AG nominee’s answers not enough for Democrats
Within the context of the nearly one-month government shutdown, processes outlined in the Constitution still moved forward this week. Confirmation hearings for former Attorney General William Barr to resume that role in the Donald Trump administration were front and center in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Barr was expected to be asked repeatedly how he would handle his oversight role over the Mueller investigation, and Judiciary Committee Democrats did not disappoint.
If Barr’s mission was to ease the concern of Democrats, he might have been mildly successful, but likely not enough to help him earn a significant majority of the committee vote. Barr said he did not believe Mueller was leading a witch hunt, would not fire him without good cause and would not be bullied by Trump.
Despite these answers, Judiciary Committee vice-chair Sen. Diane Feinstein of California said she would vote “no” if the final Mueller report is not released, regardless of any long-standing Justice Department guidelines followed by previous attorneys general. Oregon’s Ron Wyden went to the Senate floor and said: “Mr. Barr’s views (on surveillance), once I have laid them out today, should frighten every member of this body.”
Even before Barr had the chance to answer the first question under oath, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an Op-Ed the nomination should be withdrawn. He later added that Barr’s memo questioning an obstruction of justice case against Trump was “disqualifying.”
Some gun rights groups revealed their opposition to Barr, but Republicans are expected to vote nearly in unison to approve his nomination. Before his previous stint as Attorney General, he was confirmed by the Senate without opposition.
Republicans were mostly silent on Barr’s performance. Neither Sen. Marco Rubio nor Sen. Rick Scott, serve on the Judiciary Committee but will be among the likely majority once a final vote comes.
Barr is unlikely to get more than one or two Democratic votes (if that). Republicans will go back to counting how many votes they can lose and still get a majority.
They have a 54-48 majority, but Republicans like former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, consistent Trump critics, are no longer there. Attorney General Barr should soon be official.
Scott wants Coast Guard paid during shutdown
The first bill co-sponsored by Florida’s junior Senator is one that would allow members of the U.S. Coast Guard to be paid during the government shutdown. They missed their first paycheck last week.
The Coast Guard is the only branch of the military that is not under the Department of Defense, which remains funded during the shutdown. According to Scott’s office, there are 4,879 active duty members in Florida affected by the shutdown.
“Our men and women risk their lives every day to protect our freedom and our way of life,” Scott said in a statement. “Congress has failed to pass a budget and keep government funded; the men and women of our Coast Guard shouldn’t be punished for the dysfunction of Washington.”
The bill, which mirrors a House companion bill, provides funding during any period during which interim or full-year appropriations for the Coast Guard are not in effect. Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City joined with Democratic colleagues to file House measure.
Rubio is also a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.
Senators staff up
Both Florida Senators made some personnel moves this week. Scott announced the hiring of several senior staff members while Rubio did some reorganizing.
The newly-installed Senator appointed former campaign staffers Craig Carbone as Deputy Chief of Staff and Chris Hartline as Communications Director. Leda Williams Kelly was named state director of external affairs. She served in a similar capacity during the campaign.
Appointed as policy directors were the Hon. Paul Bonicelli, Christine Diaz, and Colin Lomagistro. In November, Scott named Jackie Schutz Zeckman as Chief of Staff.
“I’m thrilled to announce such a strong group joining my staff to help fight for Florida families and Make Washington Work,” Scott said in a news release. “Their experience and their energy will be invaluable to me as I begin the process of representing Florida in the United States Senate.”
Rubio announced changes within his communication team beginning with the departure of Communications Director Olivia Perez-Cubas, who has been with the Senator since 2013. She is pursuing opportunities outside of Congress.
“I am grateful for her distinguished service to the United States Senate and the people of Florida, and wish her the very best in her new opportunity,” Rubio said in a news release.
He also named Capitol Hill veteran Nick Iacovella as the press secretary for domestic and national issues. The duties handled by Perez-Cubas will be spread among three staffers.
Arielle Mueller will be press secretary for Florida issues as well as the Senate Small Business Committee which Rubio chairs. Laura Ortiz, the Spanish media director, will handle foreign policy issues, while Justine Sanders will serve as deputy press secretary.
