Virus crisis deepens
The rapidly-developing ramifications of the coronavirus continue nearly unabated. Just within a week, the World Health Organization officially declared it a global pandemic. In contrast, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up as much as $50 billion to combat the spread.
In the wee hours of March 14, the House passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act and prepared to send it to the Senate. A glitch forced the House to vote again on the bill two days later, forcing the Senate to wait until Tuesday.
Those watching the stock market were hoping for quick passage after a 3,000-point loss with the Dow Jones Industrial Average to start the week.
The House bill, which came after extended negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, includes free coronavirus testing, two weeks of paid sick leave for workers, increases in food security plans, and increased unemployment benefits.
“Good teamwork between Republicans & Democrats as the House passes the big Coronavirus Relief Bill,” Trump tweeted. “People really pulled together. Nice to see!”
Several members of the delegation reacted to the passage, including Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel, who said the legislation was truly about “Putting working families first.” Fellow Democrat Stephanie Murphy expressed pride that her bill, the Emergency Paid Leave Act, was incorporated in the final package.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch tweeted: “We are all in this together — in our communities and in Washington.” Republican Rep. Ross Spano expressed hope “we can continue to put politics aside and deliver results for our constituents.”
After counting the votes, 363 had voted in favor, with 40 Republicans voting against it. Two Floridians, Reps. Michael Waltz and Greg Steube were among those voting “no.”
In a statement, Steube pointed to his vote on the recently-passed $8.3 billion in coronavirus funding and the President’s declaration of a national emergency, which “opened up an additional $50 billion.” Waltz also mentioned his vote for the $8.3 billion, citing the bill’s unknown cost and “unintended consequences” while expressing the view the Senate could make some changes.
Three Florida Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz, Francis Rooney and Ted Yoho were among 26 members of both parties who did not vote. Gaetz had earlier lamented items in the first House draft unrelated to coronavirus infrastructure and testing, labeling them as “poison pills.”
Even before the Senate passed the second bill, both chambers understood it was far from sufficient in tackling the problems facing the nation. Senators were looking for ways to infuse substantial sums into the economy with a third bill seeking to help many small and large businesses employing workers now urged to stay home to prevent a more widespread outbreak.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, and several colleagues met with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trump’s chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow to plan a strategy.
“Just left a 90-minute meeting with @stevenmnuchin1 @larry_kudlow & several Senators to discuss the 3rd #Coronavirus relief bill,” Rubio tweeted late Monday night. “We are going to need to move very quickly to save small businesses & preserve our ability to move people around the country by air.”
Mnuchin is expected to present a price tag during a Tuesday lunch with Senate Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer floated a figure of $750 billion Monday.
Quarantined Scott files bill
Sen. Rick Scott is not in his Senate office this week, nor was he on the Senate floor voting on the coronavirus bill. Instead, he remained in self-imposed quarantine after being in the same room with a Brazilian government official who tested positive for the virus.
Scott said the Senate attending physician described his risk as low and not needing a coronavirus test or quarantine, but took that step in “an abundance of caution.” Recently, Rep. Matt Gaetz took the same step until given the all-clear.
“I am feeling healthy and not experiencing any symptoms at this time,” Scott said in a news release. “I will still be working on my plan to combat Coronavirus and protect American families, and my offices in D.C. and throughout the state will still be fully operational to help Floridians.”
The quarantine derailed his plan to announce new legislation designed to increase coronavirus testing. Instead, his office released a copy of remarks scheduled to be delivered as he introduced the Coronavirus Mobile Collection Site Act.
Scott’s bill calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to reimburse states for their costs in setting up mobile testing facilities.
“Access to testing is the No. 1 issue right now,” the prepared remarks said.
Scott indicated he intended to remain in quarantine until March 23.
Rubio bill promotes housing
While increasing investment from foreign sources into urban real estate markets may sound like a welcome event, it has the potential to cause chaos. Sen. Rubio has introduced a bill designed to address the problem.
The Home Advantage for American Families Act seeks to reduce foreign investment in the urban real estate market, much of which is connected to illicit activity, and instead increase domestic investment in affordable housing.
