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Trial can wait
After a desire expressed by large numbers of Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump since the early days of his administration, the House has taken that step. There were no surprises as all Republicans opposed, and only a handful of Democrats voted with the GOP.
In addition to several members of the delegation offering comments on the House floor before the vote, most weighed in with responses following the election. The themes were established months ago.
Republican Sen. Rick Scott called it “sad and embarrassing,” while Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach said, “It’s about power. Donald Trump has it, and the Democrats want it.”
Jacksonville Republican John Rutherford took an interesting approach by linking Democrats and Russia. With a polarized Congress, he asked if the goals of Russia and Vladimir Putin of “sowing discord and division in America” have been successful.
“I know the President said that he can get away with anything he wants to. I came to tell you that, no, he cannot,” countered Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Orlando. Her Democratic and Judiciary Committee colleague, Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton said, “Impeachment is the remedy provided by our Constitution for grave moments like today.”
While the vote and commentary were somewhat predictable, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted at a strategy that would make the process drag out even longer. She is considering an indefinite delay in forwarding the articles of impeachment to the Senate, questioning whether the Senate trial will be fair.
“We cannot name managers until we see what the process is on the Senate side, and we hope that will be soon,” Pelosi said. “So far, we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us, so hopefully it will be fair.”
She referred to Trump as a “rogue President” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “rogue leader.”
While the media focus has been on impeachment, the judicial branch of government is quietly changing. McConnell has been almost obsessive in getting Trump-appointed judges confirmed to the bench.
At almost the same time as the impeachment vote was occurring, Sen. Marco Rubio seemed to taunt Democrats with a tweet.
“Today in the Senate, we worked on things that matter to Americans,” he said. “We continued filling vacancies in the judiciary with good judges. Tomorrow we will confirm more judges & a deputy Sec of State & we will fund the gov’t for the rest of the fiscal year.”
Trump and McConnell have had success in remaking the judiciary. They are capitalizing on a change pushed through by McConnell’s predecessor, former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, that changed confirmation from supermajority to simple majority.
The best example of the focused approach comes from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a circuit comprised of Western states that conservatives have long described as the “ninth circus” because of numerous decidedly liberal rulings. Trump appointees now make up one-third of that court’s judges (coupled with Republican appointees already there) with an average age of 41 with a lifetime appointment.
Perhaps this and the specter of possibly two more Supreme Court appointments over the next four years have woke Democrats desperately wanting Trump gone as soon as possible.
Veterans STEM bill passes
A bill designed to assist veterans reentering the workforce passed the Senate this week. The Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act, sponsored by Rubio with Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar as the primary co-sponsor, was approved by unanimous consent.
The bill’s broad goal is to prepare veterans for opportunities in landing high-paying jobs once their military days are over. It directs the National Science Foundation to encourage veterans to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
“The future of work in the 21st century will be dominated by STEM roles, and the United States should prioritize policies that utilize our well-qualified veterans to fill this future workforce,” Rubio said in a news release. “I thank my Senate colleagues for unanimously approving this important and bipartisan bill to ensure our nation’s veterans have the skills and opportunities to succeed in STEM careers
The legislation would also require the Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish an interagency working group to improve veteran and spouse equity and representation in STEM fields and to develop a strategic plan to address the barriers that veterans face when reentering the workforce.
The bill is supported by the Manufacturing Institute, Samsung, TechNet, Verizon, and the Consumer Technology Association. The companion legislation in the House, sponsored by Panama City Republican Neal Dunn, passed by voice vote February 25.
A final version will be developed and voted upon after the first of the year.
Scott: Allow defensive weapons
While the victims in the deadly shootings at Pensacola Naval Air Station were remembered this week, a policy involving possession of guns has become an issue. Possession of firearms on military bases are not permitted, which left victims defenseless while a gunman who ignored the policy killed or wounded them.
Among those calling for a change is Sen. Scott, who argues the response of law enforcement might be quick, but not quick enough to save those who might otherwise have saved themselves. Navy pilots are reportedly already seeking approval from military commanders and lawmakers to change the policy.
“It defies logic that our men and women in uniform, who we train to operate multimillion-dollar pieces of military equipment and trust to keep our country safe, are not allowed to carry firearms on U.S. military bases,” Scott said in a news release. “It’s time for this policy to change.”
Scott confirmed that pilots, including some from NAS Pensacola, were writing letters seeking permission to carry defensive weapons. None were identified publicly.
“The terrorist attack at NAS Pensacola shows that it’s more important than ever for our men and women in uniform to be in a position to defend themselves,” Scott added. “I will work with the leadership of the Armed Services Committees and the Department of Defense to see what needs to be done to change this policy and allow military officers to carry firearms on U.S. military bases.”
