GOP vs. GOP?
It was a long time coming, but Senate Republicans presented an offer to provide extended coronavirus relief. Democrats quickly said the Heals Act was “pathetic” and not worth the wait, setting the stage for a week full of acrimony in public and some negotiating behind the scenes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the proposal as about “kids, jobs, and health care” and “what we think makes the most sense for the country at this particular time.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the proposal is “unlikely to meet the moment.”
The total price tag is $1 trillion, far less than the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to describe the bill as “pathetic,” adding “It isn’t serious.”
There are some areas that should be easier to agree upon, such as another round of $1,200 in direct individual payments to taxpayers and $500 for dependents. Another would involve $105 billion for colleges and universities and schools to reopen in the fall, an item Democrats funded in the HEROES Act, as well as billions more for COVID testing and the development of vaccines and therapeutics.
In announcing the proposal, McConnell outlined a process where a group of Senators are responsible for specific policy areas. For example, Sen. Marco Rubio and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine are building policy around $190 billion set aside for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for small businesses.
Not long after McConnell’s announcement, Rubio and Collins released what they called the Continuing Small Business Recovery and Paycheck Protection Program Act. The bill, among other things, allows the most severely impacted small businesses to receive a second PPP loan.
“The PPP and the other small business provisions under the CARES Act have been a historic lifeline to millions of small businesses and tens of millions of American workers,” said Rubio, chair of the Small Business Committee. “Now, Congress must take action to help industries and businesses, especially minority-owned small businesses and those in low-income communities, that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two significant areas highlight the significant division among Republicans on coronavirus relief and are likely to dominate the public discussion in the coming days, as well as raise the price tag. The Heals Act does not provide additional aid to states for economic losses, something many on both sides agree is necessary, while others like Sen. Rick Scott believe states with heavy debt and pension shortfalls would use aid funds to shore up those deficits.
“For months, I have been fighting to make sure Congress doesn’t bail out states for their poor fiscal decisions,” Scott said last week. “I have worked aggressively to stop bills that would backfill states’ lost revenue or give poorly-run, liberal states like New York and Illinois a blank check to pay for their years of fiscal mismanagement.”
Another issue splintering Senate Republicans focuses on how much to give the unemployed on top of what their state provides. That amount, set to expire at the end of the week, was $600, while the HEALS Act calls for $200 as a way to ensure workers do not earn more in benefits than they would while working.
Eventually, the proposal would have the unemployed earning 70% of what they earned at their last job. As Democrats blasted the proposed benefits cut and the formula, Republicans tried to thread the needle, with North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer telling Fox News’ Charles Payne “the higher that ($200) rises, the more Republicans we lose” toward a final agreement.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted half the GOP caucus is likely to vote against the final proposal, perhaps leaving McConnell at the mercy of Democrats. With a deal unlikely by July 31, a stopgap bill extending expiring unemployment benefits is likely to be forwarded.
Senate passes NDAA
Early last week the House passed the $740 billion bill funding defense operations by a 295-125 vote. Later in the week, the Senate passed their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by an equally strong bipartisan vote of 86-14.
While many in the media focused on provisions calling for changing the names of military bases named after Confederate generals, many House members and Senators highlighted provisions they inserted. Both Rubio and Scott voted for the bill and touted their policy victories.
Included are Rubio provisions calling for a study regarding the Department of Defense (DOD) supply chain dependence on foreign pharmaceuticals, a task force that will plan and design a Category 5 hurricane-rated command center, development of secure 5G networks to compete with adversaries, and funding for Florida’s key military installations, especially hurricane-ravaged Tyndall Air Force Base.
“I am proud to support this year’s defense bill, which provides a well-deserved raise for our men and women in uniform and will ensure significant federal funding for military construction projects across the state of Florida,” Rubio said.
Scott was able to add a key provision of his own. The Secure U.S. Bases Act looks to reform and improve foreign military student training programs following the December attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola that killed three American sailors.
