Spending bill set to pass
It was sometimes ugly, bitter and rancorous, as most everything is in Washington these days. Still, a $2.2 trillion spending bill is poised to offer desperately needed help to individuals, businesses of all sizes, and the economy as a whole. After the Senate gave its approval 96-0, the House gave its authorization Friday with President Donald Trump to sign it shortly after that.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “a wartime level of investment into our nation,” while Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “it is not a moment of celebration but rather one of necessity.”
Part of the package includes $377 billion for small businesses to meet their payroll and expenses. Sen. Marco Rubio, Chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, played a major role in this portion.
“Communities across Florida and our nation are reeling from this unprecedented crisis, and today the Senate acted on an unprecedented response to provide relief to Americans, small businesses, and our economy,” Rubio said. “Our bipartisan small business package, which was included, will provide emergency relief so that millions of American workers can keep their jobs and millions of small businesses can stay open.”
Sen. Rick Scott also gave his support to get the relief out to a needy population but did so under protest. He was upset with a provision that could see some individuals benefit by not working (see “drafting error”) below.
“I have significant reservations about many provisions in this bill that are antithetical to everything I believe in, but we’re facing a crisis, and this is the only option to get immediate help to small businesses and unemployed workers,” he said in a statement. “My focus is on the workers who have lost their jobs, had their hours cut, or are getting lower tips, and small businesses that have been forced to close or have lost significant revenue.”
Most Democrats appear to be looking forward to voting for the bill and getting the relief distributed. Among those was Orlando Democratic Rep. Val Demings.
“The Senate has now passed historic COVID-19 relief,” Demings said. “Democrats fought to ensure that this relief would put workers first, and I’m glad to report that the majority of the relief is going to workers, small businesses, hospitals and local governments.”
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who is recovering from his bout with COVID-19, tweeted his support saying, “I fully support this legislation, & I’m proud of the unprecedented measures our nation has taken during this time of uncertainty.”
The timing is critical because, within hours after the Senate voted, the Labor Department reported 3.28 million new jobless claims, shattering the record. The previous high was 695,000 in October 1982.
Businesses owned by Trump, his family, Vice President Mike Pence, and department heads are expressly prohibited from receiving federal funds associated with the rescue. The prohibition also applies to members of Congress.
Scott’ drafting error’ challenge fails
Some last-minute drama erupted before the coronavirus relief bill finally passed the Senate. Four Republican Senators, including Scott, said a “drafting error” was making it possible for individuals to take advantage of enhanced unemployment benefits and earn more by not working.
The bill calls for maintaining workers’ salaries, even if temporarily laid off. While expressing his support for “expanding the Unemployment Insurance program … we shouldn’t create a system where Unemployment Insurance benefits are higher than a salary,” Scott said on the Senate floor.
I support expanding the Unemployment Insurance program. It’s the best and quickest way to get money to people that need it most.
But we shouldn’t create a system where Unemployment Insurance benefits are higher than a salary. pic.twitter.com/VmrI6hdFU0
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) March 26, 2020
The Miami Herald ran a story headlined: “Florida’s Rick Scott demands reduced unemployment benefits in coronavirus relief bill.” The story was less incendiary than the headline, but it opened the door for a wave of criticism.
“Rick Scott had no qualms passing a bill handing half a trillion dollars to major corporations, no strings attached,” tweeted Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. “But when it comes to the most vulnerable and in-need during a global pandemic, suddenly the money is too much.”
Last week Scott wrote an op-ed blasting the idea of the corporate bailouts, while this week, he was adamant about not allowing workers to receive their salary and unemployment simultaneously. Rubio weighed in saying Scott may be accurate, but it should not hold up the bill, maintaining “It’s only for four months, not forever” for those isolated incidents.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the $600 across-the-board figure was agreed upon because states have different unemployment mechanisms, and it was the only way to get the money to the people quickly. For good measure, Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was prepared to put a hold on the bill unless the Republicans dropped their objections.
