SOTU not likely to overtake current events
It may be a week late, but the State of the Union address comes with growing hostility, if that is possible, toward President Donald Trump. This year’s presentation will feature something new for those in the House chamber and those watching on television.
Among the most visible will be the image of Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated behind the President. She will likely remain in her chair as Vice President Mike Pence joins Republicans rising on each Trump applause line.
The SOTU has become more spectacle than substance in recent years. Post-speech analysis has focused on how many times a president’s party stood to applaud, or who sat silently on presentation of economic numbers, or how well the person giving the opposition response performed.
Last year, Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus clapping for Trump’s statement of low unemployment rates among African-Americans. He endured a fair share of criticism from within his party for doing so.
Six years ago, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio gave the GOP response to President Obama’s speech. Few remember what former President Barack Obama or Rubio said that night, but the Senator’s need for a mid-speech drink of water lives forever.
Tonight, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, will provide the Democratic response.
Lawson is urging Trump to deliver a message that reaches out to the most vulnerable. He called his colleagues to “remember why he or she is here,” which is “not about partisanship and internal bickering, but uniting and doing what is in the best interests for ALL Americans.”
The Democratic Women’s Working Group is urging women to wear white to the chamber. The move is not targeted directly toward Trump but designed to honor those who fought for women’s right to vote, known as suffragettes.
“Wearing suffragette white is a respectful message of solidarity with women across the country, and a declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned rights,” said Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, the chair of the working group, told CNN.
Before Trump enters the chamber to talk about a border wall or the strong U.S. economy, a perfect illustration of “elections have consequences” will be in full display. Seated among Supreme Court justices for the first time will be the recently-installed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who endured the most hostile confirmation process in recent memory.
With the State of the Union competing with news about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the unfolding events in Venezuela, nothing Trump says is expected to overtake the news featuring those significant events.
On second thought, this is Trump, where anything is possible, but a review of Abrams’ performance is likely to generate as much attention as the person she will be there to refute.
Rubio bill divides Dems
A bill co-sponsored by Rubio designed to shield Israel from boycotts is exposing rifts within the Democratic Party. The Combating BDS Act targets the practice of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel in protest of that nation’s policies.
While the bill has the support of several Democrats, others oppose it, citing free speech concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is solidly against the bill and puts them directly at loggerheads with lobbyists promoting the interests of Israel.
The bill was initially filed in 2017 and earned the support of a bipartisan group of Senators, including former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. It will be folded into a broader foreign policy bill if it passes this week as expected.
Rubio has engaged in Twitter exchanges with Sen. Bernie Sanders on the issue, denying free speech is hampered. If it passes the Senate, its first stop in the House is the Financial Services Committee, chaired by the outspoken Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
“I hope we don’t take it up,” said Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the former head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think restrictions on a citizen’s ability of organization to be able to influence a policy — whether we agree or disagree with it — should be protected.”
Whether it eventually emerges from the House, Republicans are eager to achieve the other goal of portraying Democrats as being hostile to the best interests of the Jewish state.
Scott visits MTP, Puerto Rico
Before heading back to Washington, Sen. Rick Scott had a busy two days leading up to the State of the Union. It began with his first appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press and concluded with a trip to Puerto Rico.
The first-term Republican made some news Sunday talking to NBC’s Chuck Todd. He said Democratic leaders are “negotiating in bad faith” and Trump should keep all options on the table, including declaring an emergency, to build a border wall.
“If I was sitting in his position, I’m going to use whatever power I have to solve the problem,” he said. “We have to have border security. We have to take care of the DACA kids. On top of that, I think we need to have a permanent solution for TPS (Temporary Protected Status).
Scott spent Sunday and Monday in Puerto Rico to again monitor recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria. It is his ninth trip to the island commonwealth since the disaster struck and his first trip as a U.S. Senator.
“As Governor of Florida, I worked with the Puerto Rican government to support their rebuilding and recovery efforts, but the Island still has a long way to go. “I look forward to working with Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón and leaders in Puerto Rico to discuss what more we can do to support Puerto Rican families,” Scott said.
González-Colón voiced her appreciation for the attention.
