Confronting virus spikes
With each passing day, thousands of Floridians are infected with the coronavirus. As June began, the number of daily positive tests were in the hundreds, but as it ends, the daily number of infections is around 15 times more than what it was June 1.
During the first two weeks of the uptick, which included the date the state’s economic reopening entered Phase Two, testing ramped up around the state. More tests revealed a quadrupling of positive results, leading Gov. Ron DeSantis and many Republicans to cite the state’s testing efforts as a leading factor.
That changed when June 23 revealed more than 5,000 positive tests, prompting DeSantis to call a weekend news conference to show the median age of those infected were in their 30s, a group posing a much smaller mortality risk than the elderly. It became a five-alarm fire when 9,500 more became infected June 26, bringing out the Governor’s critics in Congress.
“The U.S. is being outclassed by countries like Rwanda when it comes to tackling with this pandemic,” Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “We didn’t attack this virus like we should have — now Florida, Texas, & other states may soon be overwhelmed. This is a tragedy.”
Her Democratic colleague, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell called the DeSantis response “incompetent.” Noting that Vice President Mike Pence had canceled a planned trip to Florida this week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted “When the Vice President refuses to visit your state because of COVID, it may be time for the Governor to do something about it.”
In a statement, St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist urged DeSantis to “take decisive action” because “the current strategy isn’t working and time is of the essence.”
The specifics of direct government action are elusive. Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor has repeatedly called for a detailed plan on testing, taking it a step further last week by filing a public records request for the details of a testing plan she said was due under federal law in May.
A consensus on what to do to again “bend the curve” seems to have centered around reemphasizing social distancing, something that faded since the state entered phase two. Not even the Governor’s most strident critics are demanding that he return to a lockdown of the economy, at least not publicly. Supporters say public health and commerce can coexist.
“There is a way to balance the precautions and the safety needs of the people of Florida and also the need to get our economy going again,” tweeted Dover Republican Ross Spano. “Protecting jobs, bringing jobs back equals saving livelihoods and we can do both of these things.”
With social distancing and wearing masks serving as the key, delegation Democrats have demanded DeSantis issue a statewide order to wear them, something he has refused to do. The Governor cites those areas not seeing dramatic rises in positive results as a reason not to mandate wearing masks statewide.
While often seen not wearing a mask when he is socially distanced, DeSantis entered a news conference in Pensacola by himself June 28 wearing a mask, something Republicans and Democrats alike applauded. While not demanding the public wear masks, he urged everyone, including younger Floridians, to do so.
Sen. Rick Scott agreed, telling Greta Van Susteren that “I don’t believe government ought to mandate a mask, but do I believe that people ought to wear a mask? Absolutely.”
Miami Gardens Democrat Frederica Wilson prepared a useful video urging everyone to act responsibly through social distancing and wearing masks. The two-word tweet introducing the video simply reads: “Floridians beware!”
Exchange program proposed
The U.S. has maintained a strong relationship with Taiwan since the nationalist Chinese broke away from Communist China in 1949. As relations between the U.S. and China continue to deteriorate, a bipartisan bill seeking to build on the partnership with Taiwan was recently introduced in both the House and the Senate.
Sen. Marco Rubio joined with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey to introduce the Taiwan Fellowship Act that establishes a program enhancing greater learning of the relationship between the two governments. The bill establishes a two-year fellowship exchange program for federal government employees in all three branches of government to learn, live and work in Taiwan.
“I’m proud to join this bipartisan and bicameral effort that would create a fellowship program in Taiwan for U.S. government officials in order to continue strengthening our bilateral and cultural ties with Taipei,” Rubio said in a joint release. “Modeled after the successful Mansfield Fellowship with Japan, this program would add value to our nation’s efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific in line with American values and interests.”
Reps. Ted Yoho and Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of California, ranking member and chair of the House subcommittee overseeing Asia and the Pacific, introduced the companion legislation in the House. This marks the second collaboration between the two following a House Resolution just last week commemorating the 70-year partnership between the U.S. and South Korea that commenced with the Korean War.
Upon successful conclusion of the exchange program, fellows will return to federal government service better positioned to advance U.S. values and interests in the region with special emphasis on strengthening the strategic partnership with Taiwan.
