Bipartisanship to be tested
The fight against the COVID-19 virus in Congress became far more desperate, as well as personal, this week as Congress and President Donald Trump scrambled to prevent both a health and economic disaster. On the personal side, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is temporarily sidelined after announcing he was the first member of Congress to test positive for the disease.
“I want everyone to know that I am feeling much better,” the Miami Republican said in a statement. “However, it is important that everyone take this extremely seriously and follow CDC guidelines in order to avoid getting sick and mitigate the spread of this virus. We must continue to work together to emerge stronger as a country during these trying times.”
Against that backdrop, Congress began work to get money into the hands of now-homebound workers and temporarily prop up small businesses and critical industries. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would work at “warp speed,” normally a foreign term to legislative bodies.
As he made that pledge, McConnell said Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were working on legislation to help small businesses that are now mostly idled with many in grave peril (see “Rubio, Collins offer” below).
The Senate passed, and Trump signed, the House’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided free testing, increased Medicaid and enhanced unemployment benefits. While this was a positive step, delegation Democrats are calling for additional action from the state (see “Dems seek action” below).
Foreclosures are another growing concern, prompting Rep. Charlie Crist to call for a moratorium on foreclosures on loans overseen by federal agencies or entities. Earlier this week, Trump announced the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was suspending foreclosures and evictions.
The biggest jolt came late in the week when Senate Republicans, in conjunction with the White House, put forward a massive stimulus proposal in the vicinity of $1 trillion that would provide $1,200 for individuals who make up to $75,000 with an additional $500 for a child. Rubio is one of six co-sponsors.
It also contains relief for small businesses, help for impacted industries like airlines, and efforts to bolster the health care system. Some Republican Senators reportedly opposed the size of the measure.
The GOP proposal calls for one larger check to individuals instead of staggering the sum in two checks, as suggested by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Once most Republicans agreed, the GOP chairs of key committees, including Rubio of the Small Business Committee, began discussions with Democrats. Reaching agreement may not be easy as Democratic leadership expressed concern over the amount of help going to larger industries, especially those that have laid-off workers.
“We don’t want these industries to go under, but we don’t want the dollars that are put there to go to corporate executives or shareholders,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “Again, they must go to workers first.” (see “don’t favor airlines” below)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said House Democrats are proposing their own broader package that Majority Whip James Clyburn describes as “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
McConnell guaranteed the Senate would not leave Capitol Hill until a deal is done. The bipartisan cooperation in the face of a crisis has been uplifting, but will it last the weekend?
Rubio, Collins offer lifeline bill
As people are either catching the COVID-19 virus or avoiding contact with others, they may avoid catching the disease, but businesses large and small are feeling the brunt. So are their now-idle workers.
Sens. Rubio and Collins are putting together a bill designed to provide $300 billion in relief to those small businesses. The Restoring Economic Security, Confidence and User Endurance (RESCUE) Businesses Act of 2020 is designed to help small businesses make payroll while still struggling to survive.
Rubio, the Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, has worked with committee staff and the Trump administration, in addition to Sen. Collins and staff from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A news conference to unveil the legislation was scheduled for Wednesday at 11:45 a.m. but was pushed back. Both Senators finally appeared four hours later, but the bill was not yet complete.
The Senators described the mission and the scope of the bill. Still, without a final product, Rubio took to Twitter the following morning, posting a thread outlining the legislation.
He described the effort as a package of “FORGIVABLE loans,” that “will not have to be repaid.” The funds will come from private financial institutions. One of the holdups has been determining the definition of a small business.
Rubio asked the media and small businesses to “bear with us” while final details were being worked out. Still, the purpose was straightforward: “get cash to small business are fast & easy as possible, so they don’t have to lay people off & if they use it for that purpose doesn’t have to be paid back.”
Rubio hails Trujillo appointment
A hawk against despotic regimes in central and South America is set to become the new Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. Carlos Trujillo, a former Florida state legislator, was tapped by Trump earlier this week.
Trujillo’s appointment has been rumored for several months. He will add a leading voice to American foreign policy involving Latin America, South America and the Caribbean.
“Few individuals understand the ongoing complexities and threats our region is currently facing like Ambassador Trujillo,” Rubio said in a statement. “Ambassador Trujillo dutifully represents America’s interests at the Organization of American States and advocates for human rights, democracy, and regional stability.”
Trujillo is the current U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, while Rubio serves as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee overseeing the Western Hemisphere.