“(Scott’s) first speech and first action as Senator was to support Puerto Rico, which shows that he was serious when he promised to fight for us,” she said. “I am honored to work with him to continue to make sure Puerto Rico has all the resources we need to rebuild.”
Rubio, Yoho urge tomato grower protection
Two Floridians are taking the lead to protect U.S. tomato growers, especially Florida farmers, from unfair competition from Mexico. Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville joined with Rubio and 46 Senate and House colleagues in a letter urging Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to immediately terminate a suspension agreement between the Department of Commerce and Mexican tomato exporters.
This competition has led to increasing amounts of U.S. tomato growers out of business. If this agreement were terminated, it would restart a U.S. anti-dumping investigation on fresh tomatoes from Mexico while also giving Commerce leverage to secure a new suspension that is effective and enforceable.
“The U.S. tomato industry has been the canary in the coal mine for domestic fruit and vegetable production over the last three decades,” Rubio said. “Immediately terminating the suspension agreement will reinvigorate the anti-dumping investigation on fresh tomatoes from Mexico and send the message that the U.S. will ensure vigilant enforcement of our existing trade laws and trade agreements.”
Both are adamant in the argument that if the Department of Commerce terminates the suspension immediately, more favorable negotiations can be made. The group accuses Mexican exporters of dealing in bad faith.
“The ineffective tomato suspension agreement between the Department of Commerce and Mexican tomato producers places U.S. tomato farmers at an unfair disadvantage,” Yoho said. “The current dumping of produce by the Mexican government harms our tomato farmers and goes against existing trade protections.”
Among the 48 signers of the letter were both Senators from Florida and all delegation members from the House except Republicans Francis Rooney and Brian Mast.
Smart choices on Medicaid
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park has introduced legislation that would better inform states about the benefits of expanding access to their Medicaid programs. The Smart Choices Act would provide accurate and impartial information that would help non-expansion states such as Florida re-evaluate their decision to forgo federal dollars mean for Medicaid expansion.
A group of independent experts would publish an annual report that assesses the economic and human impact of expanding the health care program to cover people in need. The report will also include the anticipated number of people who will be covered by the state’s Medicaid program during the same period.
“Hardworking Floridians should not be denied access to quality, affordable health care because state leaders are misinformed about the true benefits of expanding Medicaid,” said Murphy.
“By shining a light on the real costs of our state’s misguided decision to forgo critical federal dollars, I’m hopeful we can put people over politics and finally come to a rational decision that helps cover nearly 3 million Floridians and save countless lives.”
For a non-expansion state, the report would estimate the amount of additional federal funds the state would receive for the fiscal year and the number of additional people who would receive access to care if the state expanded.
Murphy’s bill is co-sponsored by Democratic colleagues Kathy Castor of Tampa and Donna Shalala of Miami.
Demings, Deutch lead gun violence fight
Add another Floridian in the effort to forward gun control in Congress. Last week, Democrat Rep. Val Demings was chosen as one of the vice-chairs of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force led by Rep. Ted Deutch.
The task force includes 75 percent of the Democrats in the House and all of the Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation.
Deutch, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, will be the organization’s chief whip for the Democratic-controlled House. His district also includes Parkland, where 17 people died and another 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a shooting.
Demings is the former police chief of Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people on June 12, 2016, at a shooting at Pulse Nightclub.
“Last November, the American people sent to Washington a historic gun safety majority in the House of Representatives,” Deutch said. “With this mandate, we will pursue sensible and effective policies to reduce gun violence plaguing every part of our nation.”
Leaders in the task force are pushing legislation that would require people to undergo background checks before buying firearms, which gun violence prevention advocates view as a major political loophole.
Castor secures new USF grant
Castor helped secure a nearly $2 million grant to support fisheries and spawning habitat research, she announced Friday.
“One of my top priorities in Congress since the 2010 BP disaster has been to work to return the Gulf of Mexico and communities to better than they were before the blowout,” Castor said.
The grant will assist the Florida Institute of Oceanography at the University of South Florida in administering the Florida RESTORE Act Centers of Excellence Program. It will also support the competitive selection of several new projects to focus on science, monitoring and technology related to marine wildlife research, seafloor mapping and science support for the Northwest Florida estuary programs.