“The Taiwan Fellowship Act is a long-overdue investment in supporting the professional development of Taiwan experts in the United States federal government,” the Gainesville Republican said. “This program will be instrumental in strengthening the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by enabling federal employees in key government agencies to gain an insider’s perspective on the Indo-Pacific region through the eyes of a close friend and ally of the United States.”
An explosive story published in The New York Times is claiming Russia paid bounties to Taliban-backed insurgents to kill American and British forces as peace talks were underway. Large sums of cash were reportedly discovered in Afghanistan.
“This is shocking if true & no doubt devastating to families of brave Americans who lost their lives in Afghanistan,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. “We know Russia continues to undermine our domestic & foreign policy, but orchestrating attacks on US & NATO troops is a significant escalation.”
A veterans’ group quickly created a digital ad, launching it with a tweet that said “Donald Trump can take all his empty words about respecting our service and shove them.” Vote Vets, who created the ad, is a liberal group of military veterans known in Florida for their hard-hitting attack ads against Scott in his 2018 race against former Sen. Bill Nelson.
“Russia paid bounties to kill our troops in #Afghanistan,” tweeted Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto. “Putin-friendly Pres. Trump knows and does nothing. This is a deadly disregard of presidential leadership.”
The Trump administration did not immediately deny the bounties happened, but Trump insisted neither he, nor Pence were briefed on the matter, describing it as “Possibly another Russia Hoax.” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said there was no consensus within the intelligence community on the accuracy of the reports.
Should those be proven accurate, the calls to punish the Russians were not limited to Democrats.
“Russia must be held accountable if reports are true that a Russian intelligence unit offered militants bounties to kill American soldiers and other coalition forces,” tweeted Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan. “This cannot be allowed to go unanswered.”
Some Senate Republicans wondered aloud how Trump could have been in the dark. Rubio, who serves as the interim chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared skeptical of the circumstances that brought about the media firestorm.
“You pull out one little piece and you put it in the public domain and you act like it was some smoking gun situation,” he said.” So that’s one of the reasons I just don’t comment on reports such as these.”
CBS News reported on a Pentagon memo to the media indicating as of June 29 “no corroborating evidence” was in hand to validate the accusations. The White House was briefing Congressional leaders from both parties as the week began.
Pulse memorial passes
The House has approved legislation declaring the Pulse Memorial and Museum as the “National Pulse Memorial.” The legislation, approved by voice vote, was sponsored by Soto and co-sponsored by fellow Democrats Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Val Demings of Orlando.
“Today, we remind the world that hate will never defeat love, grief can turn into strength and that a place of loss can become a sanctuary of healing, Soto said. “Together, we will continue to open minds and hearts. We will make the Pulse Memorial a national symbol of hope, love and light.”
House Resolution 3094 is designed to develop a memorial and museum at the site of the June 2016 shooting rampage that killed 49 people at the popular gay nightclub and designates the site as a national memorial, giving it federal status. The memorial would remain independent as opposed to being run by the U.S. National Park Service.
Instead, it would be run by the onePULSE Foundation, a nonprofit organized and established by Pulse owner Barbara Poma among others. This makes it eligible for federal grants while not being directly operated by the American taxpayers.
“We will always honor the family, friends, and neighbors we lost that night,” Demings said. “Today, the U.S. House moved forward legislation that will help to ensure that the memories of the victims will always be a part of our national identity and that they will never be forgotten.”
The permanent memorial would be built around the Pulse nightclub, which is currently the site of an interim memorial. The plans include a towering museum and education center dedicated to victims, survivors and first responders. As of now, no Senate sponsors have been identified for the bill and there is no companion bill on a current path for adoption.
“I’m proud to be co-leading this effort to create a place of healing for survivors and a welcoming place for all those seeking inspiration to create a better, safer and more inclusive nation,” Murphy said. “By taking this important step, we are telling the world that we will fight to ensure no community will ever go through something like this again.”
Enhanced broadband access
Expanding broadband access to rural and underserved communities has met with some success, but much more needs to be done. Rep. Gus Bilirakis has introduced legislation that would accelerate the deployment of broadband projects entirely within a flood plain through streamlined permitting for wireless providers to build new or improve existing macro towers and small cells.
The Coastal Broadband Deployment Act is part of a comprehensive package of 26 bills spearheaded by Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Additionally, the Bilirakis bill would incentivize competition, appropriately sized regulations for building infrastructure across industries, and facilitate broadband deployment on federal lands.