Both Rubio and Trujillo were early backers of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Trujillo will also serve as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF). The IAF is an independent governmental agency created in 1969 to help develop communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Bill targets Chinese pharmaceuticals
Nothing good can be said about the death and misery the COVID-19 virus has left on the U.S. and the world, but a growing number in Congress believe it has served as a wake-up call for the nation’s dealings with China. The virus has spurred greater interest in addressing American reliance on China for many pharmaceuticals, especially after an implied threat to cut off access to those medications.
Rubio has joined with four bipartisan colleagues to introduce the Strengthening America’s Supply Chain and National Security Act. The legislation builds off a plan he released in February, which outlined steps to help wean the U.S. off pharmaceuticals manufactured in China.
“The industrial capacity of a nation still matters, and we are learning a painful lesson as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Rubio said in a news release. “Once our nation has recovered from this unprecedented crisis, we must take steps to address the systemic vulnerability and supply chain risk that the coronavirus pandemic revealed.”
The House has a companion bill led by Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of St. Augustine. The bicameral legislation would require the Department of Defense (DOD) to determine national security risks by relying on China; drugmakers must identify pharmaceutical ingredients made in China, and determine the Buy American Act’s intent for DOD and VA purchases.
“Coronavirus has unfortunately been a wake-up call to the danger of American reliance on a hostile foreign power like China for medical supplies,” Waltz said. “We must identify our supply chain vulnerabilities and build out domestic capacity to eliminate dependence on China and other nations, for the safety and health of all Americans.”
Joining Rubio on the Senate bill are Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, along with Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.
Christie approach needed?
As he remained quarantined, Sen. Scott had a message for those younger people still congregating in large groups on Florida beaches: stop being selfish.
“We’ve got to figure out this social distancing,” Scott said on CNN, “whether it’s our beaches, wherever we are, every part of government has got to start telling people (to) take some personal responsibility here; don’t take a chance you’re going to be the one to cause your grandparent, or your parents, or another friend from school to get sick.”
Scott’s plea brought back memories of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who in 2011 was a bit more direct to those on his state’s beaches as Hurricane Irene approached.
“Get the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out,” he said. “You’re done. It’s 4:30. You’ve maximized your tan.”
In a tweet, Scott used the words “get off the beaches, stay home” to those still enjoying themselves. Perhaps Scott and other Florida leaders could benefit from watching the Christie video.
By the way, Biden wins
Though most eyes were focused elsewhere, former Vice President Joe Biden swept three more primaries, including Florida, sending the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders into a sharper tailspin. Most Florida Democrats, including those among the delegation, were talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden met expectations by winning Florida by nearly 40 points, along with double-digit wins in Illinois and Arizona. Several delegation Democrats tweeted generic Election Day messages but only Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell offered a congratulatory message celebrating Biden’s victory.
“Congratulations @JoeBiden on winning the #FloridaPrimary. FL is ready to win in November & bring a proven leader to the White House that will deliver results for us on health care, environment and reducing gun violence. Look forward to working with you to win FL in November.”
Biden won 151 of Florida’s 219 delegates at stake, while Sanders claimed 52. The others are to be allocated in the future.
Delegation Democrats are backing Biden while Sanders has reportedly decided to “reassess” his campaign. Five states have now postponed their primaries.
Trucker regulatory relief instituted
Among the many points of focus during the coronavirus crisis is the availability of food and household supplies. Earlier this week, Trump gathered chief executives of grocery store chains, who assured him and the nation they would keep the stores well-supplied.
The trucking industry plays a crucial role in carrying out that pledge, leading some members of Congress to ensure regulatory relief involving drivers is in place to allow the industry to expand its efforts. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Division (FMCSA) provided that relief, with Rep. Neal Dunn playing a leading role.
“(Wednesday), I spoke with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Acting Administrator Jim Mullen to address gaps in the grocery supply chain given the increased demand for supplies in the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak,” Dunn said in a news release.
“Following my call, FMCSA issued an expanded national emergency declaration to provide additional regulatory relief to commercial vehicle drivers transporting emergency supplies in response to the nationwide COVID-19 outbreak. This is great news for all Americans who are relying on important medical supplies, food and household goods.”
FMCSA’s expanded declaration provides for regulatory relief for commercial motor vehicle operations providing direct assistance supporting emergency relief efforts intended to meet immediate needs for individuals and those providing vital services.
The emergency declaration stipulates that once a driver has completed his or her delivery, the drive must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.
Crist: don’t favor airlines
During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, large corporations such as the automotive industry received government loans to get through the crisis. Several Republicans described those as “bailouts.”
The President’s coronavirus stimulus proposal includes emergency funding for the airline industry and the tens of thousands of jobs it provides. That is causing some Republicans a little heartburn, but some Democrats are calling on a final bill to give consumers the same consideration as the airlines.