Besides impeachment …
Perhaps the most expensive week in U.S. history is drawing to a close. As the House and Senate wind down a week that saw the impeachment of the President, there was sufficient time to commit nearly $1.4 trillion in spending through two major bills.
Whatever bipartisanship exists in Washington, spending to prevent a government shutdown is bringing both parties together, at least somewhat.
Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell tweeted:
Great news! In an important act of bipartisanship, we passed a sweeping appropriations package today that will avoid a gov't shutdown and bring much-needed change for South Florida. Check out some highlights below and read more here: https://t.co/eETH6YECZY #FY2020 pic.twitter.com/eaKwNYmsXM
— Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@RepDMP) December 18, 2019
The most significant chunk of the spending came from the National Defense Authorization Act, a cornucopia of defense and nondefense-related items spread over 1,927 pages. After earlier clearing the House, the $738 billion measure passed the Senate 86-8, with four Republicans and four Democrats voting no and six others not voting.
Several members of the delegation were able to insert some provisions into the legislation, and some are chronicled throughout this issue. The final bill, covering $632 billion in domestic spending, is also heading for Trump’s desk.
Along with voting to avert a shutdown, lawmakers were also expected to approve the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Agreement (USMCA). The House gave their approval (see “Everybody likes” below). Still, McConnell revealed the Senate would not take it up until after the new year, prompting moderate Democrats to blast the decision.
McConnell indicated a linkage between Pelosi’s strategy of delaying the impeachment trial to his decision to postpone the vote on the agreement.
Everybody likes trade agreement
And just like that, less than 19 hours after Democrats and Republicans acted like Sharks and Jets in the impeachment debate, they came together to pass Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement overwhelmingly.
Even some of the more aggressive impeachment fighters such as Demings and Republican Rep. Ross Spano were in the same gang this time. The House approved USMCA 385-41 late Thursday, with overwhelming support from both parties, in the final action of the 2019 session.
“This trade agreement is a huge win for our economy as it has the potential to create over 170,000 new jobs and produce over $60 billion in new economic activity,” Spano said, while he noted it, unfortunately, lacked the protection he sought for Florida strawberry growers.
“I was proud to vote for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a bipartisan trade deal that will create more good-paying jobs and help more Florida businesses and farmers sell their goods abroad,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy. “USMCA was the product of thoughtful, bipartisan negotiations between the White House and Congress, and, as a member of the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Trade, I’m proud of the work we did to help get it done. Today’s strong bipartisan vote is a reminder of how much we can accomplish when we put people over politics to deliver results.”
Not everyone tried to make the deal sound like a bipartisan hug.
“After more than a year of waiting on House Democrats to bring this trade agreement to the floor, we’ve finally voted and ratified the USMCA,” Republican Rep. Michael Waltz said.
Deutch, who noted labor protections as an example, offered: “Because of the improvements negotiated by House Democrats, I voted for the USMCA trade deal for the benefits it can have for consumers, workers, and businesses in our South Florida community.”
NASA takes giant steps
The thought of resuming crewed space flights and ultimately returning to the moon may have taken a significant step forward this week with two separate events. In a considerable line item, the NDAA included funding for NASA to prepare spacecraft for a future lunar landing.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was anxiously awaiting an affirmative vote on the defense package early in the week. He was not disappointed.
“The bill spending bill gives @NASA funding for a human lunar lander for the first time since Apollo!” Bridenstine tweeted. “We are grateful for the BIPARTISAN support & will continue to work with Congress to secure the funds needed to land the 1st woman & next man on the Moon by 2024!”
On Friday, Boeing launched its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station. The occasion marks Boeing’s debut into the next generation of crewed space flight. The capsule ended up in the wrong orbit after lifting off, a blow to the company’s effort to launch astronauts for NASA next year.
The uncrewed vehicle is expected to serve as a critical milestone in Boeing’s efforts to join SpaceX in providing NASA with commercially-developed astronaut crew vehicles into lower Earth orbit.
Delegation remembers terror victims
Throughout a week of conflict or just differing points of view, the delegation came together on a somber note. Many gathered on the floor of the House to remember the three Navy personnel who lost their lives in the recent terror attack at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
The impromptu memorial was led by Gaetz, who represents the district where the navy base sits. Some members of the Georgia and Alabama delegations joined their colleagues from Florida.
“We congregate here today to remember those who lost their lives and those who were wounded in the course of this egregious attack,” Gaetz said. “Those who wear the uniform inspire the best within us, because they are truly the best among us.”
Those killed were Ensign Joshua Watson of Coffey, Ala; Airman Mohammed Haitham of St. Petersburg; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Walters of Richmond Hill, Georgia.
