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Democrats impeachment rift grows
This week on Capitol Hill, a great deal of discussion and hand-wringing followed an attack on Saudi Arabian oil supply and production. The threat of global economic implications came in a distant second place in American politics with another hearing on impeachment capturing the full attention of national media.
The hearing conducted by the House Judiciary Committee was described as a sham by Republicans, but even some Democrats found it unproductive. Former Donald Trump campaign head Corey Lewandowski answered some questions directly related to the Robert Mueller report but was otherwise evasive, combative, contemptuous or other applicable descriptions.
Committee Democrats who questioned or admonished Lewandowski each made particular points while lamenting the absence of two former Trump aides, Rick Dearborn and Rob Porter, who were told to skip the hearing. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami reminded Lewandowski the President “cannot ignore congressional subpoenas” and “no one is above the law.”
Lewandowski, who is expected to announce he is running for the Senate from New Hampshire, did confirm Trump asked him to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself, to take a more active role. Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch said, “President Donald Trump tried to obstruct the Mueller investigation by getting AG Sessions to un-recuse himself and undermine the probe or be fired.”
At one point, Lewandowski said the all-encompassing effort to investigate Trump represents “the greatest crime” against this country. Orlando Democrat Val Demings latched onto that statement, listing “the 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor, the Lincoln assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, and every mass shooting” as examples of greater crimes.
Committee Republicans naturally thought the hearing was a waste of time, with some feeling the wrong person was in the witness chair. Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz said: “Jim Comey should be sitting in that chair, he should be answering questions about why he did so much damage to the FBI …”
When the hearing was over, nothing had changed. Less than half of the Democratic caucus backs impeachment, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is growing more frustrated with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and others of like mind, who keep the issue at the forefront instead of using the Democrats’ advantage on health care, education and other issues.
The focus on impeachment is bucking the will of voters. In a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, only 37 percent of Americans favored impeachment
There is one point where Nadler and Pelosi agree. They, along with several committee Democrats, believe Lewandowski should be held in contempt.
Scott seeks CBO price tag
In March, House progressives introduced the Medicare For All Act, followed by the Senate version sponsored by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and 14 Democratic colleagues April 10. Projected costs vary wildly with estimates ranging in the trillions, while Sanders points to a study that shows a $2 trillion savings over 10 years.
Sen. Rick Scott decided to ask the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the go-to source for members who wish to make a political point on a bill originated by the opposing party. In a letter to Dr. Phillip Swagel, the CBO director, Scott asked for a cost estimate.
“I am writing today to request CBO provide Congress with a complete cost estimate of (Sanders’ version) the Medicare For All Act of 2019,” he wrote. “This should already exist, as other Senators have requested this information in the past.”
Scott told Swagel the public deserves to know whether the bill would “bankrupt the country,” but also whether they would lose their employer-sponsored health care. In a later tweet, Scott questioned CBO’s reluctance to score the bill.
Hong Kong summer analyzed
A bipartisan Congressional commission overseeing activities of China is keeping a close on eye on Chinese conduct as it relates to the protests in Hong Kong. This week, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) conducted a hearing to examine developments in Hong Kong and the future of U.S.-Hong Kong relations.
The CECC, co-chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, heard from experts and activists during the hearing dubbed Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent and U.S. Policy Responses.
Rubio called out the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong leadership for trying to “ram through” an extradition bill that ignited the summer of protests. He also urged passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a House bill co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Yoho of Gainesville and Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
The two-term Republican said the legislation, which may be heard in committee next week, will “provide this, and future administrations, with updated tools to respond robustly and flexibly to the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies who are undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Rubio said the actions of the Hong Kong government, backed by China, has “launched one of the greatest people power movements we have witnessed in recent memory.”
Before hearing from the panel, Rubio concluded his opening statement by saying “Hong Kong is not a Chinese internal affair and the world has a responsibility to help the people of Hong Kong move toward a future that protects their individual freedoms and provides for civic well-being.”
The commission is made up of 8 members of the House and 9 Senators. Palm City Republican Brian Mast joined the group this year.
Medical billing reform stalls
The drive to pass legislation designed to curtail surprise medical bills has been put on hold. The House Education and Labor Committee has postponed tentative plans to mark up a bill this week that would protect consumers from the practice.
Reasons cited for the delay in taking up the Protecting People From Surprise Medical Bills Act included divisions among committee members. Some of that division came as a result of “fierce” lobbying from doctors and hospitals, who are concerned about how they will be paid once patients are protected from some of the massive medical bills.
