Senate supports protesters
During the most bitter week of the impeachment inquiry directed toward President Donald Trump, a unifying issue simultaneously descended onto Capitol Hill. Months into sometimes violent protests in Hong Kong, lawmakers put previous words of support onto paper.
First, the Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio and co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Scott along with several Senators from both parties.
“Today, the United States Senate sent a clear message to Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms: we hear you, we continue to stand with you, and we will not stand idly by as Beijing undermines your autonomy,” Rubio said.
Scott tweeted directly to the protesters:
BREAKING: tonight the Senate unanimously passed the #HongKong Human Rights & Democracy Act. This is a great step forward for those fighting for their freedom.
Thank you for what you’re doing. The US stands with you. Your fight will not be in vain, and won’t go unnoticed. pic.twitter.com/VSN0FSs4DR
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) November 19, 2019
The following day, the House passed the measure 417-1, sending it to the President’s desk for signature. Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie was the lone “no” vote.
“Today, the Congress is sending an unmistakable message to the world that the United States stands in solidarity with freedom-loving people of Hong Kong, and we fully support their fight for freedom,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho, the ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing Asia, echoed the near-unanimous support on Capitol Hill for the protesters.
#China is not respecting the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement & they must be held accountable. I stand w/ the people of #HongKong & I’m proud to support the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act. This important bill will be sent to the WH & signed into law.
— Ted Yoho (@RepTedYoho) November 20, 2019
As expected, it sent China into a rage, who threatened “retaliation” if the President signs it into law. State media claimed Trump is “on a precipice” promising “absolute revenge” if he signs the bill.
The action could complicate efforts between the U.S. and China to complete an initial trade agreement, but the Chinese say the deal is on track, for now.
“This will benefit China, the U.S., and the world,” he continued, describing the rumors of turmoil between the two countries as ‘unreliable,’” said China’s Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng.
The bill, among other things, requires the State Department to annually certify whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous to justify special trade privileges. It also protects U.S. citizens from accused of crimes from being sent to China.
After the Senate voted, but before the House took action, China said: “Phase one” of the trade deal with the U.S. is still on track.
Trump has not taken a high-profile position on behalf of the protesters, but will reportedly sign the bill. China is warning dire consequences will follow.
Politics of domestic violence
Domestic violence is an issue that all can agree upon, but how the federal government combats it is open to political machinations. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired in February, but is still the law of the land thanks to extensions, but competing bills to reauthorize the law came front and center this week.
Rubio joined with Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst to introduce a bill that would “reauthorize and modernize” (VAWA). The House passed its version on April 4.
“I am proud to join my colleagues in this important effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act,” Rubio said. “This bill would increase funding and provide a 10-year authorization for critical grant programs to prevent and respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking, as well as support for victims.”
All nine co-sponsors of the Senate bill are Republican, while only one Republican was among the 168 co-sponsors of the House bill.
The day before the Senate bill was introduced, Ernst blocked consideration of the House bill on the Senate floor, saying it had no chance of passing the Senate. Ernst and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein were tasked with establishing a compromise, but those efforts collapsed.
While there are many points of agreement in the competing bills, a point of contention among Republicans involved bans on former abusers owning firearms. Feinstein indicated Democrats were opposed to specific LGBT and tribal sovereignty provisions.
Budget deal enacted
Before heading out of town for the Thanksgiving recess, both chambers passed a $2.7 billion, two-year budget deal. The Senate passed the measure by a 74-20 vote, while the House earlier gave its approval on a mostly partisan 231-192 count.
In the Senate, Rubio voted with the majority, while Scott joined the opposition.
I voted “no” on today’s short term spending bill. It does nothing but kick the can down the road.
We need No Budget, No Pay. We need to reform how Washington works and stop spending money we don’t have.
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) November 21, 2019
In the House, 10 Democrats sided with Republicans while 12 Republicans voted with Democrats in favor. All 27 members of the delegation voted along party lines.
“The People’s House has taken action to prevent a government shutdown in November, while also providing a 3.1% pay raise for our U.S. Armed Forces,” said St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist. “I remain optimistic that both parties in the House and Senate will come together before the end of the year, set aside partisan differences, and pass all 12 appropriations bills, avoiding a repeat of last year’s costly, painful, and unnecessary shutdown. We owe it to the American people to get the job done.”
