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Can I get a witness?
As the week began, a New York Times story attributed a claim from former National Security Adviser John Bolton that President Donald Trump engaged in a quid-pro-quo with Ukraine. After Trump antagonist and Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, along with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, expressed interest in hearing from Bolton, the die seemed cast to call Bolton and perhaps others as witnesses.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” he said.
Florida Democrats weighed in as well, saying any trial that does not hear from Bolton is not fair.
“With this bombshell coming from a former member of Trump’s inner circle, the @SenateGOP MUST call John Bolton to testify,” tweeted Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston. “It’s more clear than ever that a trial without witnesses is basically a cover-up.”
By midweek, stories attributed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated he did not have the votes to block any further witnesses. Some in the media described the witness issue as a Romney v. McConnell battle.
“I find it suspicious that John Bolton is just now wanting to make a grand entrance into the impeachment trial after sitting totally quiet during the entire House investigation,” tweeted Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach. “I hope our Senators move us past this national impeachment nightmare.”
Florida’s two “jurors” took different approaches to the witness question. Sen. Marco Rubio did not weigh in on the need for further witnesses, while Sen. Rick Scott left no doubt where he stood.
“House Dems had their chance to call the witnesses they wanted. They didn’t because they rushed it through on a party-line vote,” he tweeted. “We’ve heard enough. It’s time to get back to work. If you want to change who our President is, then focus on the election coming up in 9 months.”
Scott produced an ad that ran in Iowa reliving the famous Joe Biden sound bite demanding Ukrainian authorities fire a prosecutor as the price for receiving U.S. aid. The ad claimed Biden’s action was the real quid-pro-quo, a claim PolitiFact rated as “false.”
As the final day of the question and answer session began in the Senate, the inevitability of witnesses began to fade. McConnell said he believed he had the votes to block further witnesses and, in effect, end the trial by week’s end.
Perhaps sensing the momentum moving away from witnesses and Trump’s removal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump would not be acquitted even if the Senate votes that way. A trial without witnesses, she claimed, cannot acquit anyone. She also questioned how some of the Trump defense team are allowed to keep their law licenses.
With the trial apparently nearing an end, the next surreal event approaches. On Tuesday, Trump will stand before his accusers and the jury to deliver the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.
Floridians seek water funding
A new bill designed to provide increased funding for clean water projects was unveiled this week in both the House and the Senate. Rubio and Scott joined to unveil the Clean Water Allotment Modernization Act, while St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz is sponsoring the House companion bill.
“Protecting and restoring water quality in Florida’s aquifers, wetlands, and coastal waters is an economic imperative, and this needed reform will help deliver critical environmental benefits for current and future generations of Floridians to enjoy,” Rubio said in a joint release.
The legislation would nearly triple Florida’s current Clean Water State Revolving Fund allotment each year and enable the state to finance billions of dollars in new clean water infrastructure over the next decade without increasing federal spending.
“I’m proud to introduce this legislation with Sen. Rubio and Congressman Waltz to make sure our communities have the resources they need to improve water quality so Florida families can count on a clean water supply and enjoy the beautiful natural resources that make Florida great,” Scott said.
The updated formula in the bill would incorporate new data elements, including the Clean Water Needs Survey (CWNS) data, decennial census population counts, and EPA Water Quality Impairment Component Ratios. Additionally, rather than maintaining an old, outdated funding formula, the bill requires EPA to regularly update allotments to ensure that changing needs around the nation are met.
“In order to keep our water clean, every dollar matters,” Waltz said. “By fixing this formula, we can ensure Florida gets fair funding to address the water demands of our Atlantic Coast, the Indian River Lagoon, and our rivers and springs.”
Among the House bill’s eight co-sponsors are Florida Republicans Brian Mast of Palm City, Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, John Rutherford of Jacksonville, Bill Posey of Rockledge, Ross Spano of Dover and Francis Rooney of Naples. Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee is also a co-sponsor.