Scott supported an amendment to the relief bill to address the issue sponsored by Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, which came up for a vote just before the final vote on the relief bill. The amendment failed by a 48-48 vote (60 votes required) with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin crossing over to vote in favor and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado voting with Democrats.
Rubio questions WHO actions
The role of the World Health Organization (WHO), and possible favoritism toward China, was the subject of criticism leveled at the organization and its director-general. Rubio told Real Clear Politics (RCP) past statements and actions by the WHO toward China has, in effect, had a detrimental impact on the world.
Rubio pointed out instances where the WHO praised China for its transparency surrounding the outbreak and praise for its leadership. U.S. and officials of other countries believe China hid details of their outbreak at a critical point.
The second-term Republican shared with RCP a tweet from the WHO sharing China’s contention the virus is not transmitted person-to-person and their ability to prevent Taiwan from joining a WHO meeting on the topic. Taiwan was claiming evidence of person-to-person contact.
“The actions of the Chinese Communist Party exacerbated the public health crisis plaguing the international community, and instead of prioritizing global health, Dr. Tedros and the WHO played favoritism to China,” Rubio said
Rubio and Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul linked as circumstantial evidence Tedros’ former role as Ethiopian Foreign Minister. They showed information that China had invested $13.6 billion in the country during the tenure of Tedros.
A reporter at Trump’s daily coronavirus briefing brought Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on Trump’s coronavirus response team, into the political controversy. Fauci responded to a question by praising Tedros’ leadership during the current crisis saying, “he’s been all over this,” but bristled at a question concerning Chinese favoritism.
“I can’t comment on that because I don’t have any viewpoint into it. I don’t even know what your question is,” Fauci responded as he walked away from the podium.
Senators joined disaster request
As Florida’s coronavirus cases surge, fears of overwhelming the state’s health care system also rise. For that and other factors that place Florida’s economy in jeopardy, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the President to declare Florida a major disaster area.
“We write to express support for the request made by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that a major disaster declaration be issued for Florida as a result of the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2019 (COVID-19),” they wrote. “We urge you to promptly approve Gov. DeSantis’s request for a major disaster declaration so that the State of Florida can use a fuller range of resources to manage the unprecedented difficulties posed by COVID-19.”
The White House was paying attention. Within 48 hours, Trump made the declaration.
“The President’s action makes Federal funding available for Crisis Counseling for affected individuals in all areas in the State of Florida,” the declaration reads. “Federal funding is also available to State, tribal, and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, for all areas in the State of Florida impacted by COVID-19.”
Such a declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work. It also provides a higher percentage for reimbursements coming from the FEMA.
California and New York were already approved. More are expected in the coming days.
Statewide stay home order urged
State legislators have continued a call for DeSantis to issue a statewide “stay at home” order. Delegation Democrats have joined in that call.
In a letter to DeSantis, the members urged the Governor to take the executive action “to protect Floridians, particularly older residents and those with underlying health issues, and help the already-strained health care system.”
DeSantis has resisted taking that action, in fact expressing second thoughts at closing schools, but has left “stay in place” orders to local leaders, while ordering those flying in from the besieged New York City region to self-quarantine.
“To effectively slow COVID-19’s spread, we are asking you to issue a shelter-in-place order for the entire state,” they wrote, later adding, “We understand the grave economic consequences this action will have.”
The number of communities issuing such orders continued to climb. Among those taking action this week was Alachua County and Gainesville, Tallahassee and Leon County, and Orlando and Orange County. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor issued the order for the city, but Hillsborough County did not immediately go along, but other cities and counties have closures and restrictions in place.
The different approaches are what drove the members to write.
“We cannot wait. We cannot leave this decision to county and local governments,” they said in conclusion. “We need your leadership. We strongly urge you to immediately issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.”
Those signing the letter led by Deutch of Boca Raton was Demings, Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala of Coral Gables, Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, Darren Soto of Kissimmee, Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, and Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens.
Trump job numbers rising
When it comes to national polls on job approval, Trump’s standing is still underwater, but he can almost see the surface. As the week ended, the Real Clear Politics average of polls had the President at an all-time high 47.3% approval rate and a dwindling 49.3% disapproval rate.
