Historic week highlights divide
As a busy week in Washington draws to a close, a look back at the major events is in order.
For the second time in 21 years, the majority party in the House is using December to impeach the President of the other party, while a huge trade agreement may be approved, and a historic defense bill is near final passage. At the same time, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report that the FBI and DOJ, at best, exhibited incompetence in launching the Russia probe in 2016.
After two days of rancorous hearings, which included a bitter exchange between Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia and Republican Matt Gaetz, the House Judiciary Committee prepared for a Friday vote to send two articles of impeachment to the House floor. Once there, a few House Democrats may vote with Republicans, but likely not enough to keep at least one, if not both articles from heading to the Senate and the third impeachment trial in U.S. history.
Orlando Democrat Val Demings, a committee member who has favored impeachment for months, tweeted:
The president has a right and a responsibility to make U.S. policy.
The president does not have a right to use his office for his own personal gain.
That was what the founders feared.
That was why they included impeachment in the Constitution.#DefendOurDemocracy
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) December 12, 2019
Another committee member, Sarasota Republican Greg Steube, captured his party’s feelings by citing previous accusations against President Donald Trump.
“No collusion. No obstruction. No quid pro quo. No treason. No bribery. No high crimes and misdemeanors. No case for the Democrats,” he tweeted.
Among the GOP criticism of the impeachment inquiry was the neglect of other issues, such as the U.S., Mexico, Canada trade agreement (USMCA). Shortly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the drafting of articles of impeachment, she then went out to announce an agreement with the White House on USMCA that included changes sought by the AFL-CIO.
Pelosi described the agreement as “infinitely better” than the one put forward by the Trump administration. The White House called it a “huge win” for American workers. In addition to Congress, the agreement also goes back to Canada and Mexico for their approval.
This week’s approval by the House of the $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act brought numerous news releases from members of both parties touting the provisions they supported. Panama City Republican Neal Dunn, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott and others highlighted the $1.5 billion for rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base, while the military pay raise earned bipartisan support, funding for the Space Force met with Republican approval.
Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, other Democrats (and some Republicans), celebrated the inclusion of 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal workers. The bill does not prohibit the use of funds for border wall construction, helping lead 41 Democrats to vote against it and give credence to reports that some Democrats felt they were “completely rolled.” All within the delegation voted in favor.
The long-awaited final report on the origins of the Russia investigation was finally released. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz described his findings both on paper and before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Horowitz found multiple errors in the way the investigation began and how surveillance warrants were sought but stopped short of saying bias is what drove the probe. Republicans have focused on the errors, while Democrats zeroed in on the finding of a lack of bias.
Monday begins what is scheduled to be the last week in session for the year. The House is likely to vote to impeach, year-end business — and plenty of politics — will keep the press corps and cable channels very busy.
After 19 hours of contentious markup debate Wednesday and Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved both articles of impeachment against Trump in an eight-minute voter Friday morning.
As expected, the 23-17 party-line vote included ayes from Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Demings, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami; nos from Republicans Gaetz and Steube.
The Judiciary Committee hearings, which also included two days of testimony and debate last week, offered prominent platforms for Florida’s five members, particularly Demings and Gaetz, who already had established themselves as being among Trump’s most ardent critic and most zealous supporters.
Demings came to the committee’s impeachment proceedings from the House Intelligence Committee, where she participated in questioning the 17 witnesses that panel called in building the case against Trump. Gaetz came to the committee’s impeachment proceedings from being a leader of the House Republican protests over the previous two months.
Rubio elections bill fails
A bill co-sponsored by Rubio designed to impose sanctions on countries interring in U.S. elections is still awaiting approval after an attempt to pass it by unanimous consent failed. Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo objected to the move that could have passed the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, forcing the bill to come through the Senate under regular procedures.
Rubio and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, the bill’s lead sponsor, reintroduced an updated version in April to address concerns expressed by other Senators. At the time, Rubio said “the United States will respond immediately and overwhelmingly to future attempts to interfere in or undermine our elections,”
The changes were not enough to sway Crapo.
“The mechanisms in this bill have been designed more to attack the Trump administration and Republicans than to attack the Russians and those who would attack our country and our elections,” he said. Van Hollen responded, “This has nothing to do with President Donald Trump. This has to do with protecting our elections.”