Pelosi: Postpone State of the Union
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the unusual step of asking Trump to delay the scheduled Jan. 29 State of the Union address until the government reopens. She cited security reasons due to the shutdown preventing the funding of the Secret Service.
In a letter to Trump, Pelosi pointed out that Secret Service agents and other personnel responsible for securing the speech, held in the House chamber, are not being paid during the partial shutdown and argued it could pose a security risk.
She suggested Trump could submit his presentation in writing, which Presidents routinely did until 1913. The last time the State of the Union was postponed came in 1986 following the shuttle Challenger tragedy.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky suggested having the address in the Senate chamber. Others are calling for a Trump-style rally outside of Washington.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose department oversees the Secret Service, countered those responsible for security were “fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”
Democrats are not rushing to embrace the concept, but are not bad-mouthing it, either. Pelosi said she is not rescinding the previously-offered invitation, but is only looking for a postponement.
Neither Trump nor the White House had issued a formal response as of Thursday. The President did, however, respond by denying the speaker an airplane for a planned trip abroad.
“In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I’m sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” Trump said in a letter.
Pelosi was set to join dozens of colleagues on a trip to Europe and Afghanistan before Trump pulled the plug.
No linking disaster funding to shutdown
The House passed a supplemental disaster funding bill that would reopen the government, plus add $14 billion in emergency spending for hurricanes and other disasters. The vote was along party lines at 237-187.
Republicans cried foul with the tactics that forced them to either vote for a measure that did not contain Trump’s demand for $5.7 in border funding or vote against disaster aid for constituents still in need of it.
“This bill is not a serious attempt to help those who were devastated by Hurricane Michael or other disasters across the country,” said a group of delegation Republicans in a joint statement. “If it were, they would have worked with the White House and Republicans in the House and Senate to ensure bipartisan support. Hurricane victims are hurting, and we are committed to ensuring they get the help they need.”
Senate Republicans say the bill is dead on arrival in their chamber. Trump has pledged a veto even if it cleared the Senate.
“The shutdown could end tomorrow if Democratic leadership were willing to negotiate with the President and support common-sense border security that they’ve supported as recently as 2006 and 2013,” they added.
Among the 14 delegation Republicans, only Reps. Bill Posey, Mario Diaz-Balart, Greg Steube, and Mast did not join in the statement.
Dems get committee assignments
With the 116th Congress now two weeks old, several members are beginning to reveal their committee assignments for the next two years. Delegation Democrats were busy this week telling constituents which policy areas they will focus upon as members of the majority party.
Rep. Val Demings of Orlando will be serving on the House Intelligence Committee. With committee Chair Adam Schiff’s announcement that the Trump and Russia probe will intensify, Demings will be part of a news-making group.
Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach will serve on the Appropriations Committee. She joins Rep. Charlie Crist on the committee, who announced his appointment last week.
Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee announced he is joining the House Financial Services Committee, which also includes Crist. California Rep. Maxine Waters chairs the committee, which also includes New York freshman Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, which portends significant media attention.
Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando announced he will serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee, chaired by New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, has jurisdiction on Soto priorities such as health care, health insurance, renewable energy, and conservation. He joins Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa on the committee.
Problem Solvers meet with Trump
The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus met with Trump Wednesday at the White House in a forum designed to discover any way out of the current impasse with Congressional Democratic leadership. Reports indicated there was a need for both sides to be wary of cracking within the ranks.
It was Trump’s second attempt to get moderate Democrats into a discussion. On Tuesday he sought to engage moderate Democrats such as Rep. Stephanie Murphy, co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, into hearing his pitch.
Murphy declined, citing a scheduling conflict, but Rep. Soto was invited to the Wednesday meeting. He also refused without giving a reason.
“I stand in solidarity with my House colleagues to pass budgets without an ineffective border wall and reopen government immediately,” Soto said in a statement to Florida Politics.
As the record-breaking shutdown continues, no solution is anywhere on the horizon.
“We’re hopeful that Democrats — whether it’s the group today or leadership — will get serious about the crisis at the border,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Gaetz reintroduces cannabis research bill
Continuing a commitment to one of his signature issues, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz filed the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019. The proposal is similar to a similar measure from last year, which passed committee but did not reach the House floor.