U.K. Huawei deal panned
The United Kingdom and Prime Minister Boris Johnson were warned not to let the Chinese company Huawei be part of that country’s 5G infrastructure due to security concerns. Despite those warnings from both Florida Senators, other members of Congress and U.S. security officials, Britain ignored them.
U.S. officials are so concerned with the decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in London this week to specifically push Johnson to reverse the decision while discussing the post-Brexit era and a trade deal. Such a reversal is unlikely.
The cost of eliminating Huawei was cited as a significant reason for including the company deemed by the U.S. as a national security threat. Rubio described the British move as “penny-wise, pound-foolish.”
Scott had both security and economic concerns. Trump has spoken frequently of a massive trade deal once the U.K. officially leaves the European Union, which occurs this week, but that could be in jeopardy.
“If the U.S. is going to consider a trade agreement with the U.K., it is imperative that Huawei is recognized as a threat to our national security partnership,” Scott wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Examiner. “The U.S. must put any trade deal with the U.K. on hold until Johnson commits to take swift action to ensure Huawei will not be used in their transition to 5G networks. This is for the security of both the U.S. and the U.K.”
Increased Everglades funding sought
Little more than one month ago, Trump signed a spending bill allocating $200 million for Everglades restoration. It is now time to craft a budget for the next fiscal year, and the President is receiving requests for even more in the next round.
In a letter, Rubio and Scott are asking for $250 million for restoration and related projects. Those projects are contained as part of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration plan.
“The importance of funding this world-class environmental infrastructure project to restore America’s Everglades cannot be understated,” they wrote. “As such, a $250 million investment will not just benefit generations to come; it will build off your historic commitment to Everglades restoration that is already part of your lasting legacy in Florida.”
Trump is hearing from an interested party in the House. In a separate letter, Mast also weighed in on the merits of a $250 million investment, focusing on projects to confront the harmful algal blooms that have frequently wreaked havoc in the past.
“With Gov. Ron DeSantis’s budget request of $300 million for Everglades restoration and your strong continued support, this federal-state partnership can accomplish unparalleled progress to restore America’s Everglades and prevent harmful discharges,” Mast wrote. “Thank you for your continued attention to this issue, and I look forward to continuing our work together to build this critical infrastructure.”
SCOTUS sides with Trump
This week, the Supreme Court continued a recent trend by overturning another nationwide injunction blocking Trump administration policies. In a 5-4 vote, the court allowed Trump’s “public charge” policy, which will enable authorities to deny visas to those they believe would go on public welfare, to take effect.
“It is very clear the U.S. Supreme Court is fed up with these national injunctions by judges who are trying to impose their policy preferences instead of enforcing the law,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
Florida Democrats weighed in on the court’s action, stressing the importance of having the power to appoint judges and justices.
“This shows how important it is that we take back the Supreme Court,” tweeted Wasserman Schultz. “One vote can determine whether America lives up to the virtues of its founders or caves to the fears of privileged xenophobes. America should not be behind a paywall.”
The court previously lifted injunctions on Trump’s tightening of asylum rules, as well as ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and the President’s travel ban.
“The Trump administration’s new immigration rules are an attack on our country’s values,” said Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala via Twitter. “America’s immigrant legacy has made our nation the envy of the world.”
$760 billion plan offered
The House has introduced a major infrastructure spending bill that will become the topic of the presidential campaign in the coming weeks. Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed a $760 billion plan that would involve spending on rail, airports, harbors, wastewater infrastructure and broadband, among other things.
Coming just 24 hours after reports the budget deficit will top $1 trillion, questions will come on how to pay for the effort. Pelosi said the House is serious about this, and it is not just a campaign ploy to win votes.
“These are not message bills,” Pelosi said, referring to a practice of passing legislation likely to fail just to impress voters. “We are hoping we’ll have the support of Republicans and the president of the United States.”
Trump has often spoken of supporting a major infrastructure effort. Still, some in his party may shudder at increasing the deficit, as well as the national debt that now exceeds $22 trillion. Last April, a White House meeting with Trump, Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ended with a verbal agreement to spend up to $2 trillion on infrastructure.
Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from heavily-congested Miami was all in.
“This plan creates good-paying jobs while taking significant steps toward a low-carbon, sustainable future,” she tweeted. “It tackles gridlock on our highways while protecting workers & investing in protections for Americans’ drinking water.”
Waltz welcomes partnership
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) is teaming with a major supplier of gas turbine engine components to launch a new degree certification program on the school’s Daytona Beach complex. Applauding the excellent news is Waltz, who represents the area where the John Mica Aerospace Innovation Complex (MicaPlex) resides.
Unison Industries becomes the seventh “nexus partner” with ERAU John Mica Aerospace Innovation Complex but will not have a physical presence in the MicaPlex. ERAU instructors will teach classes for the new certification program.
“Great news for @EmbryRiddle Aeronautical University! Unison Industries & ERAU are partnering to expand the talent pool of highly skilled aerospace professionals,” tweeted the St. Augustine Republican. “Looking forward to seeing this partnership & program grow right here in Northeast Florida.”
In a release, ERAU said: “As a nexus partner at the MicaPlex, the cornerstone facility of Embry-Riddle’s Research Park, Unison will play a key role — with other Nexus partners Boeing, DuvaSawko, Daytona International Speedway, Wellspring Worldwide, and the CEO Business Alliance — in helping the University advance innovation to generate high-paying jobs.”
Embry-Riddle was recently ranked in the top five in the country for online bachelor’s degree providers in U.S. News & World Report rankings for the seventh consecutive year. They also ranked first among 97 schools providing online undergraduate degree programs specifically tailored for veterans, something of particular interest to Waltz, a former Army Green Beret.
The John Mica Aerospace Innovation Complex is named after the former congressman who represented the region for 12 terms.
Murphy joins ‘NO BAN’ effort
When the President issued the travel ban in December 2017, many opponents decried the move, calling it a “Muslim ban.” Though Trump described it as a move to keep the country safer from foreign threats, his opponents said it was based on racial bias.
After the Supreme Court later allowed the ban to be implemented, California Democrat Judy Chu filed the NO BAN Act in April 2019 as a way to go on record of opposing the Trump’s policy. The effort drew more than 200 co-sponsors by the end of the year, including 12 delegation Democrats.
As reports surfaced indicating Trump may extend the ban to other countries, Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park joined her colleagues to co-sponsor the legislation, which now includes 214 co-sponsors. She was among the leaders of a letter to House Democratic leadership, urging Congress to pass the bill.
“As Americans, we must stand against the persecution of religious minorities,” Murphy and 31 other colleagues wrote. “To pass the NO BAN Act is to stand up for the bedrock American value of religious liberty. That is why a broad coalition of interfaith leaders support the bill, along with more than 200 Members of Congress, ourselves included.”
According to Murphy, the NO BAN Act would repeal all three versions of the travel ban, strengthen the Immigration and Nationality Act to prohibit discrimination based on religion, and restores the separation of powers by limiting overly broad executive authority to issue travel bans in the future.
Many of those who signed the letter, including St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist, are members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which Murphy co-chairs. In addition to the co-sponsors, the legislation is backed by almost 400 civil rights, faith, and national security and community organizations, private companies, and more than 50 immigration professors.
“It is our duty to relay an unequivocal message that the United States House of Representatives welcomes the Muslim-American community, as we do other communities, that their hardships have not been forgotten, and that the American people refuse to stand for discrimination of any kind,” the letter concludes. “By passing NO BAN, we can both protect our national security and stay true to our nation’s core values.”
Crist touts grant
As the nation’s third-largest state, it is not surprising that Florida is a national leader in the tragic practice of human trafficking. As a state sitting among the top four in national human trafficking numbers, combating it is a priority among law enforcement and elected officials.
To help increase awareness of human trafficking in Pinellas County, Rep. Crist announced this week the awarding of a $43,630 grant to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). The funds, which were allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will be used to train PSTA employees to recognize the signs of human trafficking and assist law enforcement in catching perpetrators.