“The Gulf and Tampa Bay’s environment and economy were hit hard by the BP disaster, and we successfully pressed to hold BP accountable,” Castor added. “It was just as vital that from the very beginning we championed the expertise that our research institutions in Tampa Bay have to offer — it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and nine years later, Tampa Bay continues to receive significant grant funding for restoration, and our region is leading in oceanography and marine science research,” Castor said.
Castor was a vocal BP critic in the wake of the 2010 disaster and fought for funding to continue ongoing restoration efforts. This includes securing a previous $10 million grant for rapid research response.
The first bill Castor filed this Congress was reintroduction of her bipartisan Florida Coastal Protection Act, which would make permanent the moratorium on oil drilling that exists now but is slated to expire in 2022. The Tampa Democrat chairs the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which gives her a front-row seat to continued advocacy.
Castor said she intends to bring the same level of urgency to meeting the challenge of charting a clean and renewable energy future as she did fighting for the BP restoration funds.
FEC gets Spano complaint
During the primary and general election campaign, Republican Rep. Ross Spano came under fire from opponents claiming either illegal or unethical behavior. Now, he is the subject of a complaint filed by a Lakeland woman to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).
Jan Barrow, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Lakeland filed the complaint claiming Spano violated election laws by using personal loans to him as campaign contributions. Barrow’s complaint also targets Karen Hunt and Cary Carreno, the sources of the loans to Spano.
“I feel strongly about this,” Barrow said. “To me, it’s not a partisan issue; it’s an ethics and integrity situation.”
Spano has yet to repay the loans. Democrat Kristen Carlson, who Spano defeated in November, has asked for an FBI Investigation.
Former state Rep. Neil Combee, who lost in the Republican primary, is not calling for legal action, but previously accused Spano of vote buying during the later stages of the primary campaign.
Buchanan’s horse meat ban
Two bipartisan members of the House refiled a bill from last the last Congress designed to end the slaughtering of horses for human consumption in the U.S. Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key and co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus, filed the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act this week in conjunction with Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
The bill also calls for the U.S. to stop exporting horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. Buchanan seeks to prevent “reopening of horse slaughter facilities in the United States by prohibiting federal funding for health and safety inspections which is required by law at all meat processing plants.”
“The slaughter of horses for human consumption is a barbaric practice that has no place in America,” Buchanan said. “I will continue to lead the effort with Congresswoman Schakowsky to ban domestic horse slaughter and end the export of horses abroad for slaughter.”
The same bill was introduced in the 115th Congress and gained 150 co-sponsors, but ultimately failed to pass. A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate.
Buchanan has a history of similar bills. Two years ago, he joined with Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings to ban the slaughter of cats and dogs for human consumption which Trump signed into law.
Buchanan and Deutch also held joint press events Monday at animal shelters on opposite sides of the state. The two delegation members each hunted some free media the bipartisan Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. The Longboat Key Republican visited the Humane Society of Manatee County while the Boca Raton Democrat held his event at the Broward County Animal Care and Adoption.
“The torture of animals should be a federal crime with stiff penalties,” Buchanan said of his legislation.
The bill targets a disturbing practice of hurting and killing animals for “crush” videos. President Barack Obama in 2010 signed legislation outlawing such videos, but the Buchanan-Deutch bill goes farther by instating federal laws barring the animal cruelty itself. Such acts normally get covered under state statute, but in a viral video era, the location of the vicious acts can be hard to nail down.
“The bipartisan effort to #ProtectOurPets is moving forward, and we are excited to get this done,” Deutch tweeted Monday.
Deutch blasts other Dems
One of the more dependable progressive voices in the Florida delegation, as well as the entire House, is Deutch of Boca Raton. He calls out Republicans for policies on immigration, climate change, gun control, and other issues that put him at odds with them.
Deutch will side with Republicans on issues of common interest such as standing up for Israel’s security and tackling worldwide terrorism. He also earns respect and credibility when calling out from his own party.
Over the weekend, as the storm around Gov. Northam grew, Deutch was among the first in the delegation to call for Northam to resign, along with Castor. After the Governor’s Saturday news conference, where he said the racially-offensive photos were not of him, Deutch was the first to still demand Northam’s resignation.