The bill would increase the number of licenses available to institutions, such as universities, to study the extent of marijuana’s beneficial effects on patients treating cancer, PTSD, epilepsy, and other conditions. It would also provide for Veterans Affairs offices to provide information to veterans regarding medical marijuana trials.
“For too long, Congress has faced a dilemma with cannabis-related legislation: we cannot reform cannabis law without researching its safety, its efficacy, and its medical uses — but we cannot perform this critical research without first reforming cannabis law,” Gaetz said.
“The Medical Cannabis Research Act helps break that logjam, allowing researchers to study medical cannabis without fear of legal jeopardy.”
As he did in the last Congress, Soto is co-sponsoring the bill.
Soto applauds removal of census citizenship question
This week, a federal judge stopped the Trump administration from including a question on the 2020 census form asking for the citizenship of the respondent. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman put a stop to the action by the U.S. Department of Commerce but left the door open the ultimate inclusion of the question.
Furman described the action of the Commerce Department, who oversees the census, as “a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut” violations of the Administrative Procedures Act.
The judge scolded Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, saying Ross “ignored and violated a clear statutory duty” to use existing government records about people’s citizenship status as much as possible rather than using the census to ask a citizenship question.”
“Thanks Judge Furman for keeping true to U.S. Constitution and striking down Trump’s citizenship question on 2020 Census,” tweeted Soto, one of numerous Democrats praising the ruling. “This discriminatory plan would cost Fla billions in fed funding and representation.”
At the same time, Furman held that the possibility exists of including the question if Ross could meet a list of requirements, including the provision of the “real rationale” for wanting to ask the question. The Supreme Court has put any question of Ross on hold while settling a dispute on what evidence may be considered for the lawsuits.
He also decided the plaintiffs, the State of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, did not prove a major accusation in their complaint. The plaintiffs argued that the Commerce Department intended to discriminate against immigrants of color.
The case will most certainly be appealed and could reach the Supreme Court. Both sides agree the issue is far from settled.
Webster reintroduces entrepreneurs bill
One of the first acts from Rep Daniel Webster was to refile a bill introduced during the last Congress. Webster and three House colleagues reintroduced the Innovators to Entrepreneurs Act of 2019.
The bill enables broader participation in the successful National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program and provides additional training for innovators to learn how to utilize their research to develop new products and businesses.
Innovation Corps aims to connect scientists and engineers with the technological, entrepreneurial, and business communities necessary to move discoveries from the laboratory to the market. Since 2012 I-Corps has trained over 1,300 teams, led to the formation of 644 startup companies, and resulted in over $300 million in follow-on funding raised.
“This bill expands upon the time-tested I-Corps program through adding a course for commercialization-ready participants,” said the Clermont Republican in a news release. “This course will focus on the essential skills of starting a successful and scalable business. I thank Senators (Chris) Coons and (Todd) Young for leading the charge in the Senate and making this a bicameral effort.”
Crist aims to preserve Social Security
The first bill Crist filed in the 116th Congress was a reintroduction of his Save Social Security Act this week calling on reforms to the system that would preserve benefits for another generation. The bill would eliminate the Social Security tax cap for people earning more than $300,000.
Under current law, anyone earning more than $127,200 a year does not have to pay Social Security tax above that limit. Under Crist’s bill, people making between the current cap and $300,000 would still receive that tax break, but those making more than $300,000 would pay Social Security tax on their entire earnings.
“Why should the very wealthiest get a tax break, when nurses, electricians, and clerks at Publix pay into the system on 100 percent of their earnings,” Crist wrote in an Op-Ed when he first filed the bill in 2017.
The Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration released an analysis of Crist’s bill in 2017 that found its terms would extend Social Security solvency by 30 years, allowing the program to meet its financial obligations through 2064. After 2064, the legislation would close two-thirds of the remaining gap enabling the program to pay 90 percent of benefits.
Crist’s measure would also end what he describes as a nonsensical practice of “double taxation” on Social Security benefits. Under the current program, Social Security recipients pay taxes on their benefits even though they were taxed to create those benefits while they were working.
Hastings presses on
Capitol Hill watchers were shocked when delegation co-chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings revealed he was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. The 14-term Democrat from revealed his diagnosis on Twitter.
