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Division on full display
As a historic week draws to a close, three major events dominated the agenda on Capitol Hill. It was not a week to introduce life-changing legislation, but a constitutional amendment to change the impeachment process was filed (see “Scott” below)
It was also not a week to vote on landmark legislation, or hold any votes at all, until after the State of the Union address. All the Senate accomplished until later in the week was acquit a sitting President on impeachment charges for just the third time in history.
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address brought the divisions between the two parties into full view. The episode involving Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up her copy of Trump’s speech (see “Let ‘er rip” below) overwhelmed much of the analysis of what the speech contained.
As for the speech itself, Democrats naturally hated it and Republicans, of course, loved it. Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto lamented the lack of any mention of Puerto Rico, while Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee disagreed that a “blue-collar boom” is ongoing.
Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala ripped the GOP’s main campaign theme by saying, “The Trump economy is a disaster.” Rep. Stephanie Murphy said Trump “failed to rise above partisan rhetoric” while Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson boycotted the speech.
Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart was pleased with Trump’s inclusion of Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s recognized President. Sarasota Republican Greg Steube lauded the President’s “steadfast commitment to making America great.”
The following day, the Senate voted to keep Trump in office on a strictly party-line vote with Sen. Mitt Romney crossing over to join Democrats on the abuse of power charge. He explained his vote, earning high praise for his “courage” from Democrats and those who sought Trump’s removal.
The vitriol from Republicans, including Trump, directed at Romney hark back to 2012 when he was the GOP nominee. Republicans were squarely behind the man who described himself as “severely conservative.”
Republicans were quick to note the irony, but it was only 18 months ago when another moderate Republican Sen., Susan Collins of Maine, was a swing vote in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Collins had sometimes been a thorn in the side of Republicans pursuing conservative policy, but her sorely-needed support for Kavanaugh turned her into a sudden hero.
Her ultimate vote to acquit Trump left Romney on his own.
The two significant events of this week provide all the evidence needed that serious governing is impossible and has been impossible: one-party control, no matter which party, is the only way to pass any significant legislation.
It will take 10 months to determine if voters wish to go in that direction.
Scott: Make impeachment harder
Less than 24 hours after the Senate acquitted Trump on an almost entirely partisan vote, Sen. Rick Scott introduced legislation that would make it more difficult for an impeachment case to even reach the Senate. The first-term Republican is calling for a constitutional amendment requiring a three-fifths vote for the House to approve articles of impeachment.
“The partisan charade Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats made of this impeachment process over the last few months shows that the fears of our founding fathers were realized,” Scott said in a news release announcing the amendment. “They warned impeachment could be used as a partisan tool by partisan actors.”
The current threshold is a simple majority, and the two articles were approved on Dec. 18, 2019, by votes of 230-197 and 229-198. No Republican voted for either, item and two Democrats voted against them.
Under Scott’s proposal, If all 435 members of the House would vote, 261 votes would be required to approve any article of impeachment.
“It should be harder — much harder — for either political party to take the process our Founders created as a last resort against a tyrannical leader and use it instead as a tool for the tyranny of a political majority,” Scott said in an op-ed for USA Today.
Had such an amendment been in place in 1998, President Bill Clinton would have avoided impeachment as two articles of impeachment were approved by votes of 228-206 and 221-212. President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1869 on one article by a vote of 126-47, or 73%.
Protesters nominated for Nobel
Earlier this week, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, bringing high praise from those seeking action on the issue. Others believe another nominee is equally, if not more worthy, leading Sen. Marco Rubio and a bipartisan group of colleagues to submit another nomination.
Rubio was part of the effort to nominate the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for the respected award. In a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, nominators said the movement is worthy of selection due to “their efforts to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy, human rights, and the rule of law as guaranteed in the Sino-British Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”
Rubio is co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Joining in the nomination was chair Jim McGovern, a Democratic Representative from Massachusetts.
Fellow CECC Commissioners seeking recognition for the pro-democracy movement were Republican Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Todd Young of Indiana, along with Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Democratic Reps. Thomas Suozzi of New York and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, along with Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey rounded out the nominating group.
“We hope that the Nobel Committee will continue to shine a light on those struggling for peace and human rights in China, and we believe the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is more than deserving of recognition this year,” the letter concludes.
Let ‘er rip!
A moment that will likely play out during the next few weeks of the 2020 campaign came when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it a point to rip up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech following its conclusion. The act painted a vivid picture of the personal animosity shared between the two.
