Emergency aid finally passes
Nearly eight months after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, Congress finally passed a $19.1 billion emergency aid package. The House approved the measure by a 354-58 vote as the first order of business upon their return to Washington from the Memorial Day recess.
It was a long, sorry saga. Along the way, Sen. Rick Scott and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer engaged in Twitter battles accusing each other of playing politics.
Up and down the halls of Congress and on cable news channels, the sanctimony flowed in both directions as Congress pointed fingers, figuratively the middle ones, at each other. Weeks grew into months, making the Panhandle wait — by far — the longest of any other region ravaged by a disaster to receive their federal emergency relief funds.
Before the holiday, the Senate passed the funding after Republicans and President Donald Trump gave in to Democratic demands to direct more funding to Puerto Rico and to withdraw $4.5 billion in border funds from the bill. None of the border funds were for construction of a border wall but were instead targeted toward humanitarian aid and development of detention beds and investigative services.
Three Republican House members, upset by the lack of border funds, refused to go along with a unanimous consent resolution, forcing the final delay. After a brief postponement shortly after the House reconvened, the measure passed.
“Never in our nation’s history has it taken so long to do the right thing following a devastating natural disaster,” Panama City Republican Neal Dunn said in a statement shortly after passage. “This is a shameful example of putting politics before people and Democratic leadership’s willingness to hold funding hostage over their hatred for President Trump.”
Among the 58 Republicans voting against the bill was Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples and Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota.
“I am pleased that Congress has finally passed the $19 billion appropriations for disaster relief,” said Rep. Al Lawson, whose district also includes some of the affected areas. “This has been a long time coming for many Americans across our nation, and this funding will provide long overdue assistance for communities struggling to rebuild. The President needs to act swiftly and approve this vital legislation that will help families fighting to get back on their feet from Hurricane Michael and other recent natural disasters.”
Both sides will use the politics of the issue against each other next year. While large numbers of Central Florida Puerto Ricans are hostile to Trump, Scott’s has generally earned positive reviews.
Can he still help Trump avoid a Hispanic vote rout in the region? With no other statewide races at the top of the ticket next year, the President will need all the help he can get.
On the other side, most of the Panhandle will blame Democrats for the funding delays, but Trump and Republicans were favored to win big there anyway, even before the funding flap. The GOP is hoping for an enraged electorate in the Central time zone to help offset deficits along the I-4 corridor and metropolitan areas.
But that is more than a year away. Right now, Panhandle residents want Trump to hurry back from Europe and sign the measure, so things can get back to somewhat normal.
Constituent service excellence
Whether or not a constituent agrees with their Senator’s or representative’s political views, they expect responsive customer service. The office of Sen. Marco Rubio recently won an award for excelling in that area.
The Congressional Management Foundation presented Rubio’s office with the 2019 Democracy Award for Constituent Service. Rubio’s team was one of only two selected this year, with California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna claiming the other honor.
Today my office was recognized as one of the best in Congress for constituent service. We have a great team that works hard to help those who come to us with a federal issue. I want to thank them for all the do for the people of #Florida
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 30, 2019
“One of my highest priorities is to ensure that my staff and I are available to help Floridians with whatever federal assistance they may need,” Rubio said in a news release. “Regardless of how tense or partisan the legislative process becomes in Washington, the dedication of our constituent services team is humbling.”
Among the criteria considered for the award includes response to constituent mail, advocating for constituents before federal agencies, constituent interaction and field work, and an effective social media and online presence.
“I am grateful for their service, and honored that the Congressional Management Foundation recognized the culture of service and compassion displayed by our teams in Florida and Washington,” Rubio added.
The winner will be honored at a ceremony June 20 in Washington.
Scott visits Puerto Rico
Aid to Puerto Rico has been at the center of a partisan fight over an emergency funding bill that is finally about to pass. Trump’s efforts to limit Puerto Rico’s share of the pie has brought scrutiny on other Republicans such as Rubio and Scott, making it a good time for Scott to head south.
