While Congress fiddles …
When Senate Democrats prevented a procedural vote on the $1.8 trillion coronavirus financial package, a sense of gloom enveloped Washington, Wall Street, and everyday Americans who are desperately depending on the relief the bill would provide.
The initial key hang-up appeared to be a $500 billion pool that the Trump administration could dole out to large employers on a case-by-case basis. Democrats are calling it a “slush fund.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was outraged by the turn of events after reports the Senate was near an agreement. Perhaps Sen. Marco Rubio was onto something when he put out a photo via Twitter of black smoke coming from the Vatican, used to announce a deal or no deal for a new Pope, but in this case, no agreement on the budget.
Florida Republicans seemed to hold their fire on the Democrats’ action led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Sen. Susan Collins, usually a reserved moderate Republican from Maine, blasted the vote, saying Democrats were “playing with fire.”
Sen. Rick Scott was still in quarantine and unable to vote, but wrote of his opposition to a “bailout for big business” on Fox Business.
“Let me be clear: we should not bail out large corporations that have enjoyed years of growth and prosperity,” Scott wrote. “I won’t support it.”
Scott’s absence Sunday brought the number of missing Republicans to five. Scott and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner returned Monday, but Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was diagnosed with the virus Sunday, remain in quarantine.
With the delay, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and colleagues came up with their own legislation, which opened the possibility to a more protracted stalemate. The $2.5 trillion House bill provides higher payments to individuals and hospitals, but also contains several provisions not relevant to the coronavirus emergency, a fact headlining Republican reaction.
“Dems blocking badly needed tax rebate checks and small biz loans so they can slide in unrelated progressive agenda,” tweeted Rep. Michael Waltz, one of many weighing in. “Things like — Emissions reductions for airlines — Union bargaining rights — Minimum wage increases …”
President Donald Trump was surprisingly evenhanded until late Monday, when he tweeted: “Republicans had a deal until Nancy Pelosi rode into town from her extended vacation. The Democrats want the Virus to win?”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were expected to come to an agreement and the Senate voting on the bill late Tuesday. It would then go to the House, but uncertainty reigns because the House is not even in session and if they decide to pass their bill, it could be days before reaching a final agreement.
While Congress fiddles, the nation burns.
Scott unveils 30-day plan
For more than a week, Scott has been quarantined following exposure to a Brazilian official later diagnosed with COVID-19. During that period, which ended earlier this week, he conducted several media interviews offering his views on issues around the current pandemic crisis.
Just 48 hours before his quarantine ended, Scott offered what he described as a 30-day plan to “help America get back to normal.” The components range from travel, personal behavior, financial and public health efforts.
“Americans are scared because of the uncertainty the coronavirus has brought. Small businesses are closing, people feel isolated and there’s no end in sight. But we can beat this. There are a series of steps we can take right now that, if everyone cooperates, can end the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.”
Among the suggestions are shutting down all air traffic, require every individual have their temperatures taken upon entering public buildings, implement enhanced county-level testing with the same results, place a moratorium on financial obligations, and others. Scott also joined with delegation Democrats calling for the closing of all Florida beaches.
“If we take these actions, we can significantly stop the spread of the virus and return to our normal, daily lives,” said Scott.
Rubio: fight China’s propaganda
With the world rightly pointing fingers at China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party is engaging in a propaganda war to divert blame. The Chinese military has accused the U.S. military of bringing the virus into China, which led to the ongoing disaster.
Rubio and two Republican Senate colleagues want the U.S. to respond to the campaign forcefully. In a letter to Trump, Rubio, Gardner and Romney seek a task force to counter the Chinese campaign.
“This tactic, in addition to being a despicable exploitation of a global emergency, threatens to undermine the worldwide coordination necessary to combat this coronavirus,” the Senators wrote. “It is for this reason that we request an interagency task force within the (National Security Council) to counter the malicious propaganda coming from (Chinese Communist Party) apparatchiks.”
China is not alone as this week; Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also floated the conspiracy theory while refusing U.S. offers of aid. At the same time, China remains the prime focus of attempts to blame the U.S.
“While the rest of the world scrambles to clean up the CCP’s mess, they continue to seek geopolitical advantage and undermine the U.S. at every turn,” the Senators added. “It is critical that our country fight back against this propaganda, and an interagency task force under the aegis of the NSC is a distinctive tool to formulate a coordinated, USG-wide response.”
Gaetz trolls Burr
The recent revelation that four U.S. Senators financially benefited from timely stock sales provided a different storyline from the COVID-19 virus. Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma shared the unwanted spotlight with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Burr, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, drew the most scrutiny as he sold significant amounts of stock shortly after receiving a briefing on the impact the virus would likely have on the U.S. He claimed to base his sales on the knowledge available to the public. Still, many on Capitol Hill are not buying it.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach tweeted: “With all of the money Chairman Burr saved in the #SenateSelloff, maybe he can reimburse the legal bills innocent people incurred during the phony Senate Russia investigation he led?” He later called Burr “swampily complicit” in bringing Donald Trump, Jr. before the Intelligence Committee.