Rubio offered no public statement on Crapo’s move. During an Oval Office meeting earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that election interference is “unacceptable.”
No budget, no pay
If it is December, there must be budget issues to resolve. Several spending bills remain to be approved before the year is out.
While Congress seldom fails to fund the government, the polarization on Capitol Hill often leads to continuing resolutions (CRs) that keep funding at certain levels without agreeing on what needs more funding or what could do with less. Sen. Scott and Senate colleagues are renewing their call for Congress to forego their salaries if they cannot pass a budget.
“We come from the business world. In business, you create a budget,” Scott wrote in an op-ed on FoxNews.com along with Republican Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and Steve Daines of Montana.
“You control the rate of spending. You make sure to invest in priorities that strengthen your company’s future. And employees know that if they don’t do their work, then they don’t get paid.
Why should it be any different for Congress?”
They are promoting the No Budget, No Pay Act sponsored by Braun, and co-sponsored by Scott and 12 other Senators from both parties.
“Members of Congress should not be paid if they don’t pass a budget. Period,” the Senators added. “If Congress can’t do its most basic task, then members of Congress shouldn’t get a paycheck.”
Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper is sponsoring a companion bill in the House, with Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy and Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan serving as original co-sponsors.
Light aircraft procurement sought
A group within the Florida delegation has pushed for an increase in the use of light attack aircraft to be based at Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa County. Hurlbert serves as the headquarters for the Air Force’s Special Operations Command.
In September, a letter to the leadership of both armed services committees from eight delegation members asked for the new equipment that complements F-16 and F-35 aircraft. Among the eight signees were Rubio, Gaetz, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, John Rutherford, Bill Posey and Mario Diaz-Balart.
“Over the past several years, Congress has acted upon its commitment to the light attack program by authorizing $300 million and appropriating $200 million expressly to deliver on these capabilities and concepts,” they wrote. “We respectfully request you to continue this much-needed effort.”
The letter specifically asked the committees’ leadership to keep provisions in the final version National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was being negotiated. Language in the final version of the NDAA provided procurement authority for light attack aircraft provided the commander of Special Operations certifies the need for them to both armed services committees.
Waltz STEM bill passes
An increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education has been the subject of numerous bills in Congress. This week, a bill co-sponsored by St. Augustine Republican Mike Waltz focusing on minority students unanimously passed the House of Representatives.
The MSI (Minority Serving Institution) STEM Achievement Act, would increase the capacity for students in STEM curricula, encourage partnerships with industry and federal labs, and establish liaisons for MSI’s within federal science agencies.
Additionally, it directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop uniform policy guidelines for how federal science agencies should carry out a sustained program of outreach activities to increase clarity, transparency, and accountability for Federal science agency investments in STEM education and research activities.
“Minorities make up 27% of the U.S. population but are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, only accounting for 11% of the STEM workforce,” Waltz said in a news release.
“Minority-serving institutions like Bethune-Cookman University in my district are key to improving participation and retention in STEM fields. Investing in STEM institutions that educate underrepresented populations will create a larger, more diverse STEM talent pool to fill the jobs we need to and make our country more competitive, including here in Florida’s Space Triangle.”
The bill, sponsored by Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson with Waltz serving as the original co-sponsor, with Diaz-Balart also co-sponsoring, also directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) to have a better understanding of the hardships that MSI’s face in STEM recruitment and retention.
It further authorizes the NSF to create up to five MSI Centers of Innovation that would “serve as incubators to allow institutions of higher education to experiment, pilot, evaluate, and scale-up promising practices.” Also, the bill would focus on federal engagement with MSI’s on building research competitiveness and creating opportunities for minority students to pursue STEM careers.
Murphy touts moderate Democrats
The 2018 election saw a flip of 40 seats from Republican to Democrat, providing a new narrative coming from the new majority party. Among freshmen women, just a few have helped define the class by gaining the most notoriety and media attention, something Murphy is trying to counter.
While the media has focused on the four members known as The Squad, Murphy wants the world to know some moderates wish to get things done. There is more to this class than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
“Are some voices amplified more than others? Sure,” Murphy said at POLITICO’s Women Rule Summit in Washington. “But I think one of the things that women always bring to the table — whether it’s in a carpool line, at the boardroom, or wherever else we show up — is that we show up and we listen. And then we find ways to civilly engage with one another.”