“I was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in the midst of this traumatizing news, I found myself wondering not only if I would survive this disease, but also if it would impact my ability to perform my duties,” he said.
“Now that I have begun treatment, I feel hopeful about survival and about my ability to continue serving my constituents of Florida’s 20th Congressional District and the nation,” the 82-year-old Hastings added.
On Wednesday, it appeared not much had changed. Hastings announced he was joining in a Democratic bill designed to raise the minimum wage, a measure co-led by Murphy. In a tweet, Hastings said, “By raising the minimum wage to a #LivingWage of $15, we would provide over 40 million Americans with a long overdue raise and lift millions out of poverty.”
By Wednesday evening, he was blasting the Senate for “their inability to do their job and reopen the government.” He also talked about the “heartbreaking news” of those killed in a terrorist attack in Syria.
Hastings talked about his situation as “a battle worth fighting,” but if the cancer “cannot be defeated, I will tell you so.”
EMILY’s List backs two first-term Democrats
As more candidates continue to announce running for President next year, EMILY’S List is already jumping into congressional races. Among two of their early endorsements are two Democrats from South Florida who were just elected two months ago.
The group says it will support Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from Florida’s 26th Congressional District and Donna Shalala from CD 27. Both women won seats held by Republicans.
Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell were two of the 25 female freshmen receiving early endorsements from EMILY’S List. The group looks to back the elections of pro-choice women to Congress.
“Newly elected Democratic congresswomen are already proving what a positive influence their leadership and fresh perspectives bring to Congress,” said EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock.
“They got to work on day one, supporting legislation that would end the Trump shutdown and reopen the federal government,” Schriock added. “They have become prominent voices in discussions around expanding affordable health care access, defending voting rights, protecting the environment and other policies that would move our country forward.” Schriock continued.
Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell are among 42 different women elected to Congress for the first time in 2018.
Wasserman Schulz, Diaz-Balart appointed to lead committees
Two South Florida Representatives were selected to subcommittee leadership roles by their respective caucuses. Both involve the House Appropriations Committee.
Democrats chose Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz as chair of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. The appointment of the Weston Democrat, who moves up from a ranking member in the previous Congress, is significant as she becomes the first woman to chair the subcommittee.
“I’m truly honored to be the first woman ever to take this gavel,” Wasserman Schultz said. “After this historic election cycle when a record number of women were elected to Congress, serving in this role will allow me to bring a unique perspective to quality of life issues for our military and veterans.”
She steps into the role during the government shutdown, among rumors that Trump is possibly looking at military construction funds and personnel to assist in building the border wall. Wasserman Schulz has been sharply critical of that idea.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who chaired the House Transportation and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee while Republicans were in charge, will now serve as the leading Republican member. The House Republican Steering Committee selected him.
“Over the last four years, I have enjoyed working with my colleagues to fund critical housing and infrastructure programs, while protecting Americans hard-earned tax dollars and reducing bureaucracy,” the Miami Republican said in a statement.
“I also congratulate my colleague Congressman (David) Price on his Chairmanship of this Subcommittee,” Diaz-Balart added. “He was an excellent partner to work with during my time as Chairman, and I look forward to continue that collaboration in the 116th Congress.”
On this day in the headlines
Jan. 18, 1997 — In a scathing decision that nearly cost Newt Gingrich the speakership, the House Ethics Committee recommended a reprimand and $300,000 penalty for what it called his long pattern of breaking House rules and then deceiving investigators about his actions. The committee called for the sanctions by a 7-1 vote.
Leading the committee’s investigation was Rep. Porter Goss, a Republican from Sanibel, who said the financial penalty would “go to Congress to offset the costs of this episode.” While Goss felt the speaker’s violations were unintentional, he called Gingrich’s behavior “extraordinarily imprudent.”
Jan. 18, 2014 — President Barack Obama made a forceful call to narrow government access to millions of Americans phone records as part of an overhaul to surveillance activities. The President said he no longer wants the National Security Agency to maintain a database of such records.
“Unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and governments of our close friends and allies,” Obama said. “If I want to learn what they are thinking about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them rather than turning to surveillance.”
Jan 18 — Happy birthday to first-term Democratic Rep. Mucarsel-Powell.