Loeffler does not control the sales from her portfolio, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock were unloaded Feb. 14, shortly after the Senate briefing. Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is the Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and himself sold millions of dollars’ worth of stock in the parent company of the NYSE in late February.
Loeffler was appointed to her seat in December by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a move roundly criticized by Gaetz, who strongly advocated for Republican Rep. Doug Collins. Despite this history, Gaetz has kept all of his fire on the trading issue directed squarely at Burr.
Feinstein leaves financial decisions to her husband and assured Californians she had no role in the recent sales of between $1 million and $5 million in a therapeutics company whose value has fallen more than 20% in less than three months.
Inhofe, through his adviser, sold between $50,000 and $100,000 in an asset management company that has plummeted by 30% since January. Inhofe reportedly directed his adviser to liquidate his stock holdings in December 2018.
Lawson draws another opponent
With the coronavirus crisis deservingly receiving most of the attention of the media and the country, politics is almost an afterthought. Once the crisis passes, focus on the 2020 campaigns will increase dramatically.
Few seats in the Florida delegation are expected to feature competitive races and the District 5 seat held by Democrat Al Lawson is not likely to be one of them. That did not stop Jacksonville businessman Gary Adler from announcing a challenge.
“Congress is out of touch — and I’m running to make a change,” Adler said. “I’ll work hard each and every day for the citizens of my district, and I’ll never forget who my bosses are.”
Adler made his announcement more than a week ago. Still, mailers began arriving in mailboxes over the weekend outlining Adler’s positions on the economy, taxes, education, health care costs and public safety. The district has a Cook Partisan Voter Index favoring Democrats by 12 points.
Adler will face Roger Wagoner, Matthew Lusk, and Virginia Fuller in the Republican primary. Lawson defeated Fuller in 2018 by 67% to 33%.
Waltz takes House lead on Chinese drugs
Several coronavirus-inspired bills are circulating in the Capitol, some far more targeted and far less prominent than others, including a bipartisan measure from Sen. Rubio and others in the Senate to wrestle control of drug manufacturing from China.
Rep. Waltz has taken up leadership on the House side of what so far has been a very bipartisan effort.
Waltz, of St. Augustine Beach, said Monday he’d be introducing the House version of Strengthening America’s Supply Chain and National Security Act, seeking to identify possible national security risks. It would direct the U.S. Department of Defense to determine the extent of its dependency on foreign entities of drugs, key chemical components and develop recommendations to stop it.
The Senate version is sponsored by Rubio, North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, and Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
“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 in a news release. “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.”
Murphy staying in shape
After coming in contact with a member diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy placed herself into self-quarantine. Members can still work remotely, but for those like Murphy, who maintains a regular fitness routine that includes running and exercise equipment, additional methods such as yoga were in order.
“Even before I was in quarantine, I was a religious user of the Peloton app because it gave me a wide variety of workouts, and I could do it wherever I went,” Murphy said in a Skype interview with Roll Call. “Now, I am still using the Peloton app, but mostly just the yoga, the strength training, the cardio, things that I can do inside.”
While Murphy is a big believer in physical health, she believes an exercise regimen has other benefits. Despite being cooped up, a healthy body and mind are still possible.
“I think exercise is so critical to your mental health,” Murphy said. “At least for me it’s a stress reliever, and it’s something that helps me affirm that I’m well, and in this moment when there’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot of stress, it’s good to keep the exercise routine going just for the mental health and a little bit of sanity.”
Soto: Keep the lights on
Millions of Americans have plenty to worry about as they possibly lose their livelihoods indefinitely. The ability to pay the bills is one of those concerns, prompting Rep. Darren Soto and a group of bipartisan colleagues in the Florida delegation to seek assurances utilities will not be turned off in homes around the country.
Soto led a letter to the Florida Public Service Commission asking them to work with the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Division of Emergency Management to suspend the disconnection of all water, sewer, gas, and electricity services for the length of the 60-day national emergency surrounding the coronavirus.
“Especially in the middle of a public health crisis, Floridians must be able to rely on consistent access to power in their homes,” the letter reads. “At the same time, state agencies have a responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus while avoiding putting additional stress on utility customers and the workforce.”
All 13 Democratic members of the delegation signed the letter. Also signing on were Republican Reps. Gaetz, Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ross Spano and Ted Yoho.
Business tax delay urged
Last week Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced a delay to file income tax returns from April 15 to July 15. The change in date affects only federal taxes, leaving states to determine any extensions for state and local taxes.
Though Florida does not have a state income tax, there are taxes on businesses, which Rep. Spano believes need tweaking as well. Almost immediately, Spano wrote to Gov. Ron DeSantis, urging an extension of the business tax deadline from May 1 to Aug. 3.