Before the speech began, Trump refused to shake Pelosi’s outstretched hand, but that gesture lasted for just a split second while cameras captured Pelosi after the speech ripping several pages in half. Emphasizing her contempt, the Speaker held up another batch to tear as well.
Democrats were highly critical of the contents of the speech, while few jumped in to specifically defend Pelosi. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando sought to put things in perspective by comparing the controversy to immigration policy.
“If you’re angry about a speech being torn in half and not angry about families being torn in half …” she tweeted, referring to the child separation policy for asylum-seekers at the Southern border.
Democrats could run some ads of Trump rebuffing Pelosi’s handshake or criticisms of the speech, but Republican fundraising efforts based on the controversy are likely already underway and will probably bear fruit in the short term. Congressional Republicans can use all of the help they can get as they lagged $40 million behind Congressional Democrats in cash on hand as 2020 began.
Benefits for elderly veterans
Military veterans, especially the surviving veterans of World War II, are held in high regard. Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz has introduced a bill providing for additional benefits for those who reach their 100th birthday.
Gaetz filed legislation that would allow centenarian military veterans to qualify for full pension benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs regardless of their net worth. The Joseph Ainsworth Act would create an age exemption for veterans older than 99 years old.
“Military veterans are the heartbeat of Northwest Florida and are national treasures to the entire country,” Gaetz said in a news release. “Eliminating this rule for our military heroes who have achieved such a milestone in their life will help alleviate financial burdens they may endure and also show our nation’s gratitude for their selfless devotion to our country.”
The “Ainsworth Act” is named explicitly after a Northwest Florida veteran, First Lieutenant Joseph Chester Ainsworth of Pensacola, a 103-year-old Army veteran who was denied aide and attendance relief because of his family’s assets. The Department of Veterans Affairs cited the net worth limit as the cause for denying First Lieutenant Ainsworth his pension benefits.
“It is my hope that First Lieutenant Joseph Ainsworth’s situation will be eradicated for future centenarian military veterans and that his service to our country will be immortalized through this legislation,” Gaetz added.
Soto, Ocasio-Cortez target fracking
Reps. Darren Soto joined Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley in filing the first-ever federal bills to phase out fracking nationwide.
The “Ban Fracking Act” would institute an immediate federal ban on all new federal permits for fracking-related infrastructure and a ban on fracking within 2,500 feet of homes and schools by 2021.
Then, starting in 2025, it would ban fracking nationwide.
Sanders, of Vermont and Merkley, of Oregon, filed SB 3247. The House measure from Soto, of Kissimmee and Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, has not yet been assigned a bill number.
The legislation also initiates the transition for workers in the fracking industry. The bill directs the Department of Labor to partner with other federal agencies and stakeholders, including representatives of organized labor, to develop a plan to prioritize the placement of fossil fuel workers into good-paying jobs.
“We cannot deny the overwhelming scientific consensus any longer — fracking is a threat to our health, safety and environment,” Soto stated in a news release issued by his office. “If we want to transition from fossil fuel emissions as we work toward building a 100% clean economy, pulling back from fracking is a critical first step. Failure to act will only make the crisis at hand even more detrimental for future generations of Americans.”
Webster, GOP tout economy
Trump is running for reelection on a strong economy, and Republican legislators and candidates are running on it with him. Rep. Daniel Webster of Clermont was touting figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) that showed real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.1% in the fourth quarter and the recently-approved U.S. Mexico, Canada (USMCA) trade agreement.
Democrats will point out the growth rate is less than the 3% Republicans talked about, but Webster also cites the U.S. rate was more than 1% above the average throughout the rest of the world during Trump’s term.
“When you have leadership sending the clear message America is open for business and government gets out of the way of hardworking Americans, our economy will prosper!” Webster said in an email to constituents. “America’s economy is the best in the world!”
The President hailed the signing of USMCA during the State of the Union address, an agreement that brought bipartisan support. Webster joined in touting the agreement’s future impact.
“In Florida, over 8,000 jobs depend on manufacturing exports to Canada and Mexico, and these two countries accounted for more than $7 billion of Florida’s global exports in 2018,” he said. “Hardworking Floridians will now have a better opportunity to achieve more growth, export more, and access more jobs.”
While Webster and Republicans are counting on the USMCA to create more exports, Democrats are sure to counter that the U.S. trade deficit has not improved over Trump’s three years despite tariffs. The President has often spoken of eliminating or substantially reducing the trade deficit, especially with China, but BEA numbers show the deficit increased to $619 billion in 2019.
Despite the trade numbers, the economy is one issue where Trump, Webster, and Republicans will have good numbers to tout.