“Human traffickers know that to exploit their victims without getting caught, they need to operate in the shadows,” Crist said in a news release announcing the grants. “Our bus drivers and transit employees are on the front lines in the fight against trafficking — serving as on-the-ground eyes and ears for our community.”
The Human Trafficking Awareness and Public Safety Initiative funds innovative projects that assist transit agencies with identifying and adopting specific measures to address public safety in transit systems, including crime prevention, human trafficking and operator assault. The PSTA specifically will develop human trafficking awareness training for employees and outreach materials for the public. They also provide bus, trolley, and paratransit services in Pinellas County.
Crist and several of his colleagues participated in a delegation meeting earlier this week (see “Stopping trafficking” below) devoted entirely to learning more about this insidious crime.
Castor seeks YouTube changes
Battles among lawmakers and social media platforms have increased in recent months. Conservatives like Gaetz believe their content is being blocked or “shadow banned,” while 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton says Facebook’s policy on political ads is “authoritarian” and “Trumpian.”
Rep. Kathy Castor is convinced YouTube is damaging the climate change movement by helping to promote climate denial. This week the Tampa Democrat wrote to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, the parent company of YouTube, asking for a change of policy in the promotion of videos challenging climate change.
“Today I write with urgent concerns regarding a new report on the spread of dangerous climate misinformation on YouTube, a subsidiary of Google,” Castor said. She said the report reveals, “YouTube is driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important mission of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action.”
Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, asked Pichai to stop promoting “climate misinformation videos,” add “climate misinformation” to the list of borderline content,” stop financial benefits from “videos that promote harmful misinformation,” and “take steps to correct the record” for those exposed to “climate misinformation.”
“To save our planet, pervasive and harmful climate denial and disinformation must be stopped,” Castor tweeted.
Castor asked for a response by Feb. 7.
Unused housing vouchers anger Buchanan
Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan took officials in the Veterans Affairs and the Housing and Urban Development department to task for failing to get more homeless veterans off the streets.
“It is completely unacceptable that our federal government is failing to make housing benefits available to our nation’s homeless veterans,” Buchanan said.
The anger came after testimony at a congressional hearing that 14,000 housing vouchers approved for veterans had gone unused. The vouchers were part of an effort to provide housing up to a year for any single veteran in need.
“I am calling on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs to immediately rectify this problem and make sure veterans get the benefits they rightfully deserve.”
He said the agency needs to seek out veterans on the street. A news release goes so far as to say any bureaucrat responsible for the oversight needs to be fired. He also lambasted the VA for sending less than 1% of some $6.2 million in funding made available by Congress for a suicide prevention outreach program.
Florida’s 16th Congressional District, which Buchanan represents, serves as home to 88,000 veterans. Of course, a walk through downtown Sarasota any day of the week will likely expose visitors to the site if veterans are panhandling on sidewalks.
Religious dog tags defended
A recent decision by the U.S. Army, Marines and Air Force to forbid the sale of replica dog tags with religious messages has brought a new bill to overturn the decision. Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota has introduced the Religious Insignia on Dog Tags Act that would explicitly authorize the sale of religiously themed dog tags.
“Your dog tags are those very personal things. They go with you everywhere you go,” said Steube, an Iraq War veteran. “It was obviously very frustrating for somebody who served. Obviously, my faith is important, as is the faith of many service members.”
The dog tags’ manufacturer, Shield of Strength, has shipped more than 4 million replica dog tags, selling its unofficial identification to service members since the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. According to First Liberty, a First Amendment group challenging the military’s decision, nine out of 10 operational units have received the dog tags since 2002.
“As a Christian and a veteran, this is an issue that is of particular importance to me,” Steube tweeted.
Joining as co-sponsors of the original bill were five Republicans, including Spano.
Mucarsel-Powell still waiting
Mucarsel-Powell is growing frustrated with Secretary of State Pompeo. As the situation in Venezuela continues with Nicolás Maduro still clinging to power, the Miami Democrat wants an answer from the Trump administration on a clear strategy moving forward.