“I’m proud my Secure U.S. Bases Act was included in the NDAA, which will make sure foreign military students training at U.S. bases are thoroughly vetted and monitored and that our troops are protected,” Scott said in a news release. “This is a huge step to ensuring the safety of our military members and their families so we never have to experience a tragedy like NAS Pensacola again.”
Also included are Rubio’s United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act, which strengthens the U.S.-Israel Alliance via annual security assistance and the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.
“It is vital that our Intelligence Community has the necessary resources, authorities, and personnel to protect America’s national security, and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s strong, bipartisan legislation does just that,” said Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee will soon meet to resolve differences in the bill before a final vote in both chambers.
Not enough information
According to the man whose job it is to be vigilant for election meddling, Americans should be wary of efforts by Russia, China and Iran, among others, to cause mischief. William Evanina, the chief of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), issued a public warning saying those countries and other nonstate actors “could also do harm to our electoral process.”
That was two countries too many for Democratic leaders. A joint statement by Schumer, Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Evanina’s warning “gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.”
Rubio joined with McConnell to come to Evanina’s defense. They defended both Evanina’s character and the content of the information provided.
“We believe the statement baselessly impugns his character and politicizes intelligence matters,” they said. “Their manufactured complaint undercuts Director Evanina’s nonpartisan public outreach to increase Americans’ awareness of foreign influence campaigns right at the beginning of his efforts.”
Democrats also complained the briefing did not go far enough. They said Evanina’s statement “fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election.”
The two Republicans said Evanina has offered to return to Congress to brief members, who have far more information than they had four years ago.
“The intelligence community, law enforcement, election officials, and others involved in securing our elections are far better postured, and Congress dramatically better informed, than any of us were in 2016 — and our Democrat colleagues know it,” they said.
Endangered Confederate statues
Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation removing statues of all “who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America located in the Capitol.” The vote was 305-113.
“Today will be a historic day in the history of the Congress of the United States and of our country,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “The House is taking a long-overdue and historic step to ensure that individuals we honor in our Capitol represent our nation’s highest ideals and not the worst in its history.”
Among those removed is a bust of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott case that ruled Black slaves were not citizens, no matter their place of birth, and could not sue in court for their freedom. His statue will be replaced by the Court’s first African American justice, Thurgood Marshall.
All of the “no” votes were Republicans, including nine of 14 delegation Republicans (Rep. Francis Rooney did not vote). Among those voting against the measure was Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville, who explained states should decide whose statue should represent their history.
“Statues should not be taken down in the middle of the night by mobs, nor by singular leaders,” Rutherford said. “The decision belongs to the governing body with jurisdiction over that decision. In this case, the decision lies not with Speaker Pelosi and my colleagues in Congress, but with the state who donated the statue to the Capitol.”
Each state provides two statues to be part of the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Florida’s two statues feature John Gorrie, who invented artificial ice-making machines, and Edmund Kirby Smith, who served as a Confederate general. Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis petitioned to have Smith’s statue removed and replaced by African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
“I strongly support this decision and have joined my Florida colleagues in helping bring this statue to the Capitol, not only because Mary McCleod Bethune is more than deserving of recognition, but because it was done in the proper way to reflect the will of the people of the state she represents,” Rutherford said.
Recently passed pieces of legislation covered several overlapping issues, including measures sponsored by Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy dealing with the ongoing tragedy in Venezuela. Among those was an amendment to the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act that calls for a full assessment of the situation in the deteriorating South American country.
The amendment requires the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense to submit to Congress an assessment of the political, economic, health, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and to describe the different ways in which that crisis could undermine U.S. national security and regional stability.
Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart joined with Democratic Reps. Darren Soto of Kissimmee, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston, Debbie Murcarsel-Powell of Miami and Donna Shalala of Coral Gables to co-sponsor this amendment.
“The (Nicolás) Maduro regime is not only a menace to the people of Venezuela, who are suffering terribly and leaving the country en masse as a result of the regime’s cruelty and mismanagement, but is it also a threat to U.S. national security interests,” Murphy said in a news release.