“Several parts of my district lie within flood zones,” Bilirakis said in a news release. “I want to be sure that all of my constituents have access to 21st-century technologies, enabling them to harness the potential power that these capabilities offer. Being left behind is not an option.”
The legislation’s co-sponsor, Oregon Republican Greg Walden, pointed to the current health crisis as a reason to bring significant portions of the population to the other side of a “digital divide.”
“More than 21 million Americans could not access broadband before COVID-19, and the pandemic has made even more clear how vital these services are as Americans work, learn, and receive health care from home,” Walden said.
The Coastal Broadband Deployment Act and the package of bills would promote new and upgraded infrastructure deployments, incentivize competition and consumer choice, right-size regulations for building infrastructure across industries, and facilitate broadband deployment on federal lands.
Obamacare invalidation urged
As the 2019-20 term of the Supreme Court draws to a close, Trump and his administration is already looking to the next term. In a move some of his top aides advised against, the administration filed a brief with the court urging the justices to invalidate the law.
In a recent filing under the name of outgoing Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the Justice Department argues that the chipping away at the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) structure now requires the entire law to be struck down. The brief said “No further analysis is necessary,” adding that after the individual mandate was invalidated, “the remainder of the ACA cannot survive.”
Crist was among many Democrats around the country blasting the move. He said the timing, as well as the policy, are all wrong.
“As our country continues to face the largest and most unprecedented public health crisis in modern history, the Trump Administration continues its heartless attack on the Affordable Care Act that would leave millions across America without the access to care they need,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said.
According to POLITICO, both Attorney General William Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar opposed the decision to take this step last year. The campaign team can expect multiple attacks on the strategy, such as another offered by Mucarsel-Powell.
“While the U.S. has the highest number of COVID cases in the World, Trump & DC Rs are in court trying to repeal the ACA with NO other option,” she tweeted.
Wasserman Schultz reminded her followers of the 2018 blue wave elections after Republicans tried to “repeal and replace the law. She tweeted, “This Nov, remember that Trump & Republicans haven’t stopped trying to take away coverage & preexisting condition protections.
To provide a more stark contrast, Democrats this week passed a bill they described as a major expansion of Obamacare. Like many other bills in today’s climate, it passed almost entirely along party lines despite progressives claiming it did not go far enough. .
During the current racial unrest, those protesting against “white supremacy” were common. According to Deutch and some Democratic colleagues, the problem exists around the world.
Deutch has introduced the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act, a bill designed to strengthen the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts against transnational white supremacy and identity groups. The Boca Raton Democrat said the Trump administration’s efforts against this form of terrorism lags behind other measures against Islamic extremists.
“White identity groups pose a severe and deadly threat to societies around the world,” said Deutch, the chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the Middle East and international terrorism.
“Already the world has seen how a white supremacist attack in one country can inspire people in other countries to use violence, and the role of the dark web in spreading their hateful ideology and terrorist tactics,” he added. “The United States must develop a whole-of-government strategy to confront these terrorist groups as seriously as any other transnational extremist group.”
The bill directs the U.S. Department of State to develop a strategy with other government agencies to respond to the interconnected global white identity terrorist movement. The bill also requires that the State Department report on these groups and determine whether they should be subject to sanctions under existing U.S. law.
In the Senate, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez filed a companion bill.
For years, some in Congress have advocated for the District of Columbia to become the 51st state, but the effort took its biggest step last week. After passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the House also passed the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act by a 232-180 vote.
The bill would create the Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named in part after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who called the district home for the last 17 years of his life. Like any other state, the Commonwealth would have two Senators and one voting member of the House of Representatives.
All but one Democrat voted in favor of the measure, while every Republican voted against it.
“The voices of the 700,000 Americans living in DC matter,” Deutch said on Twitter. “They deserve the same legal protections and representation as any other US citizen.”
The bill is expected to languish in the Senate, while Trump has pledged a veto if it would ever get that far. Some in the GOP maintain the bill is illegal.
“The bill is unconstitutional,” tweeted Buchanan. “Our founders specifically said the seat of the federal government should not be within any state. It would take a constitutional amendment ratified by the states to change that.”