The Florida delegation is deeply involved with multiple pieces of legislation. Among this bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats Donna Shalala of Coral Gables and Darren Soto of Kissimmee along with Republicans Neal Dunn of Panama City and Bill Posey of Rockledge.
Scott has proposed a Senate bill with almost the same name but replaces “People” with “Patients.” Dover Republican Ross Spano filed a House companion bill to Scott’s legislation. Neither bill has attracted a co-sponsor.
The House Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee are also working on versions of the bill. Discussion is centering on changes that will be more favorable to doctors and hospitals.
National suicide hotline proposed
Suicide rates among veterans continue to be a major problem, but growing numbers of suicides among the population are drawing increased attention. A lifeline for those in trouble is the subject of pending legislation in the House.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act would designate 9-8-8 as the National Suicide Hotline, similar to 9-1-1 as the emergency hotline. The bill, sponsored by Utah Republican Chris Stewart, has 70 bipartisan co-sponsors.
Among those are Florida Democrats Soto, Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, and Al Lawson of Tallahassee. GOP co-sponsors include John Rutherford of Jacksonville, Michael Waltz of St. Augustine and Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key.
“We need to do a better job getting assistance to those in mental health crisis,” Buchanan said. “By making it easier to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and devoting resources toward these crisis centers, we can have an immediate impact in reducing suicide.”
The National Institute of Mental Health reports suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, the total of 47,173 suicides nationwide exceeded the 19,510 homicides by more than two-to-one.
That puts suicide rates in the country at their highest level since World War II and marks a 33 percent spike since 1999.
Faster disaster funding proposed
The length of time it took for the Panhandle to receive disaster aid is a painful subject to Panama City Republican Dunn and his constituents in District 2. In an attempt to expedite the federal response to future disasters, Dunn introduced the Streamlining the Official Response and Monetary Aid for Disasters (STORM Aid for Disasters Act).
The bill would require federal agencies to submit two reports to Congress and the Office of Management of Budget following the President’s declaration of a major disaster. The legislation also expedites consideration of supplemental disaster funding, allowing a member of Congress to bring a supplemental appropriations bill to an immediate vote on the House floor if no action is taken within 90 days of a disaster declaration.
“It’s clear the system to provide emergency funding to disaster victims is broken,” Dunn said in a news release. “It took Congress nine months to pass supplemental disaster funding for Hurricane Michael.
“Nine months where our military had to pause construction projects because they ran out of money, nine months where our farmers and timber producers watched their years of hard work quite literally rot on the ground before them, and nine months where communities struggled to get by,” Dunn added. “All this, because political theater in Washington took precedence.”
Dunn played a big part in securing the funding to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base by working both the Air Force and leaders in Congress to ensure adequate funding.
The supplemental funding included $670 Million for Air Force Operations and Maintenance and $1 billion for Military Construction to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base. It also included $3 billion for agriculture losses across the country and aid for timber producers and farmers in North Florida.
Happening Saturday — Dunn will be participating in dedicating a new building at the Camp Gordon Johnson World War II Museum. The building will be named in honor of the late Sidney A. Winchester. The event begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Time. The museum is located at 1873 Highway 98 West in Carrabelle. More information is at campgordonjohnston.com/visit/special-events/.
Pulse survivor wants action
Pulse nightclub massacre survivor and Equality Florida spokesman Brandon Wolf told a U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means subcommittee Thursday that it’s “high time” that Congress embraced gun control. And he blasted Trump, saying he “traffics in the darkest elements of racism, misogyny and hatred.”
Brought in by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, who is a member of the committee, Wolf also detailed the horrors he experienced hiding in a Pulse bathroom while a madman murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others in the early morning of June 12, 2016.
“Hatred and the violence it begets are on the rise, and they have affected every single corner of this country. In America, it feels as if we have made a decision: rather than use every tool in our toolbox to combat hatred, we have chosen to subsidize it, embolden it, and hand it an assault gun,” Wolf told the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee.
“Instead of uniting us and calling on our better angels, we have a president in Donald Trump who traffics in the darkest elements of racism, misogyny, and hatred to score cheap political points,” Wolf charged. “Inaction in the face of hatred makes you complicit, and it is high time this Congress do something to protect those of us on the front line.”
