Impeachment thermometer rising
The chances for the House impeaching President Donald Trump have increased significantly this week. In his swan song, Special Counsel Robert Mueller said Trump was not exonerated and invigorated those Democrats seeking impeachment with one memorable sentence.
“If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime we would have said that,” Mueller said in a nine-minute statement delivered from the Justice Department.
Delegation Democrats find themselves in different stages of accountability. Those stages range from having enough information to seek impeachment now, to giving the President another chance to comply with court orders covering congressional subpoenas, or to at least get the process moving.
Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton falls more along the line of getting things moving. Deutch, who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee that would draw up articles of impeachment, reacted quickly to Mueller’s statement.
“As the Special Counsel leaves the Department of Justice, it is time for President Trump to stop lying and stop stonewalling congressional investigations,” he said in a statement. “Congress’s role is not a do-over of the Special Counsel’s criminal investigation but an inquiry into whether the President of the United States violated his oath of office, broke the public trust, and committed high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Rep. Val Demings of Orlando had seen and heard enough even before Mueller spoke. She made it clear Trump needs to go during a recent appearance on CNN with Jake Tapper.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park posted a letter before the Memorial Day holiday stating, in effect, she was not yet ready to move forward with impeachment, but could eventually get there. As a leader of more than two dozen Democratic moderates in the Blue Dog Coalition, Murphy and her colleagues could hold the fate of any impeachment attempt in their hands.
“Should President Trump or anyone in his Administration ignore a federal court order to turn over information that Congress has requested, I would consider it a threat to our careful system of checks and balances and would, therefore, support an impeachment inquiry on that individual,” Murphy wrote, “the first step in the impeachment process and one that better empowers congressional investigators to attain documents and testimony.”
Following Mueller’s statement, the talking point was “no one is above the law, not even the President.” Tweets by Murphy, Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami provided examples.
This inquiry would better empower congressional investigators to attain documents and testimony & get the facts. My hope is that the President complies and Congress is not forced to be taken down the path of impeachment. But no one is above the law, not even the President. (4/4)
— Rep. Stephanie Murphy (@RepStephMurphy) May 29, 2019
.@HouseDemocrats will continue to do our Constitutional duty & investigate to get to the truth, because no one is above the law – not even @POTUS. I thank Mr. Mueller and his team for their work in seeking the facts.https://t.co/KULMn0UfYm
— Rep. Lois Frankel (@RepLoisFrankel) May 29, 2019
Congress must defend the foundation of our democracy when it is under attack from the Executive Branch. We will continue to fulfill our constitutional duty of Congressional oversight. No one – not the even the president – is above the law.
— Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@RepDMP) May 29, 2019
Not all Republicans remained silent. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach described Mueller’s televised statement as a “drive-by accusation of obstruction of justice.” Gaetz and his colleagues continue to point to ongoing inquiries into the origin of the Russia investigation.
Following the Mueller statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still trying to control a Democratic caucus that appears to be acquiring a greater appetite for impeachment. CNN published a list of 39 Democrats, which includes Demings, calling the impeachment process to begin.
Pelosi, and perhaps most delegation Democrats can see polling that shows only 36 percent of Americans now favoring impeachment. Before Mueller’s statement, support among Democrats had fallen from 80 to 68 percent.
The speaker worries that if Democrats take the ultimate step, it will likely all be in vain as crucial Republicans have already said any trial in the Senate would be over with very quickly if the charges stemmed from the Mueller report.
Protection for Taiwan proposed
Tariffs are one way to anger China, but a surefire method is to show support for Taiwan. Sen. Marco Rubio and three bipartisan colleagues have introduced a bill intended to strengthen Taiwan’s standing around the world.
Rubio joined with frequent Democratic cohorts, Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, along with lead sponsor Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, to refile the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act. The legislation came in part due to the refusal to allow Taiwan to participate in the recent 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva.
The TAIPEI Act requires a U.S. strategy to engage with governments around the world to support Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition and strengthen unofficial ties with Taiwan. Additionally, it authorizes the State Department to downgrade U.S. relations with any government that takes adverse actions regarding Taiwan and authorizes the State Department to suspend or alter U.S. foreign assistance to governments that take adverse actions relating to Taiwan.
“China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan by bullying and pressuring countries, especially in our own hemisphere, cannot go unanswered.” Rubio said. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in reintroducing legislation that reaffirms our commitment to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and allows for the State Department to take diplomatic action against governments that alter diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China.”
Rubio has been one of the leading Senate critics of China’s economic and foreign policy.
Scott talks hurricanes
With hurricane season officially beginning this weekend, Sen. Rick Scott spent a day promoting hurricane awareness and preparation. Visiting nearly all corners of the state from the Panhandle to South Florida, Scott preached a simple message of making emergency plans and putting them into place.