“The regime colludes with drug trafficking organizations that target the U.S. market and aligns itself with foreign governments that do not share America’s interests or values.”
Murphy joined with her fellow Democrats to amend the State Department funding bill to promote human rights, fair elections and independent media. The House approved the funding last week.
The amendment led to a boost of $3 million for these efforts, bringing the total to $33 million.
Soto described Venezuela “as the site of the largest humanitarian, economic and political crisis in modern history,” He said both amendments “uphold our core American values of human decency and democracy.”
Wasserman Schultz said the amendments were offered to help people “who are suffering through instability and brutal economic pain at the hands of the despotic Maduro regime.”
TPS bill anniversary
July 25 marked the anniversary of the passage of the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019. The bill, sponsored by Soto, would grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans fleeing the chaos brought on by the failed regime of Maduro.
“Until political stability & food security are restored & economic recovery is underway, designating Venezuela for #TPS is the best way to show our support for those fleeing the oppressive Maduro regime,” Soto said on social media. “One year later, it’s time for the Senate to pass our #VenezuelaTPS Act.”
Soto introduced the bill with Diaz-Balart. The Hialeah Republican also urged the Senate to act.
“The Trump Admin has demonstrated strong solidarity with the #VZ people through democracy programs & tough sanctions against the #Maduro regime,” he tweeted. “Until VZ is free & safe, we must protect Venezuelans in the U.S. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take up this critical bill.”
Many of the eight delegation Democrats co-sponsoring the bill also weighed in with social media support on its anniversary. Among those was Wasserman Schultz, who said “What’s taking so long?”
Last year, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli responded to a letter from a group of Senators, including Rubio, why the Trump administration was reluctant to support TPS for Venezuelans. He said courts are overstepping their authority and making TPS status “more akin to permanent status, rather than a temporary.”
A final farewell
The nation is saying a long goodbye this week to Rep. John Lewis of Georgia with a series of highly emotional events covering the last six decades of his life. On Sunday, the civil rights groundbreaker crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for a final time on a caisson, before a motor procession traveled the route of the freedom marches to the state capital in Montgomery.
“Today Mr. John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time. Rose petals sprinkled down where blood had once done the same,” tweeted Orlando Democrat Val Demings, one of many tweets she posted in the aftermath of Lewis’s death. “Part of America goes with him, but his lessons remain. We will not forget.”
On Monday, the cable networks followed the hearse carrying Lewis to the U.S. Capitol, where he would lie in state in the rotunda. Family and lawmakers honored him in a socially-distanced setting for his sacrifices and accomplishments. Mourners were later able to file by the Capitol to pay respects.
“Today, we honor John Lewis as he lies in state in the U.S. Capitol,” tweeted Weston Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “The best way I can describe him is he was the most humble giant who made everyone he encountered feel that they mattered. Thank you for being all that you were to so many.”
Demings and Wasserman Schultz were among a large group of delegation Democrats offering their thoughts about the life and impact made by Lewis. A celebration of life is scheduled for July 30 in Atlanta with interment to follow.
Making a museum
The House of Representatives voted this week to create a national museum celebrating the history of Latino people in founding, shaping and building the United States, and several Florida leaders were pleased to be able to vote in favor of the new institution.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jose Serrano of New York and garnered the support of 295 co-sponsors, and it will give the Smithsonian 18 months to study and select a location on the National Mall. The creation of the museum is expected to cost roughly $700 million.
Former Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Xavier Becerra introduced a bill to create the Commission for the National Museum of the American Latino in 2003 with Serrano thanking them for their contributions in a tweet Monday afternoon.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first Ecuadorian-born member of Congress, said Monday she is “beyond proud” to support the legislation and “ecstatic” to see the idea for a museum come to life. Soto said “The Latino story is an American story,” and he noted that he was proud to join the Hispanic Caucus in the fight to establish the museum on the National Mall.
