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Former colleagues slam Governor
As Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to reopen the Florida economy gradually, he has had and continues to have, plenty of “advice” and critiques from Florida Democrats in Congress. Some have come in the form of respectful suggestions, while at other times, he is accused of not caring about the lives of Floridians or refer to him as #GovRonDiSaster.
While March models were calling for more than 450,000 people being hospitalized in Florida by now, Democrats wrote multiple letters to DeSantis urging a statewide “safe-at-home” order. He gave the order March 1, but Rep. Donna Shalala of Coral Gables said the delay “absolutely” cost lives. Today, slightly more than 5,000 are hospitalized, and nearly 1,100 have lost their lives.
When it comes to ripping the Governor, the unemployment system represents low hanging fruit. While delegation Republicans have expressed frustration with the system on behalf of their constituents, at least one Democrat gave system users a chance to vent.
At the invitation of Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, more than 8,200 Floridians responded to a survey regarding their experience trying to obtain benefits. Almost all of the comments were bad, prompting Murphy to share the results with President Donald Trump and with DeSantis in a separate letter, describing the system as “profoundly underperforming” and expressed the view “we must hold states like Florida accountable …”
Florida Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter, who was assigned in mid-April the task of getting the system moving, heard from Democrats in an April 22 letter. The letter pointed to the Department of Labor data that showed 75% of applications awaiting processing.
While many are still waiting, the administration reported paying out 400,000 claims totaling $500 million among 1.8 million submitted. The Governor’s team says some of the submitted claims may be duplicates or even triplicate submissions.
While the process is a problem, other delegation Democrats have urged the Governor to use his power to increase the weekly benefit above the $275 per week Florida offers, which is in addition to the $600 provided by the federal government. Reps. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and Kathy Castor of Tampa said in an emergency, DeSantis has authority to up the benefits immediately.
Testing has been a rallying cry for national and state Democrats, but DeSantis now says the supply of COVID-19 tests now exceeds demand. Despite plenty of skepticism, the Governor, flanked by hospital executives, indicated this was a crucial step and one of the reasons Florida is nearly ready to open the economy incrementally.
While John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital and the lone health expert on the Governor’s reopening committee, said, “we are ready to open,” Democrats sharply questioned the priorities of the Governor, if not his humanity.
“We have seen that we have a Governor here in the state of Florida who cares more about following in the footsteps of his ally and supporter, President Donald Trump than really protecting the lives and the health of Floridians,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Miami during a media call with several prominent Democrats.
Also on the call was Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee, who added that testing and monitoring are the keys, along with developing a vaccine while lamented that “no doctor was put on Gov. DeSantis’s reopening committee.” He described the situation as having “a science-denying conspiracy theorist at the helm.”
And to think that just 18 months ago, he was one of their colleagues among the Florida delegation.
In addition to health concerns, the U.S. faces financial hurdles due to a near shutdown of the economy. A group of U.S. Senators, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, are concerned with the effect that deteriorating global market conditions caused by COVID-19 will have on developing countries and the potential implications of relief efforts.
Both joined a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, led by Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Charles Grassley of Iowa, which warned against “enabling China’s debt-trap diplomacy.”
They were referring to taxpayer-supported global lending institutions that help China loan significant sums to developing countries, mostly in Africa, for infrastructure projects.
“We urge the State Department and the Treasury to consider the impact of the Chinese-financed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the finances of many troubled economies and policy implications of additional International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank support,” the Senators wrote.
“Domestic economic constraints in China stemming from COVID-19 will likely make China less willing to roll over debts as they mature, which could exacerbate emerging-market liquidity challenges, as projects struggle in areas of strategic interest, China will be tempted to safeguard its investments and political influence,” the Senators continued.
The Senators suggested several action items for Mnuchin and Pompeo to consider, including monitoring countries “now buckling under Chinese debt.” They also urged that countries requesting IMF assistance “to be transparent in all outstanding financial and legal obligations, including BRI agreements and Chinese debt.”
“Short of this, the U.S. and other Western taxpayers would be in essence bailing out Chinese financial institutions and enabling China’s debt-trap diplomacy,” they added.
Trump’s decision to suspend U.S. funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) brought some praise from Republicans, but mostly scorn from Democrats and other countries. Scott was among those praising the move and has since joined with some of his GOP colleagues to call for a hold on any future funding until an investigation is complete.
In a letter to Senators Lindsey Graham and Patrick Leahy, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee overseeing funding for foreign operations, Scott and fellow Senators urged appropriators to wait until the completion of a pending Senate hearing.