He took the opportunity to talk up an issue that is beyond partisanship. However, Scott did mention the Senate vote from last week that authorized $19.1 billion for disaster relief in Florida, and other places, (but was temporarily scuttled in the House.).
The first term Senator spoke as if he was still governor. In an op-ed, Scott wrote “Florida is resilient because we prepare for storms. I can’t stress enough: preparedness saves lives.”
Scott also informed communities around the state of a website he has launched on his official Senate page. The address is rickscott.senate.gov/hurricane-preparedness.
Delegation seeks answers
The Florida delegation has another issue that finds them in total agreement. The recent decision to exclude Florida from any further discussion on becoming the home of the new U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOMM) brought a unanimous response.
In a letter to acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, led by Rubio and signed by Sen. Scott and all 27 members of the House, the delegation joined in voicing their disappointment in the secretive process used in naming the six finalists for USSPACECOMM headquarters.
“The lack of transparency in the selection process is not reflective of the administration’s proposal for the new Combatant Command,” they wrote. “Basing decisions, particularly for a Combatant Command, rely on comprehensive and transparent selection criterion to provide maximum value and effectiveness for the military.”
The heart of the letter centers on a series of 13 questions asked of Shanahan which include why the Air Force was appointed to lead the selection process, whether Shanahan personally approved the final candidate list and whether the Air Force followed proper procedures.
Last week’s letter is additional evidence that federal and state officials are not giving up their pursuit. Space Florida President Frank DiBello said Florida is “going to keep on track until we’re told to stop.”
Timeout on disaster aid
Before Congress left town for the Memorial Day break, Floridians and residents of key states seeking disaster funds were sorely disappointed when legislation was not passed. Rep. Neal Dunn was incensed that funds requested by Trump for the southern border were the reason for holding up approval.
He lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, blasting them for “moving the goal post” and adding to the misery of the Panhandle by leaving without having a bill. Dunn was referring to Republicans giving ground and providing more funding for Puerto Rico, only to have the border funds become an obstacle.
Pelosi and Schumer “now target the administration’s request for humanitarian aid at our Southern border,” Dunn said in a letter. “Aid that you both previously recognized as necessary. To ‘move the goal post’ at the final hour is simply unconscionable.”
After Senate Republicans dropped their insistence on border funds in the emergency bill, the full Senate passed the measure by an 85-9 vote just before leaving town for the Memorial Day holiday. The House was already gone but tried to pass it on a “unanimous consent” procedure before a handful of Representatives.
If Schumer and Pelosi were moving the goal posts, Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas objected, figuratively blocked the ensuing field goal attempt as the clock ran out by opposing. Earlier this week the House tried again, but this time Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie voiced his disapproval, virtually ending any reasonable chance of anything happening before early June.
“Just in case you’re wondering who’s fault it is, well it’s them …” tweeted Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto. His colleague, Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, described the maneuvers as “a disgrace.”
Later in the week, a third attempt failed when Tennessee Republican John Rose objected. The funding is expected to pass sometime next week when Congress returns.
HUD inspection process questioned
Most members of Congress, let alone the public, are unaware of how the inspection process used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) works, but some want to find out. Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee joined with North Carolina Democrat Alma Adams to look for answers in a letter to HUD Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis.
The lawmakers expressed “concerns regarding the physical inspection process for HUD-assisted housing” and asked questions about how some HUD-assisted passed inspection.
“Not only are we concerned about failing inspections, but also the inconsistencies of how properties are scored,” they wrote. “Not only are HUD properties failing inspections at a higher rate, but inspectors are passing units that have concerning violations including mold, bug infestations and sewer issues.”
More than 10 million Americans use federal rental assistance. Sixty-eight percent of those people are seniors, children or persons living with disabilities.
As members of Congress who represent districts with HUD-assisted families impacted by deplorable living conditions, we request a full audit of HUD’s physical inspection process,” they continued, “including how many units have been inspected, the pass/fail rates for each facility, and the amount of time HUD and participating landlords take to resolve and alleviate issues that result in unsafe environments for tenants.”
The members challenged HUD in closing by stating: “Federally-assisted housing should always operate in the highest quality for residents.”
Electoral transparency proposed
Florida officials are still seething that the FBI refuses to tell them which counties were affected by a Russian intrusion into the voting systems of two Florida counties. They did reveal that information to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was required to keep the news to himself.
Murphy and St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz have introduced legislation that would require federal officials to alert Congress, state officials and the public when elections systems are compromised.
