Delegation 2.23.21: Space cowboy — roadblock — hard pass — slavery — speedy relief

capitol u.s. green 9.30.19
Bill Nelson as NASA administrator? Rumblings are turning to full-blown rumors.

Space cowboy

Could one of The Delegation’s most prominent former members soon be in charge of NASA? Weeks of low rumbles burst into full-blown rumors Monday that President Joe Biden will tap former Sen. Bill Nelson as the next NASA Administrator.

It’s a choice that makes tremendous political sense. The Melbourne Democrat is among a handful of members of Congress to personally visit the Final Frontier, a list that includes Sens. John Glenn, Jack Schmitt, Jack Swigert and Jake Garn. He represented the Space Coast in the U.S. House and was tapped as a Congressional observer but held official duties as a payload specialist when he joined the Columbia crew in 1986. The six days spent in orbit earned Nelson a place on NASA’s official list of U.S. astronauts.

The pol later served three terms representing Florida in the U.S. Senate, including eight years alongside Biden when served as Delaware’s Senator and eight when he held the Vice President’s job. His time in Washington came to an end after a nail-biter defeat at the hands of Republican Sen. Rick Scott. But Nelson falls into a small subset of individuals familiar with NASA’s and the U.S. Capito inner workings.

Bill Nelson as NASA Administrator?

But will he get the job? “FWIW, the Bill Nelson-as-NASA-administrator rumor has been out there for weeks,” tweeted Eric Berger, senior space editor for Ars Technica. “One good source said today it could happen; another shot it down. Based upon reactions I’m hearing to the possibility, I’d say Nelson would be met with tepidity at best by the space community.”

That bore out on full display across social media platforms as word of his possible nomination grew, with many in the space industry recalling the pros and cons of Nelson’s advocacy for the space program in Congress.

Nelson worked on legislation in 2010 to allow commercial space flight, the only crewed flight launching from Kennedy Space Center since the shuttle program sunsetted in 2011 during the Barack Obama administration. But he’s not generally regarded as a huge proponent of private launches. He played a critical role, working with then-Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the Shuttle Launch System, but that has yet to leave the launchpad. It also reinforces the notion in some quarters, Nelson’s heart remains with government-commissioned spacecraft instead of the Elon MuskJeff Bezos-Richard Branson ranks of private-sector pioneers. Plenty of voters on the Space Coast still hold Nelson in high regard, yet he lost Brevard County in 2018 by almost 14 percentage points.

Of course, many within NASA prefer to see aerospace professionals, not politicians, fill administrative jobs. Still, that reluctance greeted Jim Bridenstine, a former Congressman tapped by President Donald Trump for NASA administrator, and he came to be embraced within the agency.

Regardless, as a former Senate member, Nelson could face an easy path to confirmation, boasting strong relationships on both sides of the aisle. And while there seemed little love lost between Nelson and Scott, the Democrat maintained a strong relationship for years with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that extended beyond his electoral defeat.

And there’s little doubt he can make a case for space. He devoted his final speech on the Senate floor to the subject.

“I believe that as we discover and explore the wonders of the cosmos, we will achieve the greatest outcome of all. We will find that our home planet, Earth, and all the life and love that inhabits us, has become even more beautiful and all the more precious to us,” Nelson said then.

Rubio roadblock

If Biden held any hope that one-time Gang of Eight member Rubio might come on board with an administration-offered immigration package, Florida’s senior Senator left little room for that in a statement released last week. Rubio decried the end of the “Remain in Mexico” policy that required asylum-seekers to remain south of the U.S.-Mexico border while awaiting court proceedings to conclude.

“By ending the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Biden Administration is sending yet another signal that it is OK to come to this country unlawfully,” Rubio said. “I have tremendous compassion for the unimaginable conditions in which people live throughout our hemisphere, but there is nothing compassionate about President Biden’s approach. The result will be more chaos at our border, more lives exploited by evil human traffickers and more illegal immigration.”

The remarks came two weeks after a floor speech where Rubio derided Democrats’ immigration policy of “catch and release” as a marketing tool for human traffickers. “They’re going around telling people throughout the Western Hemisphere; you can now get into the United States and come with children because if you do, they’re going to give you a little piece of paper and they’re going to let you go on a Greyhound bus anywhere you want in the country,” he said. “And you never have to show up again.”

To watch Rubio’s speech, click on the image below:

Rubio infamously helped develop comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013 before voting against it. But he has also advocated for providing protection to refugees and extending support for DACA recipients, those childhood arrivals who have only known life in the U.S. Still, if there’s a middle ground where Rubio might back legislation and help it get through the 50-50 Senate, this package isn’t there.

Hard no on Maduro

The United Nations’ decision to bring in Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro as a speaker before its Human Rights Council left Sen. Scott fuming.

“The U.N. Human Rights Council has been a joke ever since its decision to allow Maduro, who is committing genocide against the people of Venezuela, to be a member. Now, they are taking it even further and giving Maduro an open platform to spew his hate and propaganda,” Scott said.