On May 31 he made his 10th trip to the island since Hurricane Maria ravaged the area in 2017. He addressed the Puerto Rico Manufacturer’s Association convention talking hurricane relief, before visiting with members of the Puerto Rico National Guard.
Scott has talked hurricane preparedness throughout Florida, but brought that message to Puerto Rico and the National Guard. He brought a special message to those members stationed at the Airlift Wing Facility.
The first term Republican congratulated those serving in the commonwealth’s National Guard on their 100th anniversary.
Delegation: Peru’s a deadbeat
Proper diplomatic language would not include one country calling another a “deadbeat,” but in effect, that is what a bipartisan group from the Florida delegation is calling the country of Peru. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led by Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, the group urged the State Department to keep the pressure on Peru to honor their obligations to repay their bond debt.
Their concern centers on thousands of Floridians who are invested in Peruvian agrarian reform bonds. The government ceased making their bond payments in 1992, now bringing their value into question.
“We fear that thousands of Florida workers, among them our constituents, and many more Americans across the country, will be placed at financial risk if the government of Peru continues to default on these bonds,” they wrote.
“More than 50,000 Florida workers are invested in Peruvian agrarian reform bonds through their pension funds, including municipal workers, police officers, firefighters, trade unions, and port workers across the state.”
They also pointed out Floridians are not the only ones at risk from the Peruvian default. Citizens hold nearly $2 billion in debt in 30 states.
“We ask that you give our request your full and fair consideration, consistent with applicable statutes and regulations,” they added.
Also signing the letter were Republican Reps. Vern Buchanan, Bill Posey, Ross Spano, Matt Gaetz, Brian Mast and Dunn. Democratic signees included Stephanie Murphy, Val Demings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Darren Soto, and Charlie Crist.
Gaetz’s eventful town halls
A day of interacting with constituents had mixed results for Gaetz Saturday. He received a warm welcome from about 200 people at Dewey Destin’s restaurant speaking on several subjects, including the U.S. military, the opioid crisis and medical marijuana.
Matt Gaetz got milkshaked in Pensacola pic.twitter.com/yqz3bPgjw5
— jordan (@JordanUhl) June 1, 2019
Not everyone agrees with Gaetz’s outspoken advocacy for medical cannabis, including one man who expressed concern that its growing use would lead to recreational legalization. True to the title of his “Won’t Back Down” Town Hall Hour, Gaetz stood his ground
“I have never advocated for the recreation legalization of marijuana, but I don’t believe that the role of government is to stand between the doctor and the patient,” Gaetz replied.
Following a Pensacola meeting, Gaetz was struck by a drink as he left the Brew Ha Ha restaurant in Pensacola. Arrested and charged with battery was 35-year-old Amanda Leigh Kondrat’yev, a one-time candidate for Florida’s 1st Congressional District seat Gaetz eventually won in 2016.
Gaetz acknowledged the incident on Twitter saying, “Clearly it takes more than a drink to slow down our great team. We are always thankful to the brave law enforcement officials who keep everyone safe at our events.”
The drink toss gained national attention.
Lawson backs Biden
Leading in the polls and endorsements for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President, former Vice-President Joe Biden is also running far ahead in the number of endorsements.
Last week he picked up another when Lawson of Tallahassee added his name to the list. Despite that long list of endorsements, Lawson became the first delegation Democrat to get behind Biden’s bid.
“Joe has a long history of doing what’s right and not what’s easy to advance the causes of America’s working families,” Lawson said in a statement. “He has a proven track record of bringing people together and delivering results on issues important to us all — ranging from health care to the environment, from civil rights to women’s rights, and so much more.”
Lawson’s Florida colleagues have not been quick to throw their support to any of the nearly two dozen Democratic candidates, but Murphy announced early she was endorsing former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Former Democratic Reps. Gwen Graham and Patrick Murphy are among Biden’s other supporters.
Biden did receive endorsements from 23 members of the Florida Legislature. Lawson is the fifth member of the Congressional Black Caucus to get behind him.
“They don’t make ’em like Joe anymore,” Lawson added, “but we have an opportunity now, to meet head on the greatest challenges of our time, and ensure our best days still lie ahead of us and that is why I am endorsing him to be the next President of the United States.”