“I mistakenly thought @RalphNortham would realize that after ‘I shouldn’t have done it’/’It wasn’t me’/I only used blackface once to be Michael Jackson,’ he would do the right thing and resign,” Deutch tweeted. “He needs to resign. And we need to keep talking about how to stamp out racism & intolerance. ”I mistakenly thought @RalphNortham would realize that after “I shouldn’t have done it”/“It wasn’t me”/“I only used blackface once to be Michael Jackson,” he would do the right thing & resign. He needs to resign. And we need to keep talking about how to stamp out racism & intolerance.
National media began to make comparisons between Northam and former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel, who resigned over a photo of him in blackface.
Deutch called out another fellow Democrat for her criticism of Israel. First-term Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar was discussing religious tolerance and Israel’s position as being a Jewish state.
“I almost chuckle when the Jewish state is labeled as a Democracy,” said Omar, a Muslim who, like Deutch, is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The U.S. and Israel are both vibrant democracies, full of vigorous debate about their policies,” Deutch posted in a tweet. “All the world’s great religions are freely practiced in both. The fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where that’s true is nothing to chuckle at.”
Deutch is the chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism.
Dems cry foul over Venezuela event
As Pence traveled to South Florida to hold a Venezuela Solidarity event, a controversy broke out over whether Democrats were locked out of the event held at Doral. Both Republican Senators Rubio and Scott were there, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, but Democrats representing the region were not.
Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo blasted Republicans for turning the plight of Venezuela into “a partisan issue … by shutting South Florida Democrats, including Congresswomen Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, out of this meeting.”
While the White House did not invite the local members of Congress, members of the Florida Legislature from both parties did receive invitations to the rally from DeSantis. After criticism of Rizzo’s statement from Miami-Dade Republican Chair Nelson Diaz, FDP and Diaz agreed the Congresswomen were not invited, but other Democrats were.
Shalala, Wasserman-Schultz and Mucarsel Powell went on to hold their own joint event. Pledging support for the people of Venezuela, Mucarsel-Powell lamented the lack of invitation to the event at Doral.
“This is not a political issue,” the first-term representative from Miami said, adding that “no political party should use Venezuelan suffering to take advantage.”
‘Troika of tyranny’
The Venezuela Solitary event may have generated some controversy surrounding invitations, the speakers spoke with one voice. The bottom line was the U.S. is behind the struggling people of the country and current dictator Nicolás Maduro must go.
Diaz-Balart took the occasion to quote a phrase coined by National Security Adviser John Bolton during a speech November at Miami-Dade College. In describing the socialist regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, Bolton coined the term “Troika of Tyranny,” something the Miami Republican was happy to re-enter into the dialogue.
“The Trump administration has shown bold leadership by intensifying pressure on the Maduro regime, and supporting the new, democratically elected interim President,” Diaz-Balart told the assembled crowd at Doral.
“In the last two years, the United States has continued to stand up against the ‘Troika of Tyranny’ and in support of freedom-seeking people who suffer in the grip of totalitarianism,” he said.
The phrase is reminiscent of former President George W. Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the Axis of Evil.
Diaz-Balart called on those in Venezuela still supporting the regime to rethink their stance.
It is not too late for those in league with the regime to switch to the right side and stop joining in the oppression of the Venezuelan people,” he added.
On this day in the headlines
Feb. 5, 2003 — The Johnson Space Center in Houston held a memorial service for the seven members of the space shuttle Columbia crew who died when the spacecraft disintegrated only 22 minutes before it was due to land. President George W. Bush was among the 10,000 who attended.
Among those attending was Sen. Nelson, who flew on the Columbia in 1986. He was seen leaving the service exhibiting a profoundly emotional response.
Feb. 5, 2010 — The House agreed with the Senate on a requirement that either spending cuts or tax increases offset any new federal spending initiatives. Congressional Democrats, joined by former President Bill Clinton, promoted the policy called “pay as you go” as a way to curb federal spending and debt.
“This is a tremendous victory for the American people,” said Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat from Monticello and a member of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. “For far too long, Washington avoided making the same tough financial decisions North Floridians are forced to make every day. But today we said enough is enough and we’ve got to stop digging ourselves deeper into debt.”