The two-term Democrat pointed to several moderate women who won in 2018, with some joining the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which she co-chairs. This group advocates what would be described as a pay-as-you-go spending philosophy, a policy in stark contrast to deficit spending initiatives such as the Green New Deal championed by The Squad.
Murphy said Democrats “can disagree on policy, perhaps, but find through conversation and dialogue the ability to find common ground, and I’ve seen a lot of that.”
Accessing medical tech
Breakthroughs in medical technology can save lives, but they can only serve that purpose if patients, especially seniors, are aware the latest treatments are available to them. With that in mind, Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis is backing a bipartisan bill to bring more medical technology to treating Americans on Medicare.
Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene’s Ensuring Patient Access to Critical Breakthrough Products Act, with Bilirakis serving as an original co-sponsor, would guarantee Medicare beneficiaries access to cutting-edge medical innovation by streamlining the coverage determination process and improving the availability of breakthrough devices for patients.
“This legislation will help millions of seniors on Medicare by ensuring more timely access to the treatments they need,” Bilirakis said. “Additionally, there are more than 600 medical device companies in our state working to develop innovative and effective products.
The bill also provides temporary coverage for certain breakthrough devices that did not exist or were not contemplated when Medicare was firsts created and do not have a Medicare benefit category. Additionally, the Health and Human Services secretary would have the flexibility to make coverage determinations for products that have FDA breakthrough status but no benefit category.
“This bill is about connecting patients with important devices and technologies more quickly,’ Bilirakis continued. “Additionally, it is about encouraging innovation rather than stifling it. Government has to get out of the way and streamline the payment process for effective new devices that can ultimately help improve and save lives.”
Social Security bill advances
A bill designed to increase access by seniors to critical information concerning Social Security benefits is on its way to the House floor. The Know Your Social Security Act, introduced by Buchanan and Connecticut Democrat John Larson, gained approval from the House Ways and Means Committee this week and appears headed for final passage.
The bill requires the Social Security Administration (SSA) to resume mailing annual earnings statements to the 178 million Americans workers — between the ages of 25 and 60 years old — currently paying into Social Security. This would make it easier for them to keep track of their finances and plan accordingly.
According to Buchanan, despite a requirement in law to do so, the Social Security Administration abruptly suspended mailing these statements to the vast majority of working Americans in 2010.
“Too many hardworking Americans enter retirement without enough savings,” Buchanan said in a news release. “Because Social Security is the primary source of income for a majority of seniors, it is imperative they have a full understanding of their benefits as they plan for retirement.”
The bill’s sponsors say SSA is directing the vast majority of Americans into accessing information online, but only a fraction are doing so. They point to a Pew Research Center survey that revealed a staggering 33 million Americans are still living without internet access, and many are concerned about sharing sensitive information, such as their Social Security number online.
AARP has endorsed the bill saying it “would once again place vital, paper Social Security statements in the hands of millions of Americans, to help them more effectively plan for retirement, identify fraud and correct earnings records, and better understand their stake in Social Security.”
Rule of Law rouses Rooney
Following the airing of broadcast ads by Republicans for the Rule of Law targeting his district, Naples Republican Francis Rooney publicly demanded several members of Trump’s administration testify in impeachment hearings. Primarily, he wants the House to hear from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The White House has fought subpoenas from the House on all those witnesses, but Rooney said that’s not acceptable. “There are several important sources of firsthand testimony about what was or was not said by the president that should be heard under oath,” he said.
The Rule of Law group, the most high-profile pro-impeachment GOP organization in the country, has encouraged Republican Congressmen to speak up. So far, Executive Director Sarah Longwell said Rooney is the one who has responded favorably to the group’s campaign. The organization this week put up billboards in Fort Myers, urging voters to support requiring testimony.
“Polling shows 87% of Americans think these key witnesses should testify,” Longwell said. “This is not a point anyone should just move on from.”
Rooney, for his part, said the House should wait for the courts to offer some guidance. “We will soon know the outcome of the challenge to former White House Counsel Don McGahn’s claim of executive privilege,” he said. But it appears Democrats want to hold an impeachment vote quickly, perhaps as soon as this week.
Longwell, though, said in many ways, determining if witnesses can be compelled matters more than impeachment itself. “If Presidents can ignore subpoenas in the future, that is what they will do,” she said. “If Congress can’t be a check, then the executive holds too much power.”