On Jan. 14, she wrote to Pompeo, seeking an update on what is being done and what is planned for helping the U.S.-backed Juan Guaidó assume the leadership of the country.
“It is unclear what comes next for the country and government of Venezuela,” she wrote.
Two weeks later, she is still awaiting a response to that letter as the situation in the beleaguered nation remains.
“It has been a year since Juan Guaidó was recognized by 65 countries, including the United States, as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, yet Maduro still sits in Miraflores,” she said in a news release.
“The lack of strategy and transparency from the Trump administration has done little to address one of the worst humanitarian crises in our hemisphere or to reassure the more than two hundred thousand Venezuelans in Florida that the administration is taking this seriously.”
While not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mucarsel-Powell serves on the Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. She has been active in seeking Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelan immigrants fleeing the chaos.
Bipartisan members praise U.N.
This week marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. The memorials highlighted the need for continued or more significant education on the dangers of anti-Semitism.
A bipartisan group of House members, using a United Nations report on combating anti-Semitism, wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urging the world body to implement the recommendations contained in the report. The letter was led by Republicans Mast and Lee Zeldin of New York, along with Democrats David Cicilline of New Jersey and Brad Sherman of New York.
Among the report’s recommendations was one calling for the appointment of a senior-level official within the Office of the Secretary-General for “engaging with the Jewish communities worldwide” and “monitoring anti-Semitism.”
“We strongly urge you to implement this recommendation, as we believe the appointment of a senior-level leader — similar to roles that have been created in the United States, European Union, France, Germany and the United Kingdom — would enable the United Nations to take significant steps in the fight against hatred of the Jewish people.”
The letter also mentions the report’s findings that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as fundamentally anti-Semitic. BDS became a topic of discussion in the House last year when a resolution supporting its use was put forward but soundly defeated.
“It is absolutely critical that we remind ourselves every day — especially today on International Holocaust Remembrance Day — that anti-Semitism has no place here in the United States or anywhere around the world,” Mast said in a news release announcing the letter.
In addition to Mast, others signing the letter included Democratic Reps. Castor, Crist, Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach.
Republicans signing on included Reps. Diaz-Balart, Spano, Rooney, Ted Yoho of Gainesville, and Steube of Sarasota.
Deutch is a co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism.
At the first Delegation meeting of the year, 13 members heard from human trafficking experts on the dangers posed to the state.
“We need to bring it into the light, expose these atrocities and end what amounts to modern-day slavery,” said Buchanan.
He chaired the Wednesday meeting solo, as co-chair Hastings was ill. But the two Delegation leaders together have sponsored the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Training Act to address the issue.
Florida leaders on the issue, like Selah Freedom’s Elizabeth Fisher Good and the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition’s Heidi Brown, made the trip to Washington to illuminate the topic, alongside First STOP founder Roger DeHart.
The experts testified that Florida now holds the unfortunate distinction as home to the third-highest number of reported trafficking cases in the county. And that’s before the Super Bowl comes to Miami this week and Tampa next year.
On this day
Jan. 31, 2006 — By a vote of 58-42, Joseph Alioto was confirmed to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. He replaces Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to ever serve and the court’s pivotal swing vote. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez voted in favor of Alito’s confirmation while Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted against it.
President George W. Bush called Alito a “brilliant and fair-minded judge who strictly interprets the Constitution and laws and does not legislate from the bench.” Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein from California, the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed concern “about the impact Judge Alito could have on women’s rights, including a woman’s right to make certain reproductive choices as limited by state regulation.”
Jan. 31, 2017 — Keeping a campaign promise just 11 days into his term, Trump nominated federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the Supreme Court. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to appoint a justice from a list of conservative judges. Gorsuch’s name was prominent on that list.
A bitter confirmation fight is expected in the process to fill the seat vacated by the death of originalist icon Justice Antonin Scalia nearly one year ago. Senate Majority Leader McConnell refused to conduct a hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, the nominee of former President Barack Obama. Democrats are still furious with McConnell and Republican Senators.
Best wishes (Jan. 31) to Rep. Michael Waltz.