Crist introduces insulin bill
There are more than 30 million Americans with diabetes, a disease that costs the U.S. more than $327 billion per year. Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg notes that the price of insulin continues to rise, saying individuals with diabetes are too often forced to choose between purchasing their medications or paying for other necessities.
This week, Crist introduced the Affordable Insulin for All Act, legislation designed to significantly reduce the price of life-sustaining insulin for Americans living with diabetes.
The bill would create the American Insulin Program, which would expand the profound discount drug manufacturers currently give to Medicaid patients and everyone else who needs it. The bill would also crack down on abuses through the supply chain, enabling the discount to be passed directly to patients at checkout while lowering premiums.
“Pinellas residents and Americans across the country are being gouged by the high cost of insulin,” Crist said in a news release. “No one should be forced to choose between their life-sustaining medication or keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table.”
To highlight the plight facing people of all ages, Crist brought 18-year-old diabetes advocate Taylor McKenny to this week’s State of the Union address as his guest. McKenny has type 1 diabetes.
According to Crist, from 2012 to 2016, the cost of insulin nearly doubled despite peer-reviewed research finding that insulin could be sold anywhere from $6.50 to $11 for a month’s supply and still deliver profits to manufacturers. Crist’s bill would also commission the Government Accountability Office to examine the affordability and feasibility of direct insulin manufacturing by the federal government.
“Affordable insulin shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Crist added. “It’s about doing the right thing for the people. I’m proud to introduce this legislation as an ally in the fight for people living with diabetes across the country.”
Deutch pushes finance amendment
The House Judiciary Committee subcommittee the Constitution held a hearing this week on the topic of the 10th anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed, among other things, involvement by corporations in campaigns. Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton is a member of that committee, but spent some time in the witness chair touting legislation he has sponsored.
Deutch spoke to the committee on behalf of his bill titled Democracy for All. The proposal calls for a constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the ruling.
“Our amendment would level the playing field. It would promote political equality,” Deutch testified. “And it would protect the integrity of our government institutions and elections.”
The amendment would guarantee the rights of both federal and state governments to pass legislation limiting the amount of money coming into campaigns. It also makes it clear that it places no limits on the press.
“The Democracy for All Amendment is necessary because your status in our democracy should not depend upon your status in our economy,” Deutch continued. “Whether you work three jobs and barely get by — or you own three homes and barely work — the eyes of our law, the eyes of our government, and our elections must see all Americans as equal. This amendment will get money out of our elections and, most importantly, it will put voters back in charge.”
Iowa importance fading away?
The debacle known as the 2020 Iowa caucuses are still visible in the rear-view mirror, but they could disappear over the horizon by the time 2024 comes around. That would be just fine with several Democrats, who wish to change the subject away from this year’s glitches and end the Hawkeye state’s status as the first-in-the-nation status in presidential contests.
This year is not the first time Democrats have sought to minimize Iowa’s role in the nominating process. Concerns about the state’s lack of a diverse population have circulated for years.
“Iowa is on its last breath,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston during a conference call with reporters. She is among those favoring a rotation of states going first, which would also not include New Hampshire maintaining its status as the first primary.
The rotation scenario would “be a more significant test of the staying power of candidates,” she said.
Republicans might eventually go along with the idea, but not if Trump wins reelection. He tweeted that as long as he is President, Iowa should still go first.
Florida could become the major player state legislators sought more than a decade ago. They previously voted to move up the primary to January in both 2008 and 2012, but Iowa and New Hampshire both moved up their dates to remain first. As Florida House Speaker, Rubio was entirely behind the effort.
Sanctions from each national committee followed the moves, but jumping ahead of Super Tuesday did have the desired effect on the 2008 Republican nomination process in selecting John McCain (See “On this day” below). With the primary back to March in 2020, Democrats, except for Mike Bloomberg, have spent little time in Florida other than to raise money.
With their strong showings this week, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders might hold the view Iowa is worth salvaging.
Dems earn high scores
The NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice is a group billed as “advocates for justice, inspired by Catholic sisters.” They were known in 2018 for their “Nuns on the Bus” tour advocating progressive policies and opposing then-candidate Trump.”
This week the group came out with their scorecard for the first session of the 116th Congress. Support for 10 targeted bills went toward compiling the score for the delegation, with most involving bills passed by the House and not taken up by the Senate.
All 13 delegation Democrats received scores of 100. Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart received the highest score by a Republican with a 50, while colleague Francis Rooney of Naples earned a 29. Delray Beach Democrat Alcee Hastings touted his perfect score.
“This represents my consistent commitment to bills that mend the gaps in our society & lift people out of poverty — including bills to improve Floridians’ voting rights, health care, wages, trade & more,” he tweeted.
Bills considered included the For the People Act, the Equality Act, the Raise the Wage Act, and the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act. Republicans typically voted against the selected bills.
Also included was a “yes” vote on the U.S. Mexico, Canada trade agreement (USMCA). With nearly all Republicans voting for USMCA, they were able to score at least a10, except Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville, the only member of the delegation to vote against it.
The Senate was not scored due to the fact no votes were taken on the vast majority of the selected bills.
More urge Everglades funding
Recently, both Senators and Palm City Republican Rep. Brian Mast, in separate letters, encouraged Trump to place $250 million for Everglades restoration projects into his 2020-21 budget request. Several bipartisan members of the delegation are adding their voices to the call.
Hastings and Diaz-Balart are also urging the President to target $250 million in federal funds for the multitude of projects that comprise Everglades restoration.
“The Everglades is central to Florida’s economy; its biodiversity an environmental marvel, indeed the Everglades National Park is home to one of the world’s largest wetlands,” they wrote. “In addition, we cannot forget that 8 million Floridians rely on the Everglades for their drinking water.”
Hastings and Diaz-Balart are co-chairs of the Everglades Caucus. The funding would go to the budget of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction projects.
Also signing the letter was Mast, Crist, Shalala, Rooney, Mucarsel-Powell, Murphy, Democratic Reps. Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with Republican Rep. John Rutherford.
Some competitive races possible
Several Congressional races carry the potential of being competitive, whether during the primary or in November. Florida’s two open seats are likely to remain with Republicans, but have drawn numerous candidates, some of whom are raising impressive sums of money.
The 3rd District, being vacated by Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville, features two Republicans that began the year with more than $100,000 cash on hand. Judson Sapp and former Yoho deputy chief of staff Kat Kammack had $112,000 and $102,000, respectively, available to spend on a seat in a solidly Republican district.
Rooney is stepping away from the heavily Republican District 19, but three Republicans had more than $300,000 cash on hand as of Jan. 1. Dr. William Thiglesthaler reported $506,000 in available funds, helped by a $410,000 loan from the candidate. Former Fox commentator Ford O’Connell loaned his campaign $200,000 to get above the $300,000 mark, while Florida House Majority Leader Dane Eagle reported $375,000 available with no outstanding loans.
National Republicans do not have Crist on any serious radar, especially with $2.8 million cash on hand. Republican Amanda Makki, one of seven announced GOP candidates in District 13, has raised the most with $470,000 cash on hand and earned the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Democrats are heavily targeting lean-Republican District 15, where Rep. Ross Spano is considered vulnerable. The first-term Republican has paid off controversial loans and entered 2020 with $125,000 cash on hand. Democratic state Rep. Adam Hattersley had $171,000 available while former television newscaster Alan Cohn reported $85,000 cash on hand.
Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good reported $575,000 cash on hand for the District 16 race, but incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan had $928,000 and a history of easily winning reelection.
First-term Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell reported $1.67 million cash on hand, with restaurateur Irina Vilarino showing $376,000 in the race for Democratic-trending District 26. The most recent entry, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, got in the race late and did not file a report, but was quickly endorsed by Trump, which is likely to enhance fundraising.
The expected rematch for the seat in the increasingly blue District 27 between Shalala and television commentator Maria Elvira Salazar shows the incumbent with $1.27 million cash on hand, while Salazar reported $717,000. Salazar must first defeat a handful of poorly funded Republican opponents.
Money does not ensure a well-run campaign, but several incumbents and challengers have enough to be at least heard.
On this day
Feb. 7, 1973 — The U.S. Senate voted to create a select committee to investigate political espionage directed against Democrats in the 1972 election. Senators voted 77-0 to establish the committee consisting of four Democrats and three Republicans, chaired by North Carolina Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin.
Republicans objected to majority Democrats investigating the minority party, but in the end, voted for its establishment. Among the committee’s three Republicans is Sen. Ed Gurney of Florida.
Feb. 7, 2008 — Romney shocked and stunned his supporters by withdrawing from the Republican race for President and throwing his support behind Arizona Sen. McCain. Staying in the race would “make it easier for Barack Obama to win,” said Romney.
The move comes a little more than one week after McCain won the Florida primary, putting him in command of the race. Just days before the primary, Gov. Crist jolted the race with a surprise endorsement of McCain.
Best wishes (Feb. 8) to Rep. Gus Bilirakis.