The bill stems from an increase in areas that are quickly becoming too expensive to live and the need to restore equilibrium in housing markets for local residents to own a home and raise families.
“As billions of dollars pour into South Florida real estate, much of it is connected to foreign illicit activity, causing families in our communities to face an ever-increasing challenge of finding affordable housing,” Rubio said. “To have a strong nation, we need strong communities, and to have strong communities we must have strong families.”
The bill calls for identifying foreign buyers, increasing withholding tax to 30% on residential real estate for foreign individuals and corporations, and providing incentives for states to create more affordable housing opportunities.
“Combating illicit finance in foreign real estate investment and increasing affordable housing investment in South Florida are key to tackling this problem confronting so many Floridians, and this bill would do exactly that,” Rubio said.
Virus affecting primary season
Over recent days, politics has thankfully played a decreasing role in the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus. Politics was set to go on in Florida and three other states holding important Democratic primaries.
Ohio, Illinois and Arizona, along with Florida, were on the primary calendar with 577 delegates up for grabs. By late Tuesday night, primary votes and caucuses involving 61 percent of the delegates were scheduled to take place.
As the week began, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine joined the effort to postpone that state’s primary, but a judge refused the last-minute plea. That critical swing state still pulled out when the director of the Ohio Department of Health ordered polls closed due to the health emergency, pulling those 136 Democratic delegates off the table at least until June.
After last week’s big Tuesday for Joe Biden, conventional wisdom heading into this week held that this week’s primaries represented the “last stand” for Sen. Bernie Sanders. For example, in Florida, with the biggest prize of 219 delegates, Biden held leads in polls ranging from 55 points to 36 points.
It is becoming more evident the Democratic race will go on indefinitely. While Biden holds onto a delegate lead, there is a likelihood that several of the remaining primaries may also be postponed.
George and Louisiana, scheduled for March 24 and April 4, respectively, had already postponed their primaries before Ohio made its move. With federal health experts recommending dramatically reduced public contact, multiple primary postponements are likely.
Still tentatively on the calendar are states such as Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and several others. In normal times, Biden would likely be on a glide path to the nomination.
The question soon to be asked is whether multiple pandemic-forced postponements are perhaps a game-changer for Sanders or simply a brief reprieve.
Yoho announces infrastructure funds
Concerns about critical infrastructure needs have circulated on Capitol Hill over the last few years. Roads, bridges and rail upkeep have been the topic of discussion among Trump as well as Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Ted Yoho was pleased to announce infrastructure funding is coming to his district. He announced the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program (CRISI) is sending $7.7 million to Baker County.
“I applaud DOT and their CRISI program for recognizing Baker County as a smart place to invest,” the Gainesville Republican said in a news release. “The new rail yard will not only benefit regional commerce, but it will create job opportunities for the rural communities in Baker.”
The project is designed to improve the safety, efficiency, and reliability of passenger and freight rail. Funding for this program was made available by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, where Congress approved more than $300 million for rail projects.
“Meaningful, targeted, investment helps our economy at all levels,” Yoho added. “This is money well spent.”
According to Yoho, the funding will be used for right of way acquisition, preliminary engineering, and environmental analysis and documentation, and builds a roughly 72-acre rail yard in Baker County, which will serve as the anchor for a new transload facility. The project allows Florida Gulf & Atlantic (FGA) railroad to stage trains there instead of hauling all freight 125 miles west to Tallahassee prior to interchange with CSX.”
“I applaud DOT and their CRISI program for recognizing Baker County as a smart place to invest,” Yoho said. “The new rail yard will not only benefit regional commerce, but it will create job opportunities for the rural communities in Baker. Meaningful, targeted, investment helps our economy at all levels. This is money well spent.”
Yoho is winding down his service in Congress at the end of the year. He was first elected in 2012 and is fulfilling his campaign pledge to serve only four terms.
Posey promotes kindness
Capitol Hill has become a place where hardball politics and bitter acrimony are no longer the exception, but an everyday practice. Rep. Bill Posey is seeking to take an effort by school children urging kindness and spread it around his colleagues in Washington.
Posey took note of a movement started by Tropical Elementary School transitional kindergartners from Merritt Island with a nice, simple message: Be kind.