By the time the bill was sent to the White House for the President’s signature, less than 12 hours had remained before the government was out of money. He quickly signed the bill into law, but funding for government agencies still must be approved by Sept. 30 to avoid a full or partial shutdown.
Yoho announces infrastructure grant
Like many American cities, the city of Starke has infrastructure needs that require funding. Like any Congressman, Gainesville Republican Yoho was pleased to announce such funding.
Yoho announced a nearly $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finance an update to the city’s wastewater treatment facility. The award would improve service to over 2,300 residents and boost local economic development efforts.
“I am proud to announce $7.8 million in funds for the great city of Starke, which will be used to upgrade their wastewater treatment facility,” Yoho said. “This is a key issue that needed to be resolved before we could look at other ways to bolster economic growth in the city and surrounding areas.”
The grant comes as an addition to a previous $8.8 million-dollar loan. It comes as a part of a package of grants totaling $635 million for 122 projects aimed at improving water and wastewater systems. The facility in Starke is 40 years old.
The announcement comes as the project is identified as a key action item established by the Presidential Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. Yoho is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
“Reinforcing and upgrading this critical infrastructure is not only an immediate improvement to residents and customers but a signal that the city of Starke is serious about growth and development,” Yoho added.
Sprucing up Korean memorial
Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, an Army Green Beret veteran, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers Thursday in efforts to landscape the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Waltz, a Republican from St. Augustine Beach, and six other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four Republicans and two Democrats, spent the morning spreading fresh gravel around the outdoor exhibit as a show of respect and gratitude for fallen Korean War soldiers and American veterans.
The memorial features 19 stainless steel statues, including members from each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as a mural wall, a United Nations wall and a Pool of Remembrance, which has inscriptions listing the number of soldiers killed, wounded, missing in action and held as prisoners during the Korean War.
Republican Reps. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, Mike Bost of Illinois, Denver Riggleman of Virginia, and Van Taylor of Texas, and Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Jimmy Panetta of California joined Waltz.
“As we head back to our districts to spend time with our constituents and reflect on our blessings during Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to join my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to pay tribute to our veterans,” Waltz stated in a news release. “The Korean War Veterans Memorial remembers nearly 5.8 million Americans who served in the Korean War. At such a divisive time in Washington, it’s important to set aside partisanship and reflect on their sacrifices for freedom.”
This week marked the most significant period of the impeachment inquiry highlighted by a Wednesday morning bombshell that was somewhat muted by the afternoon. When Gordon Sondland, Ambassador to the European Union, testified to a quid pro quo, many felt the “smoking gun” was revealed.
Later, Sondland discussed a Sept. 9 conversation with Trump, who told Sondland “no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy, President Zelenskiy to do the right thing.” Throughout the day, Democrats stuck by their positions, while Republicans embraced the latest revelation.
Being a junior member of the House Intelligence Committee, Orlando Democrat Val Demings was among the last to question the witness. Demings, the only Floridian on the committee, focused on the timing, saying events dictated the President’s statement on that day.
Ambassador Sondland just testified to me that when President Trump told him there was "no quid pro quo," it was entirely unprompted.
The President was concerned about the discovery of his bribery scheme…because Congress had just launched an investigation. #DefendOurDemocracy
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) November 20, 2019
Unless someone else comes on the radar, the public testimony portion of the inquiry concluded with the Thursday appearances of former National Security Agency Russian policy expert Dr. Fiona Hill and David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. The Intelligence Committee will present a report to the House Judiciary Committee to consider articles of impeachment.
Seconds after committee chairman Adam Schiff gaveled the hearing to a close, Demings, who live-tweeted throughout the three days, offered a parting tweet:
This week's historic #ImpeachmentHearings laid out overwhelming evidence that President Trump abused his power.
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) November 21, 2019
Medicaid expansion urged
Increasing Medicaid expenditures continues to be a policy issue that divides Democrats and most Republicans. Some Republican governors have expanded Medicaid in their states, but Scott continues to face criticism for failing to do so while he was Governor of Florida.
A report claims 2,800 Floridians died as a result. Florida is one of 14 states not to take that step.
Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz said:
Republicans must put people over politics and expand Medicaid and protect the #ACA.
Thousands of lives were lost because they refused.