Wolf told the committee of his memories of June 12, 2016, including his friend, who died that night, telling him that they don’t tell each other enough that they love each other. Among his other memories:
“I can remember cold water from the faucet, a plastic cup teetering on the edge of the sink. I remember gunshots, confusion, the rancid stench of blood and smoke, I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck, my heart pounding as I crouched on the bathroom floor. I remember the faces of terror on those people trapped there with me, a panicked sprint for an open door. And I swear I can still hear every one of the 110 rounds that man pumped into the club.”
Disaster planning bill filed
With the recent spate of natural disasters fresh on the minds of Americans, there is a concern in Congress to be better prepared for extreme weather events. As a result, Clermont Republican Daniel Webster has helped introduce the appropriately named PREPARE Act.
The act looks to establish best practices across the government to protect communities while saving taxpayer dollars. Additionally, it would create an interagency council to provide governmentwide recommendations on readiness so that Americans can undertake smart and cost-saving initiatives.
“After the devastating 2004-2005 hurricanes, Florida made specific policy and behavior changes to improve our disaster preparedness,” Webster said. “The cornerstone of Florida’s preparedness planning is resilient construction techniques and improved communication and coordination between state and local agencies.”
Specifically, the bill would create an interagency oversight council, ensure local and state planners can identify regional issues and adopt best practices to increase their preparedness for extreme weather events, minimize costs and improve regional coordination.
According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, in 2018 the country can look forward to saving $6 in future disaster costs for every dollar invested in mitigation grants provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Webster joins Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright, the bill’s lead sponsor, in filing the legislation.
Leveling the playing field
Job creation is the sign of a growing economy, and the country’s small businesses are known as the critical catalyst for putting more people to work. With that in mind, St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist introduced the Community Bank Deposit Access Act.
The purpose of the bill is to increase the ability of community and midsized banks to provide more small business loans and mortgages. Crist said his bill is needed because larger banks too often deny loans for working families and small businesses.
“As banks have grown larger, access to capital has grown smaller for working families and small businesses,” Crist said in a news release. “People in the neighborhood know that community banks and credit unions are usually the ones that say ‘yes’ when the big banks say ‘no.’
“Because community banks are losing out to the big banks on large retail deposits, we need to do more to level the playing field,” he added.
According to Crist’s office, Community banks represent 17 percent of the total assets of the U.S. banking industry yet extend over 53 percent of all small business loans. The Community Bank Deposit Access Act will mean more loans for lower-income borrowers, rural communities and small businesses, including women and minority-owned businesses.
“The Community Bank Deposit Access Act makes it safe and easy for big banks to ‘spread the wealth’ by divvying up large deposits into smaller chunks that can flow to smaller banks, pumping capital back into Pinellas and communities across the nation,” Crist said.”
Arkansas Republican French Hill is the lead co-sponsor.
Castor welcomes climate activists
Earlier this week, a group of teenage climate activists presented their views on climate change before the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis chaired by Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor. While substantive issues were discussed, events before and after the hearing made some news as well.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat as a way to reduce the “carbon footprint” of airline travel. She also protested in front of the White House and met with former President Barack Obama.
Before Castor’s committee, Thunberg was joined by fellow young activists Jamie Margolin, Vic Barrett and Benji Backer. Thunberg’s message to the committee and the rest of the country was “unite behind the science” of climate change.
Margolin and Barrett were in sync with Thunberg’s message, while Backer advocated for climate change action through conservative, “market-based” principles. He also urged Trump to accept climate change as “real” and to “respond accordingly.”
Following the hearing, Castor posted a tweet with a photo saying: “This is what it looks like when Congress listens to a generation of young people who are growing up in the #ClimateCrisis.” Castor’s tweet also thanked those who appeared, but it did not include Backer, nor was he in the photograph.
Backer’s friends claimed he was intentionally omitted due to his different ideas on climate solutions.
Not so, said committee communications director Aaron Huertas, who pointed to the inclusion of all of Backer’s testimony on the committee website and a committee tweet during the hearing that included him.
Thunberg, now a global sensation in the climate change community, heads to New York to appear at a United Nations climate summit.
Mast challenges VA Secretary
Mast is still fighting a decision by the Veterans Affairs (VA) to evict him and five delegation colleagues from district offices located in VA medical facilities. This week he wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking him to reconsider.
“The termination of these offices will hurt veterans and serves only to undermine the significant legacy of the Trump Administration opening up the VA to increased accountability after substantial failings during President Obama’s tenure,” Mast wrote.