The Achieving Lasting Electoral Reforms on Transparency and Security Act (ALERTS) follows reports that revealed Russian military intelligence officers gained access to the computer network of two counties in Florida. Also contributing to the need for the bill is the fact the FBI refused to release the information promptly.
“The FBI’s notification protocol is inadequate and unacceptable,” Waltz said in a joint release. “If we are going to have any success securing our elections, we need to know immediately whether or not an elections system has been compromised — and most importantly, the voters need to know too.”
Under this proposal, federal officials would be required to promptly alert appropriate state and local officials in addition to members of Congress if there is evidence of an unauthorized intrusion into an election system and a reasonable basis to believe that such an intrusion could have resulted in voter information being compromised.
“It is unacceptable that the Russians know which systems were hacked and not the Americans affected,” said Murphy. “When federal officials determine unauthorized users gain access to an elections system, local officials and the public have a right to know so they can respond.”
The bill does, however, create a slight exception to public alerts. For example, if federal officials determine that notification would compromise intelligence sources or methods or cause harm to an ongoing investigation, the information can be withheld.
Red tide funding secured
Few in South and Central Florida will forget the devastating impact of last year’s algal blooms and red tide. As the summer months approach, St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist secured $10 million in the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill for the 2020 fiscal year.
“Over the past year, Florida’s struggle against red tide reached an unsustainable level. It took a toll on our communities — our beaches, our wildlife, our local businesses, our economy, and our people all endured destructive impacts.” Crist said in a statement.
The funding is a 100 percent increase from the previous year’s and will be used for additional research on preparing for a mitigating red tide. The bill advanced through the appropriations committee and should be on the House floor in the coming weeks.
Red tide can cause eye and respiratory irritation in humans, and for some more vulnerable populations, the effects can be even worse. It also sickens and kills manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and birds while leaving the oceans and waterways discolored and inundated with rancid fish.
“I could not be more proud to announce this win after months of advocacy and outcry from Pinellas residents. Ten million dollars to address harmful algae blooms puts our community on offense against red tide and blue-green algae,” Crist said.
Expanding mental health services
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and a group of lawmakers have introduced legislation to help ensure seniors receive access to treatment from a broader range of qualified mental health providers. The Mental Health Access Improvement Act would increase access by adding approximately 200,000 mental health professionals to the Medicare program.
California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson launched the bill with New York Republican John Katko joining as original co-sponsor. Delegation co-sponsors include Jacksonville Republican John Rutherford and Mucarsel-Powell.
Signing this week was Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan, who extolled the bill’s virtues.
“Expanding access to mental health treatment is critical for improving health outcomes,” Buchanan said in a news release. This common-sense legislation would increase Medicare’s availability of mental health providers throughout the nation. I urge the House and Senate to support America’s seniors and send this bill to the president’s desk.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 20 percent of Americans age 55 and older experience some kind of mental health concern. Meanwhile, the Health Resources and Services Administration found that there are more than 5,000 Mental Health Professionals Shortage Areas throughout the U.S.
Currently, only psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurses are eligible to provide mental health services under Medicare. While mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists hold commensurate training and education, they cannot be reimbursed by Medicare and thus their services are costlier and out of reach for many seniors.
The legislation closes that loophole by expanding the availability of these professionals to Medicare beneficiaries.
Military doctor reductions questioned
If the Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year is accepted, military hospitals would have as many as 17,000 fewer military doctors and support personnel. That has the attention of Palm City Republican Brian Mast and Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard.
Mast and Gabbard wrote to the director of the Defense Health Agency seeking answers why such substantial reductions are necessary. The changes would take effect Oct. 1.
“I’ve always said that we need to do more for the men and women who put on the uniform for our country,” Mast, an Army wounded warrior, said. “Potentially eliminating 17,000 military health care professionals does the exact opposite. These cuts could negatively impact the health and safety of our service members and threaten the success of the mission at hand.
“More information is needed about why this is being proposed and what steps are being taken to ensure continued support for our service members,” he added.
The cuts would include physicians, social workers, psychologists, and other mental health professional billets, some even serving in areas where civilian practitioners are unavailable.
“We would like to see the decision-making process used in proposing the elimination of the medical billets, especially those related to mental health care, and to understand how Department of Defense staff will continuously monitor and assess the impact of these decisions such that a real-time reassessment process is possible and different decisions proposed, if necessary,” they wrote.
Signing on to the letter were 20 House colleagues, including Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach and Deutch. Gabbard, who is a candidate for President, is a Major in the Hawaii National Guard.
Abortion rights protection
For the first time in recent memory, the issue of abortion has become a frequent topic of discussion. Following New York’s passage of a law removing almost all abortion restrictions, conservatives states have passed laws approaching outright bans on the procedure.