The Naples Republican leveled heavy criticism at the South American head of state and loudly supported a U.S. decision two years ago not to recognize Maduro as the legitimate President of his nation.

Rick Scott is fuming over an invite to Nicolás Maduro. Image via AP.

“I traveled to Cúcuta to visit the Venezuelan border and saw the devastation firsthand. Venezuelan children walking for hours through dense forest, across rivers, and over terrorist-controlled territory just to get to a school in Colombia for an education and a meal. Mothers with young children coming to Cúcuta to get the only meal they’d eat for three days. It’s horrific. The U.N. Human Rights Council should have the words ‘human rights’ stripped from its title and explain its decision to the millions of Venezuelans suffering under Maduro’s regime.”

Indeed few issues bring Florida’s delegation together quite like opposition to Maduro’s policies. Democrats have condemned the leftist leader for human rights violations, despite Maduro still claiming some prominent far-left defenders. And Scott, along with other Florida Republicans, favor Temporary Protected Status and additional support for Venezuelan refugees, ignoring  hard-line immigration voices on their side of the aisle.

Scott said the terrible record of Maduro in Venezuela should bring ostracizing from the global community, not embrace.

“Maduro’s invitation to speak should be rescinded immediately,” he said. “If not, every freedom-loving nation in attendance should walk out. In the meantime, the U.S. must closely examine our relationship with the U.N. American taxpayer dollars should not be used to prop up dangerous dictators, and no more funding should go to the U.N. until this decision is explained.”

Modern-day slavery

Two Republicans representing districts in the northern part of the state convened Friday to present a united front in the war on human trafficking.

Michael Waltz of Saint Augustine and Kat Cammack of Gainesville hosted a roundtable, including regional local officials, a member of a specialty task force, and representatives of the Department of Homeland Security.

Waltz focused on Northeast Florida and how high-profile events come to the region, ranging from college football to Daytona motor races. Those can be funnels for human trafficking that, it turns out, are fed every day of the year by a cycle of debasement and exploitation.

Michael Waltz and Kat Cammack are partnering to attack modern-day slavery.

The Congressman would like to see legislation raising adult entertainment venue patrons’’ age to 21 from the current 18. Jacksonville has a municipal ordinance to this effect now challenged in court.

Cammack noted the “stigmas and stereotypes associated with human trafficking” and described one Sheriff downplaying her concerns, using pejorative and sexist language.

“I remember one Sheriff in particular who,” Cammack said, “he said to me, ‘Well, Gee, Kat, why do we need to focus on that? That doesn’t happen here. Is that just a ‘hug a ho’ type program?’”

Double punch

Pinellas Democrat Charlie Crist, a Florida Governor-turned-Congressman, delivered a two-front attack this weekend on Republican Ron DeSantis, a Congressman-turned-Florida Governor. It’s the clearest sign yet that Crist may run next year for his old job instead of reelection to his current gig.

Crist on Sunday called on the Department of Justice to step in on a controversial pop-up vaccine site set up in Lakewood Ranch and serving just residents of two wealthy ZIP codes there. In a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, Crist suggested the sitting Governor was shipping federally distributed COVID-19 vaccines “in select locations to benefit political allies and donors.”

Charlie Crist’s latest attack on Ron DeSantis is the clearest indication yet that he is interested in running for Governor.

“In several cases, these sites seem to be targeted to wealthy communities with whom Gov. DeSantis has clear political connections, allowing some to skip to the front of the line in counties with existing waitlists.” Crist wrote. “For example, on February 17, Gov. DeSantis made a surprise announcement that 3,000 new vaccine doses would be made available to the wealthy enclave of Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County. Lakewood Ranch’s parent company is owned by one of the largest Republican donors in the country, including contributing over $900,000 to the Governor. The ZIP codes in question have the highest income levels and lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the county.”

That’s a reference to Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and developer Rex Jensen. DeSantis reached out to DeSantis about setting a community pod up there to reach more seniors and has stressed the pop-up site and others like it bring surplus vaccines in addition to counties’ usual allotment.

Politically notable, Crist’s letter came a day after he labeled a reform package introduced in the Florida Legislature as “voter suppression measures.” The measure includes more restrictions on vote-by-mail ballots, among other changes.

“Florida’s 2020 election was historic — record-breaking turnout and virtually no issues. It was by all accounts a success, and we should be building on it by making it easier for Floridians to make their voices heard — not harder.” Crist said. “Gov. DeSantis’ proposal goes in the wrong direction; it’s a nakedly partisan political play. It shouldn’t become law, and if we had a fully functioning Voting Rights Act, it would be thrown out.”

Speed the relief

And Florida Democrats may be piling on to their former House colleague. As Congress prepared to approve another stimulus package in response to the pandemic, some delegation members remain frustrated all the money sent in 2020 so far unspent. Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor sent a letter Monday to Gov. DeSantis asking he immediately make available money designated for public schools.