The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed a 45-52 approve/disapprove breakdown, but it is four points better than one week ago and marks only the fourth time in 11 surveys conducted in 2020 that Trump was not in the red by double digits.
Another poll routinely showing double-digit gaps for disapproval is the Reuters poll conducted by Ipsos. This week, that poll shows identical numbers to POLITICO, while Rasmussen, one usually favorable to Trump, is this week among his worst.
Much of Trump’s rising approval numbers can be traced to favorable opinions he is receiving over handling of the coronavirus crisis. A recent ABC News/Ipsos survey showed 55% of respondents approving of his coronavirus performance and 43% disapproving.
The Gallup Poll had a 60% approval rating for handling the virus. At the same time, the Reuters survey showed a 49-44 approval/disapproval response, ABC/Washington Post had 52-45, and Fox News recorded 51% approving and 46% disapproving.
Despite these numbers, the polls still show either a majority or plurality preferring “someone else” besides Trump win the 2020 election. The Real Clear Politics average again shows Joe Biden with a seven-point lead in head-to-head matchups.
No CHINA Act introduced
The coronavirus relief package has billions to spread around to individuals and businesses, but some in Congress seek to ensure only American companies receive emergency funds. Rep. Matt Gaetz has introduced the No CHINA Act (No Chinese Handouts in National Assistance Act), which would prohibit funds going to China-owned businesses operating in the U.S.
“I’m proud to introduce the “No CHINA Act” today, which prevents appropriated money, including coronavirus relief funds, from being disbursed to businesses owned by the Chinese government,” the Fort Walton Beach Republican said in a news release. “Chinese corporations operating in America must not be eligible for the upcoming trillion-dollar bailout, now or ever.”
Gaetz, like most of the world, blames China for the pandemic, pointing to their “inaction, distortion of data and outright lies,” which “exacerbated the global coronavirus epidemic, and helped fuel its rapid global spread.”
“Every single American worker displaced by COVID19 should be fully compensated, before one nickel from our treasury goes to Chinese-owned corporations operating here in the United States,” Gaetz added.
Murphy tax proposal added
Senate leaders of both parties raised early expectations that a deal on the emergency spending package would come at the beginning of the week. Negotiations drug on with Democrats taking the blame, especially when Pelosi introduced a House bill that contained items not relevant to the crisis at hand.
During a conference call among members of the Democratic caucus, Rep. Murphy of Winter Park repeated Democratic criticism regarding the lack of oversight in the GOP original bill, but also said the House alternative bill “set people off“ with the wish list of items and further added Democrats were “losing the messaging battle.”
Now that the bill has passed the Senate and apparently is on its way to House passage, Murphy revealed that her proposal for the Employee Retention Tax Credit is included in the final bill. The idea behind it was to provide incentives for those small businesses which have kept their employees on the payroll after March 12.
“This credit will help employers — especially small businesses — retain and pay their employees rather than lay them off,” Murphy said in a news release. “This measure will prevent layoffs, ensuring Americans affected by this virus have a job after this crisis is over.”
Cure worse than problem?
Trump’s expression of hope the economy can begin to return to normal around Easter generated some bewildered criticism in the media, the Florida delegation, and other members of Congress. A Trump tweet said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,’ followed by comments on Fox News where he said: “Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment or some space.”
Some of the delegation Democrats reacted to those comments, saying a move away from social distancing and promoting a full-scale return to work is dangerous. This comes as most of them are arguing for DeSantis to lock the state down further (see “statewide stay home” below).
“His position defies ethical standards,” tweeted Rep. Shalala. “We Americans have never believed the economy is more important than human life. We care for each other in good times and in bad.”
“I have ALWAYS gathered with friends and family on Easter, but public health experts are clear: physical distancing is absolutely necessary to save lives,” said Rep. Demings via Twitter. The President’s top priority is supposed to be the safety of the American people.”
When asked by CNN about his goals, Trump provided more insight, including whether Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, critical members of the coronavirus response team, agreed with him.