Murphy touts Equality Act
Efforts toward LGBTQ equality recently reached a historic milestone in the House of Representatives but achieving similar success in the Senate is another matter. Three years after the tragedy at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Murphy is touting passage of the Equality Act in the House of Representatives as an essential step forward.
Murphy participated, along with state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, in a panel organized at Orlando’s LGBTQ+ Center. Murphy talked about how the federal Equality Act approved by the U.S. House of Representatives but understood the dim prospects in the Senate.
The Equality Act, as well as and the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, would extend non- discrimination laws to LGBTQ people for the first time. Murphy shared with a full room of about 75 that as a member of the Congressional Equality Caucus she was proud to have co-sponsored the bill.
“It is such an important piece of legislation because it provides consistent and explicit nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community across key areas of life, whether it’s employment, housing, credit, education, etc.,” Murphy said. “It still kind of baffles me that here we are in 2019 that we still have to vote to protect the rights of people in the LGBTQ community,” Murphy said.
The bill was supported by every Democrat and 8 Republicans, including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
Saving Paris climate deal
This week marked the second anniversary of Trump’s announced intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The U.S. cannot officially withdraw until November 2020, making this a significant talking point for the presidential campaign.
The House passed the Climate Action Now Act in May which would, among other provisions, require the U.S. to stay in the agreement. It is not expected to go anywhere in the Senate, but Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, the bill’s author, is calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give the bill a vote.
“The Senate should act as soon as possible. If Republicans refuse to hold a vote, they should offer a serious alternative for addressing our climate crisis,” Castor said in a news release. “If they can’t offer any solutions, they’re not doing their jobs, and the American people will see right through them.”
McConnell made it clear the legislation has a bleak future in the Senate. He said, “the ill-fated Paris deal will go nowhere in the Senate.”
Democrats believe the few GOP Senators backing climate change action need to have a talk with their leadership and other colleagues.
“Until Mitch McConnell gets real pressure from his caucus, which he isn’t today, then nothing is going to change in the short run,” said Democratic Sen Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
Mast targets bureaucracy
Last week, Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City introduced two bills covering two issues that were not in the news, but seek to help those serving the country. Certain reserve physicians and chaplains, along with foreign service officers (FSOs), would be affected.
The first would involve current regulations requiring reserve physicians and chaplains reaching the age to retire from the military. Mast’s bill would bring reserves in line with active duty physicians and chaplains, who may stay past their 68th birthday if their service is “necessary for the needs of the military department concerned.”
The other bill covers foreign service officers, who deal with the requirement to take home leave each year. Housing is sometimes a problem, prompting Mast to propose the Department of Defense to provide temporary housing for those FSOs, employees of the Department of State, in need of it.
“Currently, Foreign Service Officers forced to take leave status upon returning to the United States are often left without any means of housing,” read a release from Mast’s office on his motivation for filing the legislation.
The plight of the experienced physicians and chaplains also need attention, Mast says.
It takes a special kind of person to put on the uniform and dedicate their life to serving our country,” Mast said. “We shouldn’t have artificial barriers or needless bureaucracy getting in the way of those who want to serve. That’s what these bills are all about.”
More Everglades funding sought
A project that would help Everglades water continue flowing south is one designed to raise the Tamiami Trail. Rooney is seeking federal funds to continue the next phase.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Rooney offered support for a grant application that would move the Tamiami Trail Next Steps Phase II Project forward. The projected price tag is $100 million.
“The Everglades ecosystem is vital to Florida’s economy and has a $2 trillion impact on the state,” Rooney said. “When this project is completed, water will be able to flow south into the southern Everglades and Florida Bay, where it is desperately needed.”
Rooney pointed to estimates that the Everglades represent a $2 trillion impact on Florida’s economy.
“It is vital that South Florida’s ecosystem is restored to its natural state, and that starts with water flow,” he said.
Chao and DOT must have been listening because early this week, a grant for $60 million to complete the Tamiami Trail project was awarded.