“As you begin drafting the Fiscal Year (F.Y.) 2021 State, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies appropriations bill, we urge you to condition funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) on its full and complete cooperation with Congress’ review and investigation of its response to the deadly novel Coronavirus, COVID-19,” they wrote.
“We respectfully request that these conditions allow funding for the WHO to be reduced or eliminated for F.Y. 2021 if it fails to cooperate with Congress or the administration so that this money may instead be redirected to other domestic and international health care programs and organizations.”
On April 14, Scott and the Senate group consisting of Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Steve Daines of Montana, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, sought answers from WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. They gave him until April 27 to explain the WHO’s role in “helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up information regarding the threat of the Coronavirus.”
A hearing is yet to be scheduled, and the Senate is not due to return to Washington until May 4. Scott and his colleagues are comfortable waiting for as long as it takes to obtain the answers they seek.
“Congress cannot continue to blindly appropriate funds to the WHO without assuring itself that any mistakes made during this outbreak will be identified and corrected,” the letter concludes.
Gaetz pans committee
A controversial new House committee will soon be appointed to oversee the billions of dollars going out under the authority of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. The House voted to establish the committee by a strictly partisan 212-182 vote.
The committee, which will have seven Democrats and five Republicans, will be “laser-focused on ensuring that taxpayer money goes to workers’ paychecks and benefits …,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans believe it is just another attempt to attack the President.
“It seems that the purpose of this new ‘select subcommittee’ is the same as the Democrats’ focus since the 2016 election: ‘get Trump!’” Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz said in an email to constituents. “It’s another waste of Congressional time and resources.”
South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn will serve as committee chairman. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he would wait to appoint his five members until Pelosi reveals her seven choices.
China gaming the system
The U.S. has well-chronicled conflicts involving China and the World Health Organization (WHO). Trade issues separate the two as well, not only in their bilateral dealings but with the World Trade Organization (WTO).
As the WTO is accused by the U.S. of favoring China, Rep. Ted Yoho points out, the world’s second-largest economy is gaming the system by receiving the same benefits as those of developing countries. Yoho has proposed the Enforcing Accountability and Transparency in International Trade Act to establish a framework that will eventually prevent prosperous nations such as China from seeking developing nation status.
“For too long the United States and the world, has turned a blind eye to much of China’s unfair practices in business and trade, and it has been the American producer and consumer who has paid the price,” the Gainesville Republican said in a news release announcing the bill.
“It’s time the United States and the global community assert their rights under WTO rules to hold China accountable for its behavior on the world stage and ensure a level playing field for all.”
The bill requires the United States Trade Representative to submit a report on plans to facilitate the full implementation of agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It will also prevent high-income nations, like the People’s Republic of China, from continuing to qualify under certain conditions from seeking developing nations status under trade agreements to receive “special and differential” treatment.
Yoho, the ranking member of the House subcommittee overseeing Asia and the Pacific, also called out China for “corporate espionage and forced technology transfer, creating a hostile and unfair business environment for all kinds of foreign investment.”
Among the bill’s seven original co-sponsors is Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart.
One of the many issues surrounding the COVID-19 stay-at-home order is the displacement of students attending colleges and universities who have returned to their hometowns to shelter in place.
Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, a well-known college town, is asking those holding leases on student housing to give students a break and not require them to pay their rent for the time they were not occupying the residence.
Lawson put his concerns before eight major student housing companies doing business in Tallahassee. In a letter, he asked that they allow those forced to move back home due to cessation of campus activity to be able to break their leases without penalty.
“Students and families across our state and nation are experiencing extreme financial hardship caused by a global health crisis beyond their control,” the two-term Democrat wrote. “As universities have provided refunds to students for unused portions of their on-campus housing and meal plans, I ask you to show some humanity during this global public health crisis.”
In his letter, Lawson asks for flexibility with students terminating their lease early. Specifically, he asks that the companies “not force extra fees, charge interest, or take actions that could negatively impact students’ credit.” He also expressed concern over the financial difficulties students, and their entire families may be having.
Tallahassee students are not alone. Students in Gainesville at the University of Florida are dealing with similar issues and are even planning a rent strike to express their dismay.
Rep. Michael Waltz led a bipartisan effort by Florida’s House members to urge the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to waive interest it can charge on emergency loans to Florida hospitals that extend the loans past deadlines.
Waltz and 16 other Florida House members sent a letter over the weekend to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma to waive the 10.25% interest the centers can charge at some point on loans to hospitals authorized for the Medicare Accelerated and Advanced Payment Program, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
They also asked Azar and Verma to waive the regular payment schedule for such emergency loans, giving hospitals more time to pay off the loans.