A petition at change.org is asking Congress to adopt a logo they helped design as the national symbol of kindness and has gained more than 5,500 signatures since launch. Their global kindness initiative, Together Kind, was recognized in February by state lawmakers in Tallahassee, who declared Feb. 16-20 “Florida Kindness Week.”
Posey introduced House Resolution 887, designed to recognize the symbol and urge kindness around the country.
“First, I really wanted to do something that recognized the work that these children, and their teacher, were doing,” the Rockledge Republican said. “What they are learning is that in causes great and small, people can work together to mount a campaign to make a positive change in the world.
“This is central to our political process and, overall, to being part of a community. It’s an important lesson for them, but their campaign also reminds us all of something very important, and that is how to treat others.”
Posey pledged to first reach out to the Florida delegation, asking them to co-sponsor the resolution, then expand the call to the rest of the House. A co-sponsor is yet to emerge.
Crist seeks FSU reprieve
This week the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament was supposed to begin, but those were just two of the necessary cancellations of sporting events. The Florida State men’s team was a legitimate contender to take home the trophy, a prediction made by basketball guru and Sarasota resident Dick Vitale.
While agreeing with the recent actions involving sports, Rep. Charlie Crist is urging the NCAA not to give up on March Madness. The FSU alum is asking for a limited tournament to be played at a later date, giving Florida State and the top teams a chance to compete for a championship.
The St. Petersburg Democrat sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert asking that the NCAA keep an open mind about holding a modified version of the men’s and women’s collegiate basketball tournament once the public health risks surrounding the coronavirus subside.
“As a Florida State University alumnus and fan, I have enjoyed the extraordinary women’s and men’s basketball seasons,” Crist wrote. “The men’s team, in particular, is having one of their greatest seasons ever — earning their first ACC regular-season championship, ranked No. 4 in the nation. For Seminole nation, it is a bittersweet moment.”
Crist could gain support from delegations in Kansas, Washington and Ohio, where constituents include the fans of the University of Kansas, Gonzaga University and University of Dayton, who are ranked first through third. The Dayton Flyers, like Florida State, are having a once-in-a-generation season.
“I suspect many of the kids and coaches who have poured their hearts and souls into this season would also gladly welcome the chance to compete for their one shining moment,” Crist concluded.
Spano bill promotes telework
Among the many actions taken to combat the COVID-19 virus is allowing workers to telework, or work from home. Private businesses, as well as federal, state and local government agencies, are participating in the practice.
Rep. Ross Spano has introduced legislation that would provide economic incentives for allowing telework options to prevent further spreading of the virus. The Safeguarding Americans from Epidemics (SAFE) at Work Act creates a temporary tax credit for employers that permit workers to work a minimum of 12 hours per week at home.
“While the Coronavirus situation unfolds, keeping Americans safe is my highest priority, and this includes safety in the workplace,” the Dover Republican said. “Encouraging employers to provide telework options to their employees is a simple step that can go a long way to prevent against the unnecessary spread of the virus and keep American workers and their families safe.”
The tax credit would top out at $1,200 per year for each qualifying employee, calculated as $100 per employee for each month they were a qualified teleworker. Additionally, the bill would temporarily restore the ability for employees to deduct home office expenses for tax years 2020 and 2021.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has encouraged employers to maximize telework opportunities until the current crisis subsides.
Frankel: Pay soccer players equally
While sports around the country are on hiatus for the foreseeable future, a shocking story involving the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team unfolded. The ongoing lawsuit by women’s players seeking pay equal to that of men cost the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation his job.
Carlos Cordeiro, the federation president, resigned after the federation’s legal filings argued against equal pay because the men’s players required more “skill,” and the men had more “responsibility.” Protests and outcries from sponsors regarding the “blatant misogyny” left Cordeiro little choice but to quit.
Rep. Lois Frankel offered the same reaction just before Cordeiro’s resignation and urged the passing of a bill she sponsored, which would provide a legislative mandate for equal pay.
“The sexist filing from @ussoccer was based in misogyny, unwilling to recognize the skill of @USWNT and give them the #EqualPay they deserve,” the West Palm Beach Democrat tweeted. ‘An apology is not enough — we MUST pass the Athletics Fair Pay Act now!”