In an email to constituents, Gaetz said: “This is no time to stand down. A terrorist attack threatened our way of life, and it is our duty as a community, and a country, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
In the Senate, Rubio and Scott joined with their Senate colleagues from Georgia and Alabama to pass a resolution honoring the victims. Rubio offered remarks on the Senate floor.
“There is no action we can take to bring these heroes back, but what we can do is commit ourselves to serving our country honorably and to ensure that reforms are put in place to prevent an attack like this from happening in the future.”
Disaster tax relief approved
Among the items included in the funding package was an item that benefits victims of Hurricane Michael and other natural disasters. Dunn was especially pleased with this outcome.
After Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle, Dunn introduced The Hurricane Michael Tax Relief Act. This legislation would allow individuals affected by the Category 5 storm penalty-free early access to their retirement savings and helps employers and businesses within the disaster area.
“The passage of these crucial tax extenders is a big win for Hurricane Michael victims who are still picking up the pieces more than a year later,” Dunn said in a news release. “We finally got routine disaster tax relief across the finish line.”
“This important legislation allows disaster victims to access money they have saved over the years without facing penalties and temporarily suspends limitations on charitable contributions to our area that are associated with hurricane relief.”
Expressly, the legislation permits penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans and make it easier to qualify for personal casualty loss deductions. It also provides tax relief to help businesses retain employees, temporarily suspends limitations on charitable contributions associated with hurricane relief, and grants taxpayers the option to refer to earned income from the previous year for determining the Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits.
“We still have a lot of rebuilding to do in the Panhandle, but the passage of this tax relief is an important part of the process,” Dunn added.
Gun violence research funded
Several in Congress believe understanding the science behind gun violence is critical to reducing the alarming trends, but taking the next step in conducting scientific research has been difficult for the last two decades. Thanks to a line item in the 2020 spending package, such research can soon begin, much to the relief of Murphy, Deutch and many of her colleagues.
The Democratic-led house was able to come to terms with the Republican Senate for $25 million in funding as part of the spending bill. The funding will be split evenly between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
“One of my first successful battles in Congress was to help repeal the ban on federally sponsored research into ways to reduce gun violence,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “I’m proud we’ve now won the next battle — obtaining $25 million to fund such research. Let’s use evidence-based policies to save lives.”
Murphy led an effort in 2018 to overturn a federal ban lasting 22 years on funding gun violence research. No money was appropriated, until this week, despite Murphy and others calling for $50 million in funding.
Among those joining Murphy in celebrating the funding was her Democratic colleague, Rep. Deutch of Boca Raton. He tweeted:
This is a major victory for every single American who wants to prevent gun violence from destroying any more communities.
The House gun safety majority is not beholden to the gun lobby. The gun violence epidemic must be studied if we are to appropriately address it. https://t.co/zKVvdZdghV
— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) December 17, 2019
Senior protection bill introduced
With Florida having a significant number of senior citizens among its population, attention to issues involving elder Floridians is required of elected officials. This week, three bipartisan members of the delegation introduced legislation to protect seniors from underhanded guardians.
Democratic Reps. Charlie Crist and Darren Soto, joined by Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis, introduced the Senior Guardianship Social Security Protection Act. The bill would direct state courts to notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) when a court-appointed guardian is removed for cause.
The legislation comes on the heels of reports revealing unscrupulous guardians who drained the assets of seniors in their care. In Pinellas County, a leader in the guardian community is facing criminal charges for stealing more than $500,000 from one of the 31 seniors under her care.
“Abuses within the professional guardianship system are finally coming to light, and it’s abundantly clear that the system, and oversight of it, is broken,” Crist, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a joint news release. “This legislation is another way we can help crack down on abusive practices and better protect our seniors from bad actors in the guardianship system.”
Seniors comprise 23% of the state’s population. According to Crist’s office, that percentage is projected to increase.
“This important bill provides one more layer of protection to ensure our most vulnerable citizens do not become victims of exploitation,” Bilirakis said.
The SSA can appoint representative payees to manage federal benefits received by individuals who are unable to do so for themselves. The agency is responsible for oversight of the payees while state and local courts oversee guardians.
“There must be open communication between Social Security Administration and state government in order to disable those with negative intentions,” Soto said. “There must be accountability for guardians deemed unfit but continue to abuse the system because of the lack of communication between SSA and state governments.”
Fentanyl sanctions legislation approved
When trade negotiations with China began last year, one of the big asks by the U.S. was for China to intervene and shut down the massive amounts of the lethal drug fentanyl coming into the U.S. Despite Chinese pledges to take action, little has happened. Still, new legislation designed to sanction China for lack of action is soon to become law.