With the success of the D.C. bill, it should not take Soto very long to begin pushing his bill seeking statehood for Puerto Rico. The Kissimmee Democrat, along with Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, introduced the Puerto Rico Admission Act more than one year ago. His district is home to many Puerto Ricans.
Payment fairness proposed
As tens of millions of Americans received coronavirus stimulus checks through the CARES Act, a discrepancy emerged where citizens married to spouses without a Social Security number were deemed ineligible for payments. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has introduced legislation seeking to correct the situation.
His office cited estimates that as many as 2 million American citizens and lawful permanent residents filing jointly fall under this category of ineligibility but would have otherwise qualified as a single filer. This prompted the Hialeah Republican to file the Economic Impact Fairness Act, which would correct the inequity.
“Those with Social Security numbers (SSN), including United States citizens and legal permanent residents who qualify for economic impact payments, should not be deemed ineligible because they are married to someone who is undocumented,” Diaz-Balart said in a news release announcing his bill.
“This bill makes sure that neither a U.S. citizen nor legal permanent resident is excluded from receiving a benefit meant for Americans simply due to the legal status of a spouse. I urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to consider this legislation that would positively impact American lives.”
The bill would correct this discrepancy by allowing those with a valid SSN who meet the income requirements to receive the EIP as well as the child tax credit if their children meet the current criteria.
America’s friendliest hometown
As the issue of race continues to be a major part of American political discourse, Trump and his Twitter account added another chapter over the weekend when he retweeted a video from The Villages where a voice can be heard uttering “white power.” It was deleted a few hours later after a massive outcry began and continued even after it was removed.
Shalala was quick to respond on Twitter saying, “This is horrifying. The president may swear up and down that he is not a racist, but racists are convinced — and all the evidence suggests — he is one of them.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terri Rizzo said “Donald Trump is now thanking white supremacists for supporting him,” she said in a statement. “Let that sink in.”
The criticism was not limited to Democrats. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who led the GOP’s police reform effort, commented before the tweet was taken down.
“There’s no question he should not have retweeted it and he should just take it down,” Scott told CNN. “The entire thing was offensive, certainly the comments about the white power was offensive.”
One of the President’s most vocal critics said Trump may not have heard the offending comment, but instead was focused on signs praising him.
“I would just make this observation, he doesn’t pay attention to a lot of things,” former National Security Adviser John Bolton told CNN. “It’s entirely possible he tweeted this video because he saw the sign. And that’s all he needed to see.”
On this day
June 30, 2014 — Just two years after the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a 5-4 majority allowed a sector of Americans to opt-out of one of the law’s provisions. The court ruled in the case involving Hobby Lobby that employers may not be forced to offer contraceptive coverage if it would violate their religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the opinion for the majority, said the mandate created a “substantial burden” on religious beliefs. He noted that adhering to those beliefs could cost companies such as Hobby Lobby hundreds of millions in fines for noncompliance. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent, said that extending religious freedom protections to corporations can lead to a growth in religious freedom claims.
June 30, 2019 — History was made as Trump became the first sitting president to set foot on North Korean soil. During a three-hour stop at the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, he spent 80 minutes with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the two men took the opportunity to step over the border together.
With Kim standing on the North Korean side, he gestured for Trump to join him. Kim said it was his desire to “bring an end to our unpleasant past,” while Trump said it was “my honor” to cross the border, adding “A lot of great things are happening; tremendous things.”
Florida House reopens
As the coronavirus has re-energized in Florida, causing a slowdown in re-opening, a Florida-centric fixture in Washington is set to reopen its doors. After a shutdown of more than three months, the first time it had ever closed during its 47-year history, Florida House is reopening its doors to visitors.
“We missed pouring a glass of orange juice for everyone who comes in,” a voice says on a three-minute video. “But that is changing and we need your help.”
Florida House routinely hosts business leaders visiting Capitol Hill as well as Floridians sightseeing in the nation’s capital. It runs on donations both large and small and the video asks those watching to consider becoming a “Friend of Florida House.”
“Help us continue the tradition of welcoming everyone to our nation’s capital with warm hospitality and a cold glass of orange juice,” says Florida House Executive Director Diana Wisler Beckmann.
Florida House was created in 1973 due to efforts begun by Rhea Chiles — and joined by many others — soon after Lawton Chiles was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970.