“We’re going to look at it. We’ll only do it if it’s good,” Trump responded. “And maybe we’ll do sections of the country. We’ll do large sections of the country … We’re very much in touch with Tony and Deborah.”
Crist: release SNAP benefits early
With so many laid off or unable to perform necessary work to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, Gov. DeSantis used his authority to waive work requirements to receive those funds.
Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg is grateful for the Governor’s action but is asking him to take a further step in helping those sheltered at home. In a letter, Crist urged DeSantis to release SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) early to help the needy comply with requirements to remain at home.
“The COVID-19 global pandemic has left many Floridians without a steady stream of income, placing great stress on those in need,” Crist wrote. “In response to these growing demands and the potential requirement for some SNAP recipients to need to self-quarantine for 14 days or more, I urge you to offer the early release of next month’s SNAP benefits, effective immediately.”
Crist pointed out the efforts Congress was taking to help those without an income and no way to sustain themselves when unable to meet their needs.
“This small but crucial step would be an important way for the State of Florida to help,” Crist wrote. “Thank you for your consideration, and God bless.”
Deutch mourns Levinson death
The coronavirus is providing plenty of misery around the world and the state of Florida, but few could be suffering more than the family of retired FBI agent Bob Levinson. Levinson went missing in Iran in 2017, and since that time, his family in Coral Springs and other officials, especially Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, have sought answers to his whereabouts and his health.
This week the family received the worst possible news when Trump administration officials informed the Levinsons their family patriarch had died.
“We recently received information from U.S. officials that have led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody,” the family’s statement said. “It is impossible to describe our pain.”
Through the years, Deutch has frequently sought answers for his constituents and implored government leaders to do all in the U.S. government’s power to bring Levinson home. Despite the efforts of multiple administrations, the Iranian government never acknowledged they knew who Levinson was, let alone whether they held him captive.
“I deeply appreciate all of my colleagues who have stood alongside me supporting the Levinsons,” Deutch said in a statement. “I thank the FBI, the State Department, and every official in the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations who made bringing Bob home a priority.
“We will never stop fighting to bring Bob home. Sadly, that’s now a fight to bring him to his final resting place with his family. Rest in peace, Bob Levinson.”
(NOTE: Deutch went into self-quarantine after his son returned from studying in Spain with COVID-19 symptoms.)
Dems celebrate ‘Obamacare’ anniversary
On March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly known as “Obamacare,” became the law of the land. It started as a highly unpopular act of Congress — not one Republican voted for it — that cost Democrats their majorities in 2012, but attitudes and polls changed.
— Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) March 23, 2020
The Trump administration is supporting the challenge, with the President promising “great health care” that will cover preexisting conditions in the new legislation. Rep. Mucarsel-Powell isn’t buying it and says an adverse decision in the current climate could cost lives.
“If the Supreme Court were to strike down the ACA during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States health care system could immediately collapse,” she said in a news release. “We urge you to prevent this devastating possibility by immediately withdrawing your support for the Texas v. California lawsuit.”
While Congressional Democrats celebrate ACA’s 10th birthday, a big question remains whether there will be an 11th.
On this day
March 27, 1979 — In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police can no longer stop cars to check driver’s licenses randomly. The Florida Highway Patrol said the decision may aid criminals and impair highway safety.
Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Byron White said motorists “do not lose all expectation of privacy simply because the automobile and its use are subject to government regulation.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist was the lone dissenter saying the ruling “elevates the adage ‘misery loves company’ to a novel role in jurisprudence.”
March 27, 2012 — The Supreme Court heard arguments that will decide the future of the Affordable Care Act. During the one-hour presentations from both sides, justices asked multiple questions with court watchers convinced Justice Anthony Kennedy holds the key.
Chief Justice John Roberts added further uncertainty by his questioning of the plaintiff’s attorney Michael Carvin where Roberts said: “We are all going to need some kind of health care.” Kennedy said the court “will consider whether the entire law must fall if the individual mandate is found unconstitutional.”