In May, Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan and Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton introduced the Fentanyl Sanctions Act. The bill calls for sanctions on loans, investments, and transactions conducted by foreign individuals and entities, as well as traffickers.
Recently language similar to that of the Buchanan/Moulton bill was inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This week’s passage ensures the legislation will be implemented.
“For too long, fentanyl and other opioids have continued to wreak havoc on communities in Florida and across the country,” Buchanan said. “We need to hold Beijing accountable for any lack of progress controlling the fentanyl freely flowing out of their country.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug deaths nationwide involving fentanyl or other synthetic opioids skyrocketed by more than 1000 % in the past six years.
“This is a frightening development considering that just a few years ago, the number of overdoses was declining,” Buchanan said.
Everglades funding tripled
Several members of the delegation have aggressively sought funding for Everglades projects, including those charged to the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as those targeted toward estuaries and other infrastructure projects. The spending bill signed this week triples Everglades funding to $200 million for the fiscal year 2020.
A project of high interest among South Floridians is the Everglades reservoir project. When completed, discharges of polluted water will now have a place to go instead of into the St. Lucie River, Caloosahatchee River and other estuaries.
“After a year of fighting tooth and nail, today Congress finally stopped kicking the can down the road and came together to triple funding for Everglades restoration projects, including the southern storage reservoir,” said Palm City Republican Brian Mast. “This is a huge victory for the Everglades and our fight to stop harmful discharges,” leading to algal blooms.
The funding provided another example of broad agreement on what was good for the local community.
“It will help protect South Florida’s magnificent ecosystem, keep our water safe, and drive our economy,” said West Palm Beach Democrat Lois Frankel in brief remarks on the House floor.
Hastings, Shalala set rules
Before the impeachment articles moved to the House floor, the House Rules Committee spent several hours preparing the procedures for conducting the debate. The committee put forward a package that called for six hours of debate.
Two Florida Democrats, Reps. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach and Donna Shalala of Coral Gables, presented their reasons why Trump should be impeached. Hastings took on the Republican argument criticizing the entire impeachment process followed by the Democratic majority.
“What you’re doing is talking about the process, but I might add you haven’t seen nothing yet until you listen to (South Carolina Republican Sen.) Lindsey Graham and the Majority Leader, McConnell, about how, if and when this matter gets to them, how they’re going to act,” Hastings said.
“How dare somebody say that they are going to pretend they are fair!”
Shalala sought to focus on what Democrats described as an impeachable act and reject the characterization that it is about pursuing a vendetta on the President.
“This is not about politics,” Shalala said. “I have never supported the impeachment of a President over a policy disagreement or a different ideology.”
HBCU funding bill signed
Before voting to impeach the President, graduates and those invested in the well-being of Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) attended a bill signing ceremony at the White House. The Future Act, which now directs the federal government to provide $255 million in annual funding to HBCUs, passed Congress last week.
The law also simplifies the application process for federal student aid and eliminates paperwork for income-driven student loan repayment plans.
Among those attending the signing ceremony was Miami Lakes Democrat Frederica Wilson. The graduate of Fisk University was pleased the bill had become law.
“Thanks to the hard work of @RepAdams and the HBCU Caucus, #HBCUs and #MSIs now have PERMANENT federal funding!” Wilson tweeted. “The #FUTUREAct ensures that our nation’s students of color will always have pathways toward success. #ForTheFUTURE”
Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, a graduate of Florida A&M (FAMU), also attended the ceremony and commented on the role played by education in shaping his life.
“I am here because of what #FAMUTaughtMe,” he tweeted. “The FUTURE Act helps extend that privilege for generations to come.”
Like Wilson, Hastings also received his undergraduate degree from Fisk. He also attended Howard University and received his law degree from FAMU.
On this day
Dec. 20, 1989 — U.S. forces swept into Panama, dislodging the government of dictator Manuel Noriega, who is under indictment in the U.S. on drug charges. Noriega remained at large, but Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “We will chase him, and we will find him.”
Both Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack joined with the rest of the delegation in supporting the invasion, but Democratic Rep. Bill Nelson of Melbourne said, “We should have had him in our hands two months ago,” during a coup attempt. Noriega’s escape, even if temporary, was on the mind of Sanibel Republican Porter Goss, who said, “the punch was telegraphed” and “it wasn’t a surprise Noriega wasn’t there at the airport when our troops arrived.”
Dec. 20, 2018 — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation over a dispute with Trump over policy in Syria. Trump overruled the former Marine general’s advice against pulling troops out of the civil war-ravaged country.
In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” The announcement came a day after Trump surprised U.S. allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria and revealed he is also considering a significant reduction of troops in Afghanistan.
Happy holidays from all of us at Florida Politics. Delegation will return Jan. 7.