Or, at least, the House members requested the hospitals should be given more flexibility.
“Given the unprecedented circumstances of the current health crisis and the essential role of health care facilities and providers, we believe that accelerated and advanced payments should be interest-free loans with considerable repayment periods conducive to maintaining operations,” they argued.
Joining Waltz in signing the letter were Republican Reps. Yoho, Gus Bilirakis, Neal Dunn, Diaz-Balart, Bill Posey, Francis Rooney, John Rutherford and Brian Mast; and Democratic Reps. Shalala, Soto, Murphy, Val Demings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson and Ted Deutch.
Blue Dogs back Murphy bill
Murphy’s proposal for a federal, bipartisan commission to investigate responses to the coronavirus crisis has drawn the backing of a moderate Democrats’ caucus that she helps lead.
The Blue Dog Coalition, for which Murphy is co-chair for administration, announced Monday it would endorse H.R. 6429, the “National Commission on COVID-19 Act.” The bill aims to establish a commission modeled after the federal 9/11 Commission, to assess the United States’ preparation for and response to pandemics.
“During this public health and economic crisis, our top priority must be to provide immediate assistance to American families and businesses that are suffering,” Murphy stated in a news release issued by the Blue Dog Coalition.
“But we also have a responsibility as leaders to begin laying the groundwork for an in-depth examination of our government’s response to COVID-19 in order to make recommendations that will better prepare our country for future pandemics. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan effort to help us learn from this crisis and ensure the United States can be a global leader in pandemic preparedness and response.”
Trump all in for Posey
As the small business loans backed up by the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) began again early this week, Posey was among those from both parties winning praise for their efforts. Following House passage of the $484 billion package which also included billions for hospitals and testing, Trump signed the measure in a televised ceremony.
“This legislation will provide important relief to businesses and their employees, as well as more resources for our hospitals and coronavirus testing,” the Rockledge Republican said. “It also includes important provisions to fix some of the problems in the original Paycheck Protection Program so that the focus is on small businesses, including independent contractors, not publicly traded companies.”
That did not prevent a fellow Republican from stepping up to challenge Posey as he seeks a seventh term representing Congressional District 6. Claiming the incumbent has been in office too long, Scott Caine, a retired Air Force colonel from Vero Beach, will run against Posey in the GOP primary this fall.
At nearly the same time as news circulated that Posey had picked up an intraparty challenger, he also picked up a key endorsement when Trump announced his support via Twitter.
“Congressman Bill Posey is a tremendous fighter for the Great State of Florida,” the President said. “He is a big supporter of our #MAGA Agenda — Strong on Crime, the Second Amendment, and Loves our Veterans and Law Enforcement. Bill has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
The primary could be Posey’s most significant challenge in more than a decade. No Democrat has ever come within 20 points of him in a general election, mainly because voter registration in the district gives Republicans a 12-point advantage.
The health and economic dangers confronting the U.S. and the world are well known. While overall crime is down due to the shelter in place strategy, domestic violence is on the rise, with the recent shootings of police officers in Phoenix, Sacramento, and Indianapolis resulting from responses to domestic violence calls.
Another concern grows with the increasing marches on state capitals to open the government with some believing those may lead to more violence between opposing sides, as well as against elected officials. Just last week, a caller telephoned the Sarasota office of Rep. Vern Buchanan, warning that a bomb was planted within the building.
“I’ve placed a bomb at the office,” the caller said, “ … you’re all gonna die … your kids, your husbands, everybody else.” The call also spoke of other acts of violence.
The FBI is investigating the threat, which came from area code 941, which includes all of Sarasota and Manatee County, as well as most of Charlotte County and a portion of DeSoto County. The building housing Buchanan’s office also provides space for several departments for the city of Sarasota.
Neither Buchanan nor spokeswoman Chloe Conboy offered any details, referring inquiries to the FBI. Another threat, later determined to be a hoax, was called in on April 24, claiming an explosive device was near the headquarters of the Naples Police Department.
The Buchanan threat comes nearly three years after a gunman targeted Republicans practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game, critically wounding Minority (then-Majority) Whip Steve Scalise.
Trump’s announcement that the U.S. is withholding scheduled payments to the World Health Organization (WHO) was met with criticism from around the world and several Democrats on Capitol Hill. Most Republicans offering comments on the decision supported the President’s move.
U.S. criticism of the WHO, often led by Sens. Rubio and Scott, pointed to favoritism toward China Recently, Naples Republican Francis Rooney, who felt the time has perhaps come to take a second look, supported Trump’s move and the reasoning behind it.