Russians causing trouble
According to a report from the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), a “cyber espionage group” called APT29 associated with the Russian intelligence services has attempted to hack into coronavirus vaccine research in the U.S., Britain and Canada. The National Security Agency (NSA) concurs.
Demings said better protection is needed and points to the Homeland and Cyber Threat Act (HACT) that she and nine other delegation members co-sponsored last year. Essentially, it would allow claims against foreign states for unlawful computer intrusion.
“The latest news that Russian operatives tried to hack U.S. #covid vaccine researchers underscores the critical need to update our technological defenses as well as our legal structure,” Demings said on social media. “The Homeland and Cyber Threat Act will help America entities fight back.”
The organization APT29, also known as “the Dukes” or “Cozy Bear” is one of the Russian Intelligence Service entities that the FBI’s assessment of malicious cyber activity identified in the 2016 presidential election.
The NCSC also notes that APT29 “is likely to continue to target organizations involved in COVID-19 vaccine research and development, as they seek to answer additional intelligence questions relating to the pandemic.” NSA cybersecurity director Anne Neuberger, said the report would help to encourage everyone to “take this threat seriously.”
Demings also introduced the “Defend Against Russian Disinformation Act” in the previous Congress that would strengthen federal cybersecurity, support intelligence gathering, and enhance North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military activities.
Spano faces challenge
Congressional races frequently have competitive primaries on both sides when an open seat exists. The Democratic race for the District 15 seat, currently held by Republican Ross Spano, is one of the rare instances where the incumbent is in a battle to fend off a challenge from within his own party.
Spano is facing a strong challenge from Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin, whose injection of personal funds has helped keep him nearly even with Spano in the amount of cash on hand. Franklin received a big boost recently with an endorsement from Grady Judd, the popular Polk County Sheriff.
“Scott Franklin is a real conservative,” Judd said in an ad announcing his endorsement. “I trust him to help secure the border and uphold the law. And you can too.”
The district covers portions of Lakeland and Polk County, while the majority of registrations are in Eastern Hillsborough County, Spano’s home base. In the 2018 primary, he defeated former state Rep. Neil Combee by a three-to-one margin in Hillsborough County, providing enough room to withstand a two-to-one deficit in Polk County.
Spano defeated Democrat Kristen Carlson in the general election by little more than 1,000 votes in Hillsborough County in 2018, but a 14,000-vote win in Polk County represented the large portion of his 17,000-vote margin of victory.
Spano’s difficulties from his 2018 campaign remain and pose a significant threat to his reelection.
On the Democratic side, former television news anchor Alan Cohn and state Rep. Adam Hattersley are in a hotly contested primary. Hattersley has $243,000 in cash on hand, while Cohn has $190,000.
Through June 30, the district was rated either “leans Republican” or “likely Republican” by leading election pundits
COVID claims staffer
Tragedy hit close to home July 24 when a valued Congressional staffer lost his life to the COVID-19 virus. Gary Tibbetts, an aide to Rep. Vern Buchanan, succumbed after entering the hospital July 15.
The 66-year-old Tibbetts worked in the office of the Longboat Key Republican for more than a decade, mainly as a field representative. He was the first Congressional staffer to die from the virus.
“Devastated by the death of my longtime staffer Gary Tibbetts, who passed away today at Manatee Memorial Hospital from COVID-19,” Buchanan wrote. “Gary was the consummate professional and a true public servant in every sense of the word. He touched so many lives and was loved and respected by those who knew him.”
Tibbetts was a retired New Hampshire police sergeant, frequently serving as a liaison between Buchanan’s office and local police agencies. He was reportedly in stable condition upon entering the hospital.
“I will never forget his uplifting spirit, sense of humor, and sheer joy at helping others,” Buchanan said. “Sandy and I offer our deepest sympathies to his wife, Valerie and family. He will be missed greatly.”
Rubio and Rep. Frederica Wilson teamed up this week to pass legislation designed to create a commission that will study societal forces affecting Black men and boys in America.