Frankel’s bill requires amateur sports national governing bodies to provide equitable wages and other compensation for women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis. Among its 32 co-sponsors are Florida Democratic Reps. Debbie Mucarsel Powell, Frederica Wilson, Val Demings and Kathy Castor.
Shalala backs worker safety bill
While tens of millions of Americans are susceptible to infection from COVID-19, health care workers are among those directly in the line of fire. Miami Democrat Donna Shalala recently signed on to legislation to protect those workers.
Shalala is an original co-sponsor of the COVID-19 Worker Protection Act sponsored by Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott. The bill would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to ensure that health care facilities implement comprehensive infectious disease exposure control plans to keep health care workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The best defense to any crisis is making sure that you have the proper infrastructure in place to handle it,” said Rep. Shalala. “Infrastructure is not just hospitals and laboratories; it is also the people on the front lines staffing these facilities who play a critical role in coordinating our response to COVID-19.
Currently, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issue guidance to protect health care workers, the guidance is not binding, and OSHA has presently no enforceable standard to protect workers from airborne infectious diseases. Shalala said this leaves the nation’s health care workers at an elevated risk of exposure to the coronavirus at a time when they are needed most.
“This bill will make sure that we can keep our health care workers safe in the face of a rapidly evolving public health emergency,” she added.”
Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson also signed on as a co-sponsor.
Floridians cited for votes
The First Focus Campaign for Children (FFCC) advocates before Congress on a broad range of children’s issues. They recently published their 2019 Champions and Defenders for Children, which highlights legislators, mostly Democrats, who qualify for the designations based upon a series of votes.
FFCC bestowed the title of Champion for Children on two delegation Democrats. Those selected were Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach.
“Honored to be named a #Champion4Children by First Focus @Campaign4Kids,” tweeted Hastings. “Investing in our children makes them — & our nation — healthy, strong & productive. It is simply the right thing to do. I’ll continue to fight for policies that prioritize & #InvestInKids across our nation!”
Among the votes considered were those involving children’s detentions at the southern border, opposing bills cutting budgets for children’s programs, supporting the lowering of the voting age to 16, supporting the lowering of prescription drugs and others.
Other delegation Democrats were named Defenders of Children, just one step below the Champions level. Those included Reps. Castor and Shalala.
No delegation Republicans were mentioned in either the Senate or House rankings.
Florida gets second look
As the Department of Defense considered where to locate the Space Force permanently, Florida did not even make the list to be considered. Despite strong efforts from Florida officials, those in DOD considering a headquarters for the United States Space Command were basically ignoring the resources available in Florida.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee the selection process would be redone. He was responding to complaints from lawmakers, including from within the Florida delegation, that the previous process lacked transparency.
The delegation quickly responded to the news with a letter urging Esper and DOD to look at what Florida brings to the table. Those signing the letter, which included both Senators and nearly every House member, stated they “wholeheartedly urge you to select the great state of Florida as the location for USSPACECOM.”
“Few states can compare with the training opportunities and expansive testing ranges our state affords its tenant commands,” they wrote. “In addition to 20 active duty military installations around the state, SOCOM, CENTCOM, and SOUTHCOM all call Florida home.”
What seemed like a lost cause a few months ago, now appears to have Florida at least in a position to make its case. Esper said the decision would come after the November elections.
On this day
March 17, 2003 — President George W. Bush gave Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to go into exile or face an attack from U.S. forces. Hussein showed no signs of complying, which prompted the United Nations to order their weapons inspectors to leave the country.
“The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush vowed as 250,000 troops prepared to strike. To the Iraqi people, Bush said: “The day of your liberation is near.”
March 17, 2008 — Florida Democrats scrapped plans to have what amounts to a second primary in June, instead deciding to appeal to the Democratic National Committee to seat their delegation at August’s nominating convention in Denver. Florida was punished for breaking ranks and moving up the presidential primary to January.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman and Sen. Bill Nelson proposed the second primary idea as a way to have a contest that conformed with the rules. The idea gained little interest, leaving party leaders seeking ways to have the January votes of 1.7 million Democrats count for something. Sen. Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Barack Obama in that primary.