not legal, problem.
“Is it a big problem? Probably not,” said Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud. “It’s an ethical problem. He shouldn’t have done it.”
Bilirakis named co-chair of International Religious Freedom Caucus
This week, the Republican veteran from District 12 took on another leadership role. Along with California Democrat Juan Vargas, the two were named co-chairs of the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus.
The caucus, founded in 2006, seeks to keep members of Congress informed about religious freedom issues and in contact with outside groups in the field. The first caucus briefing for 2018 occurs late this week.
“Freedom of religion is one of the most basic human rights, and it is regularly denied to millions of people around the globe, sometimes in the most horrific and violent manner possible-even by those who claim to be our allies,” Bilirakis said in a news release. “We cannot, in good conscience, sit by silently and allow these atrocities to occur. I am proud to be named co-chair, and look forward to continuing to lead the charge against religious persecution.”
The focus for the first caucus meeting of the year is the effect of the lack of religious freedom in North Korea.
Crist’s veterans court bill picks up key endorsement
Just two months after the St. Petersburg Democrat launched a bipartisan bill designed to help veterans that find themselves in the criminal justice system, the legislation has picked up a key endorsement. The Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act, co-sponsored by California Republican Jeff Denham, has won the support of the National Military & Veterans Alliance (NMVA).
Comprising the NMVA is more than a dozen military veterans support groups. Also, the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans are behind the effort.
According to the sponsors, after serving our country, too many veterans are experiencing mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness, which can often land them in the criminal justice system. Veterans treatment courts provide the counseling, care, and support veterans need to help address these challenges to transition to civilian life more successfully.
The bipartisan bill is intended to enhance state and local veterans treatment court programs that support the unique needs of veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system. It establishes a program within the Department of Justice, in coordination with the VA, to provide grants, training, and technical assistance to help state, local, and tribal governments develop and maintain veterans treatment courts.
Currently, supporting these programs are dedicated individuals in law enforcement, the judicial system, the legal community, VA officials, Veterans Service Organizations, and other community organizations. The bill would provide federal resources for the establishment of new treatment courts.
“Heartening to see such an outpouring of support from fellow members of Congress and leading Veterans Service Organizations to bolster veterans treatment court programs, better serving their unique needs,” Crist said in a news release “Through these programs, we can help veterans thrive when facing challenges transitioning to civilian life.”
The bill has 48 co-sponsors including Florida Democrats Frederica Wilson, Soto, Murphy, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Demings and Lois Frankel. Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and John Rutherford have also signed onto the measure.
T. Rooney pleased earmarks could return
It wasn’t that long ago that earmarks were a dirty word in Washington. It stood for pork barrel spending where spending items relevant to a legislator could be slipped into spending legislation with little, if any, review.
In 2011, Congress banned earmarks, a ban that has not been lifted. But on Wednesday, during a subcommittee of the House Rules Committee, earmarks appeared to be near a return.
“There is significant sentiment on my side of the aisle that this needs to be done,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said.
There is sentiment from the Republican side as well. Okeechobee Republican Rooney is one of the biggest proponents of a modest return of earmarks.
“Restoring limited, transparent earmarks for public water projects, roads & bridges the right way, out in the open, means Congress can help fix our country’s infrastructure within existing budget — no cost,” Rooney tweeted this week.
During a hearing Rooney spoke of not allowing “a few bad apples,” who abuse the earmarking process, to keep legislators from helping their constituents. One of the arguments forwarded by Rooney, Hoyer and others is that Congress has the Constitutional authority to approve spending and they must regain that power.
South Florida representatives honor slain prosecutor
On the anniversary of the death of a courageous Argentinian prosecutor, two South Florida lawmakers honored his memory. Miami Republican Ros-Lehtinen and Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch remembered Alberto Nisman by offering a resolution honoring his work and calling for a full investigation into his death.
Nisman was investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. It is the worst terrorist attack in Argentinian history.
On January 18, 2015, the day before he was to report his findings, Nisman was found dead under mysterious conditions. It was later ruled a homicide.
“Alberto Nisman committed himself to uncovering the truth of the horrific AMIA bombing that killed 85 and injured hundreds of others,” said Deutch in a joint news release. “He refused to let Iran or Hezbollah get away with this act of terrorism, and he refused to let corrupt officials cover up the facts and wash their hands of this horrible attack.”
In December 2017, a federal judge in Argentina indicted former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner for treason for covering up Iran’s involvement in the bombing.
“Despite constant threats, Alberto relentlessly pursued those responsible for the deadly attack in order to bring them to justice,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “With this resolution, we seek to continue Alberto’s vital work, urge transparency in the investigation of both Alberto’s murder and the AMIA bombing, and finally, once and for all, hold Iran accountable for its senseless and despicable crimes against Buenos Aires’ Jewish community.”