Thousands more could be saved if they do the right thing.https://t.co/pxobcT7iNd
— Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) November 18, 2019
Increased funding is sought not only within the 50 states but in U.S. territories and commonwealths. Legislation proposed by Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto and Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis would add an extra $3 billion each to year territories such as Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Soto indicated some skepticism exists in the Senate out of concerns the funds would be misspent. A case in point was provided when a Puerto Rican government Medicaid official was arrested in July.
“So, that didn’t help,” Soto said. “We do need to take it seriously and make sure that tax dollars are safeguarded,” he says, but adds, “There have been fraud instances in many states too, and we don’t take away their Medicaid funding.”
Opportunity Zone reform urged
Opportunity Zones usually are low-income and undercapitalized urban areas mostly populated by minorities. Those investing in Opportunity Zones enjoy some tax advantages.
Examples of wealthier areas receiving the designation — and the tax breaks — have come to the attention of Congress, prompting a call to address the situation. A group of 26 Democratic House members, including Demings of Orlando, Al Lawson of Tallahassee, and Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens, are seeking reforms.
In a letter led by South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, to the leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, the members wrote: “Rules to prevent such manipulation are needed.”
“If a policy is to benefit low-income Americans by incenting development in economically disadvantaged communities, then such a policy must prevent manipulation of investments to benefit only investors or high-income prospective residents to the exclusion of low-income current residents,” they wrote.
The opportunity zones, created under the federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, were intended to target low-income census tracts, making businesses and developers working there eligible for deferred capital gains taxes. The census tracts qualify as opportunity zones for 10 years.
An investigation pointed to wealthy individuals, including some in Florida, receiving the tax breaks. The letter writers urged passage of pending legislation, including the Opportunity Zone Reform Act.
“The Opportunity Zone Program holds immense promise for communities with unrealized potential like the 20 census tracts located in my Central Florida district,” Demings stated in a news release announcing her support for the Clyburn letter. “These neighborhoods are filled
Identifying guardian ‘bad actors’
Recent cases of elder abuse at the hands of professional guardians are gaining more attention. A high-profile case involving a guardian wrongly filing a “do not resuscitate” order led to investigations that exposed more wrongdoing.
The situation inspired Soto’s original co-sponsors Bilirakis, St. Petersburg Democrat Crist, and Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell to introduce the Guardianship Accountability Act.
“America’s guardianship system was created as a legal safeguard, but bad actors and lack of oversight have led to gross abuse, neglect and exploitation,” Soto said.
The bill requires the Elder Justice Coordinating Council to create a National Online Resource Center on Guardianship for the publication of resources and data relating to court-determined adult guardianships.
Additionally, the bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to award at least 5% of certain grant funds for state programs related to overseeing the administration of court-appointed guardian arrangements.
“These stories reveal a disturbing lack of transparency in a system tasked with protecting our seniors,” Crist said in a statement. “Without oversight and collaboration at the federal, state and local levels, victims will continue to fall through the cracks.”
The legislation also calls for a nationwide database to capture information on guardianships and identify those who have poor records.
National Guard, reservists supported
Health care for those serving in the National Guard and retired reservists was the topic of a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress. Dover Republican Ross Spano and Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard filed the TRICARE Fairness and Reserve Retirees Act, which the sponsors say would ensure those affected would receive the health care benefits to which they are entitled.
The bill would align the eligibility age for TRICARE Standard, Extra, and Prime with the age at which National Guard and Reserve personnel begin receiving their retired pay. Congress previously lowered the age for those who served in this fashion, but the age to receive TRICARE health benefits remained at 60.
“This has resulted in early retirees often spending the vast majority, if not all, of their pension on TRICARE premiums until they reach 60,” Spano said in a joint release. “This bill will help service members transition into retirement as intended when Congress reduced their retirement age.”
Among those supporting the bill include the Reserve Organization of America, the National Guard Association of the United States, and the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.
“National Guard and Reservists who are eligible for early retirement currently do not have similar eligibility as Active Duty early retirees for traditional TRICARE because of a technicality,” said Gabbard, who currently serves as a Major in the Hawaii National Guard in addition to serving in Congress. “This bill honors their service and sacrifice by improving their retirement transition and making sure they get the health care they have earned.”