“With the Trump Administration requesting a $50-60 billion financial assistance package for the airline industry in the wake of COVID-19, I am calling for the finances of consumers to be considered with equal gravity,” said Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. “If taxpayers are being asked to help out an industry, it is only fair that we ask that industry do right by the taxpayers.”
Other more supportive Republicans noted nearly empty flights, while Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin put the request into perspective.
“This is worse than 9/11 for the airline industry; they are almost ground to a halt,” Mnuchin said.
Remote voting urged
The positive test for the coronavirus by Rep. Diaz-Balart and Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams likely set in motion a new normal for members of the House and Senate. More are beginning to take the precautions they have advised for their constituents.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise placed himself under self-quarantine after his contacts with Diaz-Balart. So, too has Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, while Sen. Rick Scott is nearing the end of a self-quarantine after being near an infected Brazilian official.
These and other self-quarantines to come makes the recent visual of Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz wearing a gas mask on the House floor seem prescient. Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples, who is retiring at the end of the year, believes the time has come for members to have the ability to work and vote remotely.
“We are in a serious, global pandemic, and Congress should utilize modern technology to permit remote voting,” Rooney said. “Votes on spending and response to the pandemic are critical and will need quick action.”
Both Pelosi and McConnell are not currently inclined to proceed with remote voting. McConnell said the Senate would “deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules” while Pelosi compared her members to “captains of the ship. We are the last to leave.”
Rooney believes there is a working precedent Capitol Hill should consider.
“Remote voting is the way to effectuate social distancing and follow proper health procedures,” Rooney said. “The technology exists — Estonia has used it for years.”
Floridian tapped for key post
The Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is resigning, prompting the President to nominate a Floridian as acting Administrator. Mark Green, a rare Trump administration senior official to win broad support in the Senate, intends to return to the private sector and be succeeded by John Barsa, the Assistant Administrator for Latin American and the Caribbean.
Barsa is a veteran of the U.S. Army reserves and served in the Department of Homeland Security before joining USAID. He previously served on the staff of former Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
“Having known John for decades, I have witnessed his professional growth from able congressional staffer to a skilled, capable leader and manager of large government organizations,” said Republican Rep. Diaz-Balart. “On policy, John fully appreciates the importance of outreach to those languishing under tyranny in places such as Venezuela and Cuba while maintaining tight sanctions on dictatorships.”
The change in leadership comes amid a worldwide scrambling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The agency had earlier committed $37 million to assist efforts in high-risk countries in Central and Eastern Asia and Africa.
“I warmly congratulate John on his new position and look forward to working closely with him in this new capacity on these and other issues of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests throughout the world,” Mario Diaz-Balart added.
Green officially departs April 10. Barsa’s appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.
Dems seek DeSantis action
Earlier this week, the Senate passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided free testing, increased federal Medicaid funding, and enhanced unemployment insurance. Some of the provisions, especially those involving unemployment, require state action.
Delegation Democrats are asking the State of Florida to step up on behalf of constituents quickly. In a letter led by Rep. Lois Frankel and signed by all 13 members, they asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to cut through red tape.
“Florida laws and regulations impede access to these Unemployment Insurance benefits,” they wrote. “Florida cannot access these benefits until these requirements are waived, so it is critical that you take immediate action to ensure Floridians can receive these dollars.”
They urged DeSantis to increase the current limit of 12 weeks to receive unemployment benefits as well as raise the cap on the weekly benefit from $275. Also, they called for DeSantis to request federal disaster assistance and provide guidance to small businesses on how to access small business loans from the Small Business Administration.
A single Republican, Rep. Diaz-Balart, also signed on. Later in the week, DeSantis said he was open to easing unemployment restrictions.
On this day
March 20, 2005 — The federal government has jumped into the controversy surrounding Teri Schiavo. After Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed by court order in Florida, Congress passed a law, which President George W. Bush signed, that Republicans feel will force the federal judge in Florida re-insert her feeding tube.
Most Republicans were entirely behind the effort to preserve Schiavo’s life, who has been in a “persistent vegetative state” for years. On the other side, Democratic Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa said that this effort proves “there is no limit to what democratic principles this Congress will ignore or what liberties they will trample on next.”
March 20, 2016 — For the first time since 1928, an American President was standing on Cuban soil. President Barack Obama took the next step in his effort, as well as that of Cuban leader Raul Castro, to normalize relations with the United States.
Obama’s schedule is jam-packed for his two days on the island. Among the many meetings and events he will attend, the President will also join Castro for a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.