In the letter, Spano pointed out businesses can face penalties of 50% of taxes owed for being late. An extension, he wrote, would “provide immediate relief for businesses and allow them to focus on meeting their expenses and keeping Floridians employed.”
“I urge Gov. DeSantis to follow President Trump’s example and give Floridians the immediate financial assistance they need to respond to the Coronavirus,” Spano said in a news release.”
Rooney congratulates OAS head
With trouble spots in Venezuela and Nicaragua confronting the Americas, North America, South American, and Central America, both Congress and the Trump administration sought to keep Luis Almagro in his post as Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS).
They got their wish as Almagro, who is a staunch opponent of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, was selected for another term by his peers. Among those congratulating Almagro was Naples Republican Rep. Francis Rooney.
“Congratulations to @Almagro_OEA2015 on his reelection as Secretary-general of the @OAS,” Rooney tweeted. “I value his continued leadership on democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere and look forward to working with him to address the unprecedented challenges facing the region.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked forward to resuming the strong relationship once the current crisis in the U.S. subsides.
” Under Almagro’s principled leadership, which the member-states have now renewed, the United States will continue to work with our partners at the OAS to promote and defend democracy, human rights, security, and economic prosperity for the people of the Americas,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“Today’s vote by the OAS Member States shows that even in the most challenging of times, such as what we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, our Hemisphere of Freedom remains steadfast in safeguarding our shared values.”
Deutch co-sponsors coronavirus bill
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in 10 adults — or 105 million Americans — are at a heightened risk for a wide range of health problems if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Front-line workers and family caregivers who support these individuals also face increased risks, requiring additional resources and support to protect their health and well-being.
In response, the House Democrats’ Task Force on Aging introduced the Coronavirus Relief for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act. The bill, co-sponsored by caucus vice chair Ted Deutch, would provide resources and support to protect the health and well-being of seniors, people with disabilities, and the front-line workers and family caregivers who support these individuals.
“This is a particularly precarious time for vulnerable populations, including our nation’s seniors and individuals with disabilities and underlying health conditions,” the Boca Raton Democrat said in a joint release. “When broadened to include their health care providers, caregivers and facility employees, there are hundreds of millions of Americans at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.”
The bill, sponsored by caucus chair Debbie Dingell from Michigan, specifically increases funding for nursing home surveys to promote infection control, covers the cost of treatment for low-income seniors, promotes home and community-based services and protects home health workers. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
“As Congress develops our national response, this is a strong plan to specifically protect our vulnerable neighbors and family members,” said Deutch.
DMP: invest now in infrastructure
While the Senate was in the early stages of discussion on the financial package to help those affected by the near shutdown of the economy, some in Congress wanted the effort to go beyond relief. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was one of those advocating for massive spending on infrastructure in conjunction with current efforts.
The outline of the infrastructure plan was unveiled in January. It calls for $760 billion in infrastructure spending over five years.
“This is the time to do it,” the first-term Democrat said. “This is a huge opportunity to infuse the capital we will need not just in the next three months but in the next two to three years.”
Mucarsel-Powell praised the first two bills that expanded coronavirus prevention and provided free testing and expansion of unemployment benefits, but now “this is a moment” to take bold action.
“During the Great Depression, the New Deal renewed people’s belief in the American dream,” she added. “This investment would do the same for generations to come.”
In the end, infrastructure investments will have to wait. The House coronavirus bill released by Pelosi is hundreds of billions of dollars more expensive than the Senate bill, but it did not go deeply into infrastructure.
Much of the difference in spending between the House bill and the Senate version is providing larger checks to individuals and more help for hospitals and medical supplies. The outlook for infrastructure investments is now bleak as the nation’s deficits and national debt are set to explode.
On this day
March 24, 2004 — A raucous day on Capitol Hill centered around the testimony before the 9/11 Commission by former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke. Much of the government seemed to stop as Clarke leveled criticism of Bush administration efforts to impede the efforts of al-Qaida and possibly prevent the attacks of three years earlier.
Clarke’s testimony brought out criticism from administration officials, who understood the nature of such explosive charges just eight months before President George W. Bush stood for reelection. Clarke was questioned about earlier glowing statements directed toward Bush, prompting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to say: “He needs to get his story straight.”
March 24, 2017 — Republicans have conceded defeat in their attempt to repeal and replace “Obamacare” after several members of the conservative Freedom Caucus would not support the replacement. Trump said he was willing to let “Obamacare” collapse and wait for Democrats to come to him seeking to bargain.
Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor said the Republican effort “collapsed under its own weight,” while St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist called the development “a win for the American people. Sen. Rubio warned “‘Obamacare’ will only get worse” and Gov. Scott added the failed GOP plan was “infinitely better than ‘Obamacare.’”