“The WHO, along with most of the U.N., is overdue for a cultural overhaul; the United States must protect its interests in these organizations,” Rooney said on social media. “Are we done with allowing the corrupt (Chinese Communist Party) to control information to and from the international community?”
China has announced it would kick in another $30 million to help cover part of the loss of U.S. funding, which is greater than $400 million annually.
Deutch seeks expanded benefits
Last week, trustees of the old age and disability benefits trust funds issued their annual report on the status of those funds. The reports revealed Social Security old-age retirement and survivor benefits could pay benefits until 2034. Still, the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which pays Medicare hospitalization benefits, is on track to exhaust funds in 2026.
Some of the good news came from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, which is secure until 2065. The reports were compiled before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy, which will undoubtedly bring a day of reckoning a little closer for these and other trust funds intended for older Americans and those with disabilities.
Deutch issued a call to action to not only prevent benefit cuts but to increase them.
“The new Social Security Trustees report does not reflect the impact of COVID-19,” the Boca Raton Democrat said on social media. “Congress must act to protect seniors & people w/ disabilities & expand Social Security benefits. These most vulnerable Americans shouldn’t have their earned benefits cut.”
In a news release, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that the programs, which make up the federal government’s two most substantial expenditures, “remain secure,” but added that the Trump administration was “working around the clock” to mitigate long-term negative economic impacts from the pandemic.
Shalala backs reopening plan
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence recently revealed their staged strategy to restart the American economy. Open Up America Again envisions three stages for states to work a return to normal operations.
House Democrats believe the Trump/Pence strategy is not aggressive enough and are proposing their own strategy. They point to controversial action by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to open up some of the state’s nonessential businesses, something with which even Trump disagreed.
“If one state reopened too soon, there is no way to stop the state next to it from getting an increase in infection,” said Shalala. “And that’s why we need a national strategy with real scientific, health care, public-health standards because unless we’re going to build walls between the states, this disease is simply going to go across borders.”
Shalala is an original co-sponsor of the Reopen America Act of 2020. The bill would create a federal coronavirus reopening panel that would work with states on their strategy while encouraging neighboring states to work together on a regional plan.
This has been the practice of states in the northeast, Midwest and Western regions as a way to keep individuals from crossing state lines to get around restrictions in a neighboring state.
“So the idea that Georgia would open up parts — that doesn’t protect Florida,” Shalala added.
Also joining as bill co-sponsors are Reps. Hastings, Soto, Wasserman Schultz, Deutch, Mucarsel-Powell and Wilson.
2020 qualifying rundown
As is the case every two years, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for reelection this fall. In Florida, those seeking to run in the 27 seats were required to qualify by Friday, April 24.
When the deadline passed, only Diaz-Balart, who has served in Congress since 2002, emerged without a single opponent and is automatically reelected to his seat in District 25. Dunn faces only write-in candidates as he seeks a third term in District 2.
The two share something else in common as the first and sixth members of Congress to contract COVID-19. Both have since recovered.
Among the state’s 27 House members, 25 are seeking reelection, with Yoho and Rooney announcing their retirement from Congress.
Their decisions incited a fracas for their Republican-leaning seats with 14 candidates qualifying to replace Yoho in Florida’s 3rd Congressional District and 13 looking to replace Rooney in the 19th Congressional District. Both districts saw 10 Republicans qualify.
District 19 will have a high-profile GOP showdown with state House Majority Leader Republican Dane Eagle and state Reps. Heather Fitzenhagen and Byron Donalds among those seeking to succeed Rooney.
A name from the past surfaced in District 6. Among the challengers to first-term Republican Waltz is former Democratic Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Alan Grayson, who qualified as a write-in.
Waltz’s fellow GOP rookie, Rep. Ross Spano, must overcome a primary challenge from Scott Franklin, while three Democrats fight it out on the other side.
On this date
April 28, 2008 — The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a highly-charged debate regarding voter identification. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled states are permitted to require voters to provide a valid ID before casting a ballot.
Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the court’s most liberal members, wrote the opinion for the majority that consisted of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. The majority opinion held that requiring an I.D. was “eminently reasonable” regardless if they have an impact on many voters.
April 28, 2018 — As a large caravan of Central American asylum-seekers neared the U.S. border near San Diego, the Trump administration was preparing to implement policies that could lead to the separation of families at the border. Immigration attorneys began to spread the word to those traveling with children.
Lawyers were setting up legal workshops in Tijuana, warning migrants they could face separations for weeks or even months. Los Angeles lawyer Nora Phillips was one of 20 attorneys advising the asylum-seekers and described their role as being the “bearers of horrible news.”