Mast also pointed out the West Palm Beach VA Medical Facility is a 1.7 million square foot medical facility. The shared office used by Mast and his colleagues is 100 square feet.
Responding to a suggestion from Wilkie that Mast hold a town hall, the congressman invited Wilkie to come to Florida and co-host that town hall at the West Palm Beach facility “to further constituent outreach.”
“The bottom line is that if you want to fix a problem, you have to be present for it,” Mast continued. “While you may believe that effective oversight can be conducted from Washington, D.C. (as stated in your letter), I believe that the history of crisis within various VA medical centers proves otherwise.”
Mast copied Trump on the letter, and liberally threw his name around within the contents. He asked Wilkie to join him in “upholding President Donald Trump’s commitment to improving transparency and accountability for our veterans by reversing your decision.”
Mast shares his West Palm Beach office with Democratic Reps. Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Hastings, while Orlando-area Democrats Soto and Murphy share another in Lake Nona.
Delegation combats human trafficking
A bipartisan group of the Florida delegation, led by its two co-chairs, launched legislation designed to help prevent human trafficking and exploitation of children. Hastings and Buchanan announced the filing of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Act that authorizes grants for training students, teachers and school personnel to understand, recognize, prevent, and respond to signs of human trafficking.
“In truth, human trafficking and exploitation is a local, not just a global problem,” said Hastings. “These horrors are happening in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across our nation, and right in my home state of Florida, which has one of the highest reported cases of trafficking in the country.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the state ranks third in the nation as a destination for human trafficking. The bill would create a federal office to address the crisis and would also authorize $75 million in funding over five years.
“Human trafficking is a vile and monstrous crime against women and children,” said Buchanan. “Educating students and teachers about the warning signs is critical to combating human trafficking.”
The also requires priority be placed upon eligible entities serving geographic areas with the highest prevalence of human trafficking and areas with the highest prevalence of at-risk, vulnerable or underserved populations.
Joining as original co-sponsors are Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Sarasota Republican Greg Steube. Those endorsing the bill include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), ECPAT-USA, the Selah Way Foundation, Selah Freedom and the 3Strands Global Foundation.
Dramatic school video released
Earlier his week, the advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise released a powerful Public Service Announcement that captures the terror of students seeking to escape an ongoing school shooting. As the students show some of their new school clothes and supplies, they are forced to use some of those supplies to survive.
“This jacket is a real must-have,” says a girl using it to tie handles of swinging doors together. Another girl is shown looking out a window clutching a pair of scissors as her only defense saying, “these scissors really come in handy in our class.”
Among the last images is a girl hiding from the shooter and texting her mother as the door creaks with the shooter apparently entering the room. The video goes to black with the words “It’s back to school time, and you know what that means,” followed by “School shootings are preventable when you know the signs.”
To watch the ad, click on the image below:
Some delegation Democrats took away a message calling for gun control, focusing on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In a tweet, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens said “If this acutely distressing ad does not move @senatemajldr out of his ‘holding pattern’ on gun control, I cannot imagine what will! @SandyHook #EnoughIsEnough.”
Rep. Mucarsel-Powell tweeted “Very powerful and emotional ad from @sandyhook. Everyone needs to watch this … especially @senatemajldr. #EndGunViolence #DoSomething.”
Sandy Hook Promise was formed mostly by the parents of victims from the December 2014 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The mission, stated on their website, is “to create a culture engaged in preventing shootings, violence, and other harmful acts in schools.”
On this day
Sept. 20, 1976 — Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan will not provide the kind of campaign help President Gerald Ford was seeking. While Reagan, who nearly denied Ford the nomination, will help in some southern and Rust Belt states, the arch-conservative will not be stopping in states like Florida.
Reagan’s campaign team said Dick Cheney, Ford’s chief of staff, was too late in making the requests for more appearances and his calendar was filled. With Watergate looming over the elections, pundits are publicly saying, and Ford’s team privately says, the incumbent may need Reagan’s help to defeat former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in November.
Sept. 20, 2001 — In a speech before a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush ordered Afghanistan’s Islamic government to turn over every terrorist within its borders or face destruction. Bush asked Americans to steel themselves for what will be a tough “war on terror.”
“Our nation — this generation — will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future,” Bush said. “We will rally the world to this effort by our efforts, and by our courage. “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
Happy birthday (Sept. 23) to Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee