Officials seek secure elections
Election security has been an ongoing issue, especially in Florida, since the 2016 election. The investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller uncovered several instances of Russian meddling, with more than a dozen indictments of Russian trolls.
That investigation revealed Russians have tried to affect vote counts, but the Mueller investigation and those of two congressional committees revealed they have only been successful in causing chaos and division.
This week The New York Times printed a leak from a classified briefing conducted by the office of the Director of National Intelligence. That briefing stated the Russians were at it again and were conducting activities to help Donald Trump win reelection.
Though acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire did not personally deliver the briefing, it cost him his job. Shortly after it was delivered, Trump announced he was replacing Maguire with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.
Russia is now officially back in the U.S. presidential election conversation, but election security was already on the minds of elected and appointed leaders in Washington as well as the states. The delegation clearly remembers the voting systems of two Florida counties were breached in 2016, but Russian trolls were unable to affect vote totals.
During the 2018 campaign and before the breach was known, then-Sen. Bill Nelson cryptically mentioned such a breach but was ridiculed by his opponent, then-Gov. Rick Scott. Scott insisted state officials had not been informed of any such breach and demanded Nelson prove his claim.
As it turned out, both were correct. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the delegation were shocked to finally learn the truth about the breach in 2019 but were frustrated with the FBI’s refusal to tell them where the breaches occurred.
In response, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Republican Rep. Michael Waltz introduced legislation requiring the FBI to inform states and affected counties of any future breaches. Before that legislation was approved, the FBI announced last month it would notify state election officials of cyber breaches.
House Democrats have passed election security bills that Republicans say go too far. Attempts to gain Senate passage of those bills through unanimous consent, where one Senator can block consideration, have all failed.
The Times report said Republicans pushed back at the conclusion the Russians were in it to help Trump, citing the multiple sanctions he has placed on them for their activities in Venezuela (see “Russian sanctions praised” below). Much of the menu for the Sunday news programs has now been set.
It was only a matter of time before the contents of the briefing leaked. Now that Russia is back into the election cycle nine months before Election Day, we can only hope the focus on Capitol Hill will be on protecting the integrity of the U.S. election system over these final few months.
According to a bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that did not happen four years ago. This could present Trump with an opportunity to publicly get in front of the effort to thwart the mischief in the name of election security. He might also benefit politically.
Something more than tweets about “Shifty” Adam Schiff will be required.
Rubio: China still deceiving
The spread of the coronavirus does not seem to be slowing down with the death toll topping 2,100 among more than 75,000 reported cases. Among those in the Florida delegation weighing in, the common theme is that China is not to be trusted.
Hospitals can be built in days, leading to skepticism the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still being less than candid about the actual severity of the outbreak. Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the more outspoken critics of China, wrote an op-ed for Real Clear Politics ripping the CCP for secrecy that may have let the virus get out of hand at home and threatening a world pandemic.
“In December, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda machine reportedly tried to tamp down initial concerns raised by medical professionals in Wuhan,” he wrote. “It accused Li Wenliang, the doctor who initially tried to inform colleagues about the coronavirus originating in Wuhan and its ability to spread from person to person, of ‘inciting panic’ and ‘spreading rumors’ — until he himself tragically contracted the virus and died.”
Rubio further called out China, who he said “pressured” other countries to issue supportive statements of the Chinese efforts against the virus. He said a more open society would have shared information when the disease was discovered, ultimately saving lives.
He pointed out China is demanding countries that halted some trade with China due to the virus to resume the relationship. The cautious approach by those countries, China said, risks damaging their own economies.
“For American businesses, it is a morbid reminder of why authoritarianism and market economics don’t mix in the long run,” he concluded.
Russian sanctions praised
After a rather quiet period in the pressure campaign to force Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro from power, the U.S. is now squeezing a principal Russian benefactor. With bipartisan Capitol Hill support, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced sanctions on Rosneft, the world’s largest oil company by output, and a major source of oil-based revenue for the Maduro regime.
The sanctions officially target Rosneft Trading SA, the trading unit for the company. U.S. officials accused the Rosneft subsidiary of propping up the Venezuelan oil sector and engaging in “tricks” and ship-to-ship transfers to actively evade American sanctions and provide a lifeline to the Maduro regime.
“I’m glad the Treasury Department is taking action against foreign entities that prop up the corrupt Maduro regime,” said Sen. Scott in a statement. “The quickest way to end his brutal regime is to cut off the supply of money, and this is an important step in that direction.”
The sanctions freeze any U.S.-held assets of Rosneft Trading and the subsidiary’s chairman of the board and president, Didier Casimiro, who also serves as a vice president of the parent company. Along with the sanctions, the United States also issued a general license allowing companies 90 days to wind down their transactions with Rosneft Trading.
“It’s no secret that Maduro has been using petroleum profits to prop up his narco-authoritarian regime, and these types of sanctions have been necessary for a long time now,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami in a statement. “It’s clear that the United States must develop a more comprehensive strategy on Venezuela that brings in our global allies to increase the effectiveness of our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.”
GOP changes climate approach
With a growing number of Republicans sensing a need to be on the record regarding climate change, GOP House leaders are marshaling forces to present a “clean energy innovation” package later in the spring. A growing number of conservatives have joined the effort.
“Climate denial is a bad political strategy,” said Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump booster and a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “At some point, you have to be for something to fix it.”
The major themes of the pending agenda are capturing carbon dioxide (through technology and planting trees), curbing plastic waste, exporting natural gas, and promoting “resilience” or adaptation to sea-level rise and other effects of climate change.
Democrats and environmentalists openly scoffed at the GOP effort, describing it as woefully inadequate by not recognizing climate change as a crisis. While Gaetz and several Republican colleagues are on board, other conservatives require more convincing.
“There are some that want to go that route and some who don’t … A number of people brought issues to me,” said Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the Freedom Caucus.
Another caucus member from Florida is on the same page with Gaetz.
“It’s the way to go,” said Rep. Ted Yoho from Gainesville, who is retiring at the end of the year. “They talk about a climate crisis. To me, a crisis is if your house is on fire. … This is something we have time to adapt [to], so let’s do adaptive changes from a common-sense standpoint.”
Rutherford backs mental health bill
Transitioning to life after incarceration is often tricky. Even those seeking a better path can find stress in such things as finding employment, housing or transportation.
A bipartisan group of House members recently joined with Rep. John Rutherford to introduce the Crisis Stabilization and Community Re-entry Act to help these individuals move from life behind bars to a normal life. The bill helps local law enforcement partner with community-based mental health providers to ensure that these people transition successfully back into society.
“When I served as Director of Corrections in Duval County, I knew the prison system was the largest residential mental health facility in Northeast Florida,” the Jacksonville Republican said in a news release. “We learned that we were able to reduce recidivism by offering inmates continued care after their release from prison.”
The care proposed by the bill includes medication-assisted treatment, community-level crisis response programs, and technical assistance to develop innovative training and treatment for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals that suffer from mental illnesses.
“Today’s legislation enhances coordination between law enforcement officials and mental health professionals by authorizing federal grants to provide treatment options for individuals with mental illness as they transition from incarceration back into the community,” Rutherford added.
The bill’s primary sponsor is Maryland Democratic Rep David Trone. Rutherford was joined by two Democrats and two Republicans as original co-sponsors.
The companion bill in the Senate is sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Murphy co-sponsors travel bill
With Florida being one of the most prominent travel hubs in the nation, pending changes in traveler identification pose potential problems for those seeking to board an airplane.
The REAL ID will replace a regular driver’s license on Oct. 1 to further ensure safety, prompting Murphy to join Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona to introduce legislation to ensure safe travel while easing the identification process for regular travelers already vetted.
The Trusted Traveler REAL ID Relief Act would allow airline travelers in the U.S. to use a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) PreCheck Known Traveler Number as an alternative to REAL ID. The bill will also require TSA to develop a contingency plan to address travelers who attempt to travel without REAL ID-compliant credentials.
“Despite a rapidly approaching deadline, not enough Americans are aware of the new and heightened ID travel requirements,” the Winter Park Democrat said in a news release. “This common-sense bill allows those enrolled in TSA PreCheck to continue their journey without disruption, smoothing the transition to these enhanced security standards.”
The Oct. 1 deadline will require enhanced driver’s licenses for domestic flights. Travelers on international flights will be able to use their passports.
Murphy, a member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee, is the only Democrat among four original co-sponsors. Lesko, the bill’s primary sponsor, is the top Republican on the Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee.
Soto seeks EPA help
For more than two years, St. Cloud residents have dealt with orange and brown sediment in their water. Their Congressman, Rep. Darren Soto, is lending a hand.
Soto is asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assist and provide water testing. The Kissimmee Democrat serves on the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee and has previously communicated with the EPA about the problem.
Residents began to see murky water with resin coming out of their taps two and one-half years ago. Soto said that while the EPA approves the resin, he wants technical assistance to test the water and make sure all the procedures being used are appropriate.
“So, the substance itself is approved, but we want to make sure in the levels that it’s in, it’s safe, and so we will be working with St. Cloud and EPA to make sure the water is safe for residents,” Soto said.
Residents like Michele Peters are so frustrated about the orange and brown water coming out of their faucets, she and many others are documenting their struggle on a website she created called saintcloudwater.com. Residents also started a change.org petition.
The City of St. Cloud is spending about $1.5 million on Ice Pigging, a European procedure that involves pushing ice through the water lines, capturing particles, and removing them from the water system in certain pipelines.
Domestic violence review sought
The developing scandal involving the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) that saw $7.5 million in compensation go to its chief executive over three years, has the full attention of the media, Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, who is conducting oversight hearings. While Florida taxpayer dollars are involved, there is a federal component as well, one that Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor and Ted Deutch seek to have addressed.
This week they wrote to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz asking his office to “look into these allegations and ensure there is proper oversight of the federal funds.” The current FCADV budget, which is intended to assist 42 shelters around the state, includes $47 million in state and federal funds, including $19.8 million in federal grants.
The lawmakers were most concerned with ensuring funds continue to go toward the victims of domestic violence. The ultimate goal, they wrote, is to “ensure (funds) continue to flow without delay to the domestic violence centers that have been properly taking care of survivors and their families.”
“We must continue to support their vital work through this uncertain time,” they wrote in conclusion, “so we urge you to ensure the centers who are protecting domestic violence survivors and their families continue to receive the resources they need uninterrupted.”
In addition to concern for the centers, Castor and Deutch asked Horowitz to determine if the diversion of funds violated federal law.
Spano applauds HUD grants
Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are welcome new dollars for any community in the state and around the country. Republican Rep. Ross Spano of Dover happily announced $14 million in HUD grants covering multiple portions of his district and other adjacent areas.
HUD revealed four separate grants for areas in Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties. The total allotment of $14 million represents a $657,078 increase over last year’s awards.
“As our district rapidly expands, I am concerned that affordable and viable housing options are becoming a challenge for many families in our area,” Spano said in a statement. “These funds are critical to ensure our local municipalities in Hillsborough, Polk and Lake Counties can help local residents with their housing needs.”
Hillsborough County will receive the lion’s share of the funds, which totals more than $10 million spread over the four funding sources. The city of Lakeland will receive slightly more than $1.3 million, while $1.3 million is targeted toward Lake County.
Mast: VA agreement near
A compromise agreement that would allow three South Florida lawmakers to again have a presence at the West Palm Beach Veterans Affairs medical facility is under review. Should agreement be reached, Palm City Republican Brian Mast, and Democrats Deutch and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach would again have the opportunity to meet with constituents visiting the facility.
Last month, Murphy and Soto reached an agreement with the Orlando VA facility. Each will be able to meet with constituents twice each month at a table set up for the purpose.
All five lawmakers were evicted by the VA effective Dec. 31. Mast and Soto previously introduced legislation requiring the VA to provide office space to any member of Congress requesting it.
“So, we now have an agreement in hand with the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center that we’re reviewing,” Mast said to CBS 12 in West Palm Beach, who further indicated VA headquarters in Washington decided to let local facilities deal with the matter.
“So, I just got to say, ‘thank you’ to every single veteran out there that raised their voice, spoke up, called the VA, called VA headquarters.”
Head Start grant announced
The Office of Head Start within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seeks to assist low-income communities with grants and other resources for the benefit of children. This week Head Start announced several grants around the country, including one for Homestead in Congressional District 26.
Rep. Mucarsel-Powell revealed a $2.8 million grant for the Le Jardin Community Center. Their goal is to “provide high-quality education, recreational and cultural activities and comprehensive services in a safe, caring, and nurturing environment.”
“These programs are critical for giving children across our district the opportunity to succeed both in school and later in life, regardless of their economic background,” the Miami Democrat said in a news release. “In South Florida, Head Start centers are a lifeline for many communities, and I will continue fighting to ensure they receive the support and resources they need.”
Le Jardin, which opened in 1986, now boasts six centers, serving more than 800 children from birth to five years of age and their families. The families came from diverse backgrounds, but all have incomes falling below federal poverty guidelines.
Ros-Lehtinen backs Republican challengers
To promote bipartisanship, Rep. Donna Shalala invited her predecessor, former Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to be her guest at this year’s State of the Union address. Ros-Lehtinen accepted the invitation.
“Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a longtime friend of mine who served with distinction in Congress for almost 30 years,” the Coral Gables Democrat said at the time. “While she and I may not agree on every issue, we share a commitment to public service and doing what’s best for South Florida.”
One key issue they do not agree upon is who should win this year’s election for the District 27 seat. Ros-Lehtinen revealed earlier this week she is backing Shalala’s Republican challenger, Maria Elvira Salazar, in November. Ros-Lehtinen, who spent 30 years in Congress, also said she was supporting Republican Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez, who is one of three GOP challengers to Mucarsel-Powell for the District 26 seat.
“Pleased to endorse @CarlosGimenezFL in Cong District 26 and @MaElviraSalazar in Cong District 27 because they will fight for the residents of South Florida all day, every day,” Ros-Lehtinen tweeted. “What a privilege to live in our great nation where every voter has an important voice at the ballot box.”
Shalala defeated Salazar in 2018 by four percentage points.
Humane Society releases scorecard
The Humane Society Legislative Fund has released its scorecard, which grades members of the House and Senate for the calendar year 2019. Several members of the House received acceptable scores of over 50, with 11 receiving perfect scores of 100.
All delegation Democrats earned 100s, except Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who made a 92, along with a 75 score for Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key was the only Republican earning 100, and Republican Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City was given the single zero.
Mucarsel-Powell shared the news on Twitter with a photo of her two dogs.
“Kali and Spike were excited to hear I received a 100% on the Humane Society’s Scorecard for 2019!” she tweeted. “As a member of the Animal Protection Caucus, I am committed to advancing the safety and welfare of our beloved animals.”
The Animal Protection Caucus, co-chaired Buchanan, includes 14 bipartisan members of the delegation.
Sponsorship or co-sponsorship of targeted bills, as well as votes cast, went into developing the member’s score. Among the bills considered was the PACT Act, sponsored by Deutch and Buchanan, as well as the SAFE Act, sponsored by Buchanan.
The scoring committee also used the WOOF Act, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of St Petersburg, a ban of “trophy imports,” put forward by Buchanan, and the PAST Act, sponsored by Yoho.
On the Senate side, Scott earned a 33 while Rubio received a score of 17. Scott was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the PACT Act, while both Senators co-sponsored the RAWR Act that combated wildlife trafficking.
Among those earning perfect scores were 29 Democrats and two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona.
On this day
Feb. 21, 1972 — President Richard Nixon began his historic trip to China with a surprise meeting at the home of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The impromptu gathering occurred shortly after Nixon arrived in China as the first U.S. President to visit that country.
Nixon emerged from the meeting saying the U.S. and China could be friendly. Later a lavish dinner hosted by Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, leaders from the two countries exchanged pleasantries and indicated a normalization of relations between the two countries was possible.
Feb. 21, 2016 — With Jeb Bush dropping out of the race for President, Republican donors and state legislators were looking for an alternative candidate not named Trump. A plurality of Bush donors were beginning to gravitate toward Sen. Rubio as the one with the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton and giving the bombastic billionaire little to no chance of winning.
Legislators from both parties indicated they were sticking with establishment candidates and shunning Republican Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. While Central Florida has “a strong progressive tradition,” state Sen. Soto is firmly in the Clinton camp and further believes the region “will be a key swing area” in the March primary.