Resolution supports Iranian protesters
Recent political unrest in Iran had drawn comparisons to the 2011 “Arab Spring,” when autocratic dictators were overthrown. Protesters were in the streets around the country, forcing the country’s Revolutionary Guards to begin firing on them.
Democratic Rep. Deutch and South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson, the chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, want it to be clear the U.S. is behind the protesters. The introduced a resolution supporting the people of Iran’s peaceful and legitimate protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime in Tehran.
“The Iranian regime has an infamous reputation for egregious human rights abuses against its own people, including by censoring the internet, restricting both religious freedom and political participation, imprisoning journalists, and torturing political dissidents,” Deutch said in a joint news release announcing the resolution.
“Congress stands with the Iranian people. The Iranian government must end its violent suppression of the protests and respect the Iranian people’s right to live in a free society.”
According to Amnesty International, more than 200 Iranians have been killed by Iranian authorities with 2,000 wounded and 700 arrested.
Wilson: Haiti needs U.S.
As the U.S. continues on the impeachment process, Haiti continues to battle corruption under the radar of national media. This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held their first hearing on Haiti in 20 years, with the impeachment of President Jovenel Moise part of the agenda.
Shortly after House Democrats announced plans for articles of impeachment against Trump, Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson walked into the meeting room. She asked Haitian activists how the impeachment process in Haiti was going. Supporters of Moise are accused of carrying out killings of journalists and opponents.
“We live in the United States, and we have corruption … right in our White House just like you have corruption with your President,” Wilson said. “What has happened to the impeachment process in Haiti?”
Though not a committee member herself, several other non-members of both parties joined Wilson in attending the meeting and asking questions. Meeting attendees were by activists and analysts the impeachment process failed in the lower house of the Haitian parliament due to what constituted as bribes.
Wilson took some credit for the committee putting Haiti on the agenda. She also said the unfolding events require greater U.S. attention.
“We need to get the State Department here so they can get international buy-in to what’s happening in Haiti,” Wilson said. “We can no longer pretend that Haiti does not exist and that Haiti is not in crisis. Haiti is in crisis. Haiti is just a couple of hundred miles from the U.S. border, specifically Florida.”
The announcement by Rep. Ted Yoho that he would not seek a fifth term representing Florida’s 3rd Congressional District set off the expected scramble from announced or potential candidates in the Republican-leaning district. Three Republicans and two Democrats are already in, having announced before Yoho revealed his intentions, while the Mayor of Ocala, Kent Guinn, is in the final stages before making his run.
Republicans Joseph Dallas Milado, Amy Pope Wells and Judson Sapp, who has already raised six figures, are all running. On the Democratic side, Gainesville Democrats Philip Dodds and Tom Wells are in the race. Buchanan has endorsed Sapp.
In District 15, a competitive Democratic primary is expected for the right to take on incumbent Republican Ross Spano of Dover. Both Democratic challengers picked up significant endorsements this week.
State Rep. Adam Hattersley received the backing of the Congressional Blue Dog Coalition, as well as an individual endorsement from Murphy. This week, Hattersley’s Democratic opponent, television news anchor Alan Cohn, received the support of former Governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and his daughter, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham.
This week, the Blue Dogs also announced they were backing State Rep. Margaret Good in her race against Buchanan for the District 16 seat.
On this day
Dec. 13, 2000 — After 37 contentious days, Vice President Al Gore conceded the election to George W. Bush after the Supreme Court halted ongoing recounts. In a concession speech, Gore said: “I disagree with the Court’s decision, but I accept it.”
Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart predicted the country would come together, saying: “we’re going to see the unexpected occur.” South Florida Democrats Peter Deutsch, Carrie Meek and Alcee Hastings held a news conference announcing Gore should find a new way to stay in the race they believe he rightfully won.
Dec. 13, 2003 — Eight months after U.S. forces toppled the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, soldiers captured the fugitive near his hometown of Tikrit. U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer told assembled media at a hastily-called news conference in Baghdad, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!”
“It marks the end of the road for him and all who killed and bullied in his name,” Bush said during an address to the nation. Coalition Commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said the next steps are uncertain, but speculation centered around a future trial of Saddam for war crimes.