The bill marks the second time this month Gabbard, who is running for President, and Spano have worked together. Along with Lawson of Tallahassee, they introduced the Post 9/11 Veteran Business Acceleration Act designed to support veteran-owned small businesses.
Buchanan targets animal experiments
Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan, well-known for his animal rights stances, has introduced another bill designed to protect those used in research. Buchanan has joined as original co-sponsor on the Humane Cosmetics Act sponsored by Virginia Democrat Dan Beyer.
The bill would end the safety testing of cosmetic products on animals and prohibit the sale of products developed using animal testing. The bill would prohibit selling or transporting any cosmetics in interstate commerce if any component of the final product was developed or manufactured using animal testing.
“Subjecting animals to painful experiments to test cosmetics is inhumane and entirely unnecessary,” said Buchanan, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus.
“Scientific advancements have created viable alternatives to these cruel experiments, while still ensuring that cosmetic products are safe for human use. As countries around the world work to prohibit animal testing in cosmetics, it’s time for the United States to get on board.’’
Significantly, the bill is backed by both the Humane Society Legislative Fund as well as the Personal Care Products Council.
A companion Senate bill is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona. So far, 37 nations have similar laws.
Shalala confident on USMCA
Some Democratic House freshmen, especially those who flipped districts in 2018 that Trump won in 2016, are reportedly keeping a close on the impeachment inquiry. Criticism coming from Republicans that the Democratic majority is ignoring important issues, such as the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA), is bringing an urgency from these freshmen to get something done.
The AFL-CIO is urging or demanding Democrats make changes to the agreement that they say would better protect workers. While several Democrats want to do a deal quickly, others say let the process play out.
Florida has two first-term Democrats in Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, and while both flipped GOP districts in South Floridan, neither was carried by Trump. Shalala is not one of those in a hurry.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was reported to have used a football analogy with Democrats for getting the agreement “over the goal line.” Shalala chided the nervous freshmen as she backed the drive for changes and Trumka’s analogy.
“They don’t understand football,” Shalala, the former University of Miami President, said. “(Trumka) just said we’re on the seventh-yard line, we just don’t know which down it is. It’s the red zone — and you know how difficult it is.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by next month. In the meantime, there will be no spiking of the football.
School safety clearinghouse
Four Florida House members, Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and John Rutherford, and Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Ted Deutch, co-sponsored a bill that would create a national clearinghouse for school safety ideas and resources.
Their Luke and Alex School Safety Act, honoring two Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School murder victims, Luke Hoyer and Alex Schachter, is the companion to the Senate bill introduced earlier by Florida’s Sens. Rubio and Scott, and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.
It would codify and structure a national Clearinghouse of School Safety Best Practices, establish grant programs administered by the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Justice and Homeland Security, and set up coordination and communication frameworks between federal and state agencies.
“Max Schachter, Tom and Gena Hoyer, and the other families of the victims of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy have turned the painful loss of their loved ones into action to help others avoid that same loss,” Deutch stated in a news release. “This bipartisan and bicameral bill builds on the work of Parkland parents by requiring a dedicated home within the federal government for school security best practices and guidance that will help prevent gun violence and save lives in schools across the country.”
On this day
Nov. 22, 1963 — John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was shot and killed as he rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. He was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at Parkland Hospital. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One before returning to Washington with the traveling party that included First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Around two hours after the shooting, police located and arrested 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the Texas School Book Depository, from where the shots were apparently fired. Also severely wounded was Texas Gov. John Connally, who was riding in the seat in front of the President.
Nov. 22, 1963 — Walt Disney, president of Walt Disney Productions, took a plane ride over Central Florida, looked down into some swamps and orange groves, and decided he had found the place for his next big theme park. Over the next couple of years, he set up several shell companies to buy up real estate, with only a small handful of Florida officials and bankers knowing what was going on. The park was finally announced in November 1965, and Walt Disney World opened Oct. 1, 1971, bringing about monumental changes to the Orlando area and Florida.
Nov. 22, 2009 — A government-appointed panel that recommended women should begin routine mammogram examinations in their 50s, instead of their 40s, has elicited reactions ranging from incredulity to outrage. Critics fear this will lead to a publicly-funded health care option that would not pay for the screenings.
“As a breast cancer survivor, I came out against these recommendations,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “The task force language in that bill actually makes sure that … preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies and other cancer screenings would be free.”