The commission will be tasked with examining the social disparities that surround race in the United States, and it will examine the rates of homicide, arrests, poverty and violence.
Once a year, the commission will make a report addressing conditions affecting Black men and boys in America, and it will be submitted to the President and made publicly available.
“I am elated that this legislation, which I have been fighting for several years to pass, is now poised to become national law,” Wilson said in a statement.
“The commission’s underlying goal is to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and to better understand and eventually eliminate the educational and social chasms that have made it extraordinarily difficult for Black males to become upwardly mobile.”
The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 368-1 vote Monday.
The Senate passed its companion bill last month.
Wilson cited The Sentencing Project for data that indicates that one in three Black men born in 2001 can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime.
By contrast, the data suggest that is true for one in six Latino men and one in 17 White men.
“Black males are rarely given the benefit of the doubt,” tweeted Wilson. “They are “delinquent,” not “rowdy.” “Hardened criminals,” not “misguided youth.”
“It’s long past time for our nation to ensure that Black men and boys are provided the same opportunities to pursue their American dream.”
Trump accountability bills
The committee discussed a bill introduced by the committee’s chairman, Jerry Nadler of New York, California Democrat Eric Swalwell, and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. The No President is Above the Law Act would apply a five-year statute of limitations on Presidents leaving office.
“No one is above the law, and being President is not a ‘get out jail free card,’” Deutch said.
Sarasota Republican Greg Steube, a committee member, did not support the bill but offered an amendment including the Vice President as subject to the same provision.
“This amendment would level the playing field by going further to include Vice Presidents,” Steube said. “Former Vice President Biden would NOT be excluded from this as it falls within the 5-year federal Statute of Limitations.”
The amendment was agreed upon by the committee and the full bill was passed out of committee by a vote of 22-14.
The committee also approved another bill called the Abuse of the Pardon Prevention Act, which would require a future president to provide significant documentation leading to the decision. The bill, sponsored by California Democrat Adam Schiff, was introduced as a way to discourage presidents, Trump in particular, from pardoning themselves as they leave office.
Committee members forwarded the bill by a 22-11 vote.
Protecting child care facilities
The debate continues whether to open schools due to safety concerns. Mucarsel-Powell believes others needing protection are child care facilities.
The Miami Democrat has introduced the Ensuring Protection in Childcare (EPIC) Act, which would provide child care facilities with federal grants to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to ensure the safety and health of children and child care workers.
“Our child care facilities are essential to our economic recovery, and we must prioritize making them safe for our children and child care workers,” she said at a news conference announcing the bill.
According to Mucarsel-Powell, 60% of the nation’s child care facilities have been forced to close during COVID-19 pandemic while 85% of those remaining open are operating at less than 50% of their usual enrollment.
“My legislation will allow child care facilities in South Florida and across the country to apply for federal grants to purchase personal protective equipment, cleaning materials, and other supplies needed to keep their staff and the children healthy and safe. I will continue advocating for the federal resources necessary to combat this virus.”
The bill would create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund within the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program within the Department of Health and Human Services.
On this day
July 28, 1998 — In an emotional event, the bodies of two Capitol Police officers were lying in state in the Capitol rotunda as mourners passed by. Officers John Gibson and J.J. Chestnut were killed while protecting Capitol visitors from a deranged gunman July 24.
“John Gibson and J.J. Chestnut did mercy in giving their lives to save the lives of their fellow citizens,” said President Bill Clinton at a memorial service. “We honor them today and in so doing, we honor the hundreds of thousands of other officers, who stand ready every day to do the same.”
July 28, 2017 — In a stunning, late-night development, the effort to repeal and replace “Obamacare” came crashing down as the Senate voted down the Republican bill by a 51-49 vote. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain entered the chamber and gave a thumbs-down gesture, sending the bill to defeat.
McCain was joined by Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and all 48 Democrats to seal the bill’s fate. At the same time, Trump ousted White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and replaced him with retired Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general. The move was touted as an effort to bring greater discipline to the White House staff.