That has prompted boycott threats on those states and brought about new legislation on Capitol Hill called the Women’s Health Protection Act. Co-sponsored by Frankel and Democratic colleagues, the bill would guarantee a pregnant person’s right to access abortion — and the right of an abortion provider to deliver these abortion services.
In a news release from Frankel’s office, the bill would keep abortion “free from medically unnecessary restrictions that interfere with a patient’s individual choice or the provider-patient relationship.
“The Trump Administration and Republican legislators across our country are waging a war on women,” said Frankel, Co-Chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “This bill will help us fight dangerous abortion bans and protect a woman’s right to control her own reproductive destiny.”
Joining Frankel to launch the bill are Reps. Judy Chu of California and Marcia Fudge of Ohio. All delegation Democrats signed on as co-sponsors except for Murphy.
A Senate companion bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Israel, Mediterranean ties lauded
Israel has precious few allies in the Middle East, but Mediterranean countries including Greece and Cypress are engaging with the Jewish state. Rep. Deutch of Boca Raton has launched a bill, co-sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis and Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, that seeks to highlight and support the growing partnership between those countries.
The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 would expand U.S. involvement in regional energy pursuits by creating a U.S.-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center and supporting the development of recently-discovered natural gas fields. Also, the bill calls for U.S. participation in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.
“The trilateral relationship between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel has been expanding in recent years to cover new energy pursuits, economic opportunities and security cooperation,” Deutch said in a joint news release. “With this legislation, the United States will deepen our support for this regional partnership which furthers our own geopolitical interests.”
The legislation would also improve defense cooperation with the regional states, including by authorizing security assistance to Greece and lifting an existing embargo on arms transfers to the Republic of Cyprus. The legislation also makes clear that the U.S. Congress will not turn a blind eye to Turkey’s regional aggression or pursuit of policies that threaten the interests of the United States and our partners.
“The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act will enable the U.S. to support this developing trilateral relationship through energy and defense cooperation and further its potential,” said Bilirakis. “By strengthening this partnership, we can promote stability within the region and maximize the mutually beneficial benefits for all parties.”
Deutch and Bilirakis co-chair the Congressional Hellenic-Israel Alliance. A companion bill was filed in the Senate a month ago and sponsored by Menendez and co-sponsored by Rubio.
TPS for Venezuelans
With the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, many have fled to the U.S. seeking asylum or a new life and hoping for a designation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Sending law-abiding Venezuelans back to their decimated country would politically foolish, but a bill sponsored by Soto to prevent such an occurrence is nearing passage in the House.
The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, recently emerged from the Judiciary Committee and is headed to the House floor. If the measure passes Congress and is signed by Trump, it will mark the first time TPS was granted to any group by statute.
“The growing turmoil and dire humanitarian crisis in Venezuela under Maduro’s tyranny is forcing millions into exile,” Soto said in a joint release. “In Florida alone, there are hundreds of thousands of political-asylum seekers who face persecution and even death upon return to their country.”
Neither Soto, nor Diaz-Balart are members of the committee, but Mucarsel-Powell and fellow Democrats Demings and Deutch all voted in favor of the bill, which advanced on a 20-9 partisan vote. Among committee Republicans, Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota voted no, while Gaetz did not vote.
Protections are commonly granted by the President and the executive branch, prompting Mucarsel-Powell, also a bill co-sponsor, to say the President should have provided an order granting TPS. According to Mucarsel-Powell, “the Trump administration has continued deporting Venezuelans.”
Diaz-Balart did not say the administration was sending Venezuelans back home, but added the bill served a vital need.
“Due to the brutality, corruption, extreme shortages of food and medicine, crime, and near total collapse of Venezuela’s economy, it would be unconscionable to force those who fled the dictatorship to return now,” he said.
On this day
May 31, 1989 — With a 51-week ethics investigation into his finances, House Speaker Jim Wright announced he is giving up the gavel and resign his seat in Congress once a successor is named. Washington Democrat Tom Foley will succeed the Texas Democrat.
The bipartisan House Ethics Committee found 69 violations of House rules stemming from gifts he received from a developer and evading income limits through bulk sales of his book. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia first brought the charges to the committee.
May 31, 2005 — After years of mystery and speculation, the identity of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s Watergate source known as “Deep Throat” has been revealed. Mark Felt, the former No. 2 official in the FBI was confirmed as the man who helped guide Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money.”
Woodward had long pledged to keep his source secret either until Felt’s death, or he revealed his role on his own. Felt, in failing health, identified himself as Woodward’s leaker in an article published in Vanity Fair.
Belated happy birthday (May 28) to Sen. Marco Rubio.