Gun restrictions sought again
Americans spent another weekend lamenting another senseless mass shooting. After a gunman killed 12 people on three floors in a Virginia Beach municipal building where he worked, the talk featured a mixture of mourning and gun control.
Within a few hours, gun control advocates weighed in on the tragedy.
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch tweeted:
"The people involved are our friends, coworkers, neighbors and colleagues.”
I’m sorry for Virginia Beach.
I’m sorry that our friends, coworkers, neighbors and colleagues continue to be gunned down across America.
I’m so angry that the Senate refuses to act to save lives.
— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) May 31, 2019
Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson added:
My heart breaks for the victims of today’s Virginia Beach shootings and their families. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. The Senate must join the House in combatting this terrible epidemic! RT if you agree!
— Rep Frederica Wilson (@RepWilson) June 1, 2019
The gunman entered the building, armed with two 45-caliber handguns with sound suppressors. The suppressors, legal in 42 states, lower the sound of the gunfire by approximately 25-30 decibels.
Virginia is one of the 42 states where suppressors are legal, but some communities, including Virginia Beach, have outlawed them.
Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whose father was gunned down in front of his own home in Ecuador, is also passionate about gun control. Though the shootings were carried out with handguns, she says more restrictions are needed.
We’ve lost 12 lives so far in yesterday’s shooting. Every time we want to heal our latest wounds, another senseless act of gun violence rips them open again.
— Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@RepDMP) June 1, 2019
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney appeared on Meet the Press and sought to steer the conversation toward mourning for the victims’ families.
“The mourning period hasn’t even stopped yet, let alone the healing process,” he said. “So, let’s not get too deep into politics too soon. Let’s think about the families.”
What’s the plan?
Hurricane season began June 1 with plenty of calls for Floridians to make plans to be ready should more hit the state this year. Mucarsel-Powell is asking the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for their plan should one strike Homestead where hundreds of migrant children are living in tents next to an overcrowded detention facility.
Homestead sits in a highly-vulnerable hurricane zone, one with a tragic history of hurricane devastation. Category 5 Hurricane Andrew destroyed everything in its path when it struck in 1992.
“I asked them what their plan of evacuation was if a hurricane were to hit, and they told me they didn’t have one yet, that they were working on getting one ready,” Mucarsel-Powell said after a midweek visit to the facility. “They are a government agency overseeing the safety of thousands of children in Florida and should have a plan ready before hurricane season starts.”
Officials with HHS told the Miami Herald they do have a plan, but those documents are not “publicly available.” Mucarsel Powell is proceeding on the premise there is no plan and pledged “I won’t stop until they do.”
On this day
June 4, 2001 — President George W. Bush stopped in Tampa to hold a rally hailing his tax cut package. He was joined onstage by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, as well as other dignitaries including Democratic Rep. Jim Davis, who did not vote for the tax cuts.
Bush also discussed his plan to develop domestic energy that could include oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. He also touted his commitment to restoring the Everglades, which earned partial praise from Sen. Bill Nelson, who said: “It’s great for the Everglades, but no drilling off Florida’s coast.”
June 4, 2009 — President Barack Obama traveled to Egypt to deliver a blunt address to students, faculty and guests at Cairo University. Obama criticized Israel’s West Bank settlements as obstacles to peace, Arab conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, and called out his own country.
Obama said America “acted contrary to our ideals” following 9/11 and indicated his foreign policy will balance the interests of Israelis and Arabs instead of advocating for Israel. To emphasize the change, the President said, “Just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”
Key personnel notes
The communications directors for both Reps. Diaz-Balart and Ross Spano are moving on to new jobs. Katrina Bishop, who worked in Diaz-Balart’s office for seven years, took a position as public affairs manager at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Spano’s communications director, Daniel Bucheli, announced he would be leaving the job Friday. “After some of the most professionally rewarding months serving CD 15 residents and my beloved State of Florida, I have accepted a position in the President’s re-election campaign,” he said in an email. Bucheli had worked in the U.S. House for about seven years before signing on as Spano’s first communications director. Spano’s deputy chief of staff, Scott Bedrosian, will fill in for Bucheli until a new communications director is named.