“$3.1 billion in federal aid for FL’s K-12 schools was made available to Florida on January 6. This [money] has not been allocated to benefit students and schools yet,” Castor tweeted Monday. “Today, I urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to immediately make the $222 million in aid for Hillsborough Schools available — there’s no time for delay.”

Kathy Castor demands Ron DeSantis to speed up with school money.

Based on data she shared, $222 million comes from the $3.1 billion in aid sent to Florida as part of the $54-billion COVID-19 Relief package passed in December. That’s on top of some $770 million sent to the state as part of the original $13.2-billion CARES Act, which provided $54.7 million to the Hillsborough County Public Schools.

In a letter to the Gov., Castor stressed that money must get to traditional public schools. “Congress also clearly intended these emergency funds to be available to support the employment of existing staff and so that districts like HCPS can keep teachers and other personnel on the job until we return to normal and all students return to the classroom,” she said.

There is more money on the way, she noted. Castor predicted $130 billion would become available as part of the American Rescue Plan, including $7.4 billion for Florida with $526.9 million for the local schools.

But the last batch of dollars should have been accessible as on Jan. 6, she wrote. “I urge you to expedite the transfer of federal emergency education funds to HCPS and our local school districts, put the needs of our families and students first, and work with us on the next round of emergency aid,” Castor said.

Safeguarding the citrus industry

Sarasota Republican Greg Steube introduced a series of pro-agriculture bills aimed at safeguarding an industry. Farming remains a priority to Steube as it’s central to the economy in Florida’s 17th Congressional District. The Heartland jurisdiction produces more citrus products than any other House district in the nation.

“It is our responsibility to help our farmers, ranchers, and producers as they work to feed families here in Florida and across the country, especially while they struggle with the effects of COVID-19 and unfair foreign competition,” Steube said.

Greg Steube seeks to protect Florida agriculture, which is struggling with COVID-19. Image via Getty.

The legislation includes the U.S. Citrus Protection Act and the Freedom from Regulating Edible Supplies and Horticulture Trucking Act and the Moving H-2A to United States Agriculture Act.

The first bill would prohibit importing fresh citrus from China, where cheap labor allows for even cheaper produce to compete with what’s produced at Florida’s 47,000 commercial farms. The FRESH Trucking Act would cut down on regulations on drivers shipping products. The last piece of legislation championed by Steube would shift the H-2A visa program away from the Department of Labor and instead leave it under the USDA’s auspices.

“These initiatives will help all of those in the agriculture industry from farm-to-table, including laborers, commercial growers and producers and agriculture transportation workers,” Steube said.

Deutch v. Rubio

Another notable political broadside within the delegation came as Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch lambasted Rubio online over gun control.

“One might think since Marco Rubio represents Parkland and Orlando, two communities devastated by mass shootings, he would stand up to the gun lobbyists and fight for new gun laws to protect our communities,” Deutch tweeted. “That’s as wrong today as it’s been every single day he’s been a Senator.”

Notably, Deutch represents Parkland, where a shooter on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School. The second anniversary of the deadly attack just passed, so the comment indeed could stem from the raw emotions around recent remembrance ceremonies. And at the time of the shooting, Rubio took heavy rhetorical fire for eschewing some of the stricter gun restrictions promoted in response (though the Senator has filed red flag legislation each year since the tragedy).

Ted Deutch and Marco Rubio faceoff online over gun control.

But the other timing can’t be ignored. Rubio faces reelection in 2022, and Democrats have already started raising money and seeking recruits to challenge the two-term incumbent Republican. The volley from the Congressman will undoubtedly be read in many quarters as interest in the race.

Guarding GITMO’s future

The Guantánamo Bay prison has been controversial for more than a decade, but Miami Republican Carlos Giménez said the facilities must stay open. He led a letter to President Biden, co-signed by fellow South Florida delegation members Mario Diaz-Balart and Maria Elvira Salazar, opposing any plan to shutter GITMO.

The letter makes clear full-throated opposition to closing the center down, but more importantly, stresses that even if such a plan moves forward, detainees must not be relocated to prisons on U.S. shores.

The debate over closing GITMO begins anew.

The letter is a reminder of the facility’s history, opened in the wake of Sept. 11. Its role as a housing ground for captured terrorists has politically charged discussion of closing the facility through the years, and the letter hits on regular points. “Now, only the most dangerous terrorists remain at GTMO,” it notes. That currently includes 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“Just five years ago, you stood with then-President [Barack] Obama while he committed to closing the detention center at GTMO, yet President Obama ultimately did not do so,” the letter states. “Similarly, we urge you to continue the congressionally approved long-standing policy that bars the federal government from transferring detainees at Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. mainland. As a country, we must ensure these ruthless terrorists never set foot on American soil, and in South Florida in particular.”

The geographic proximity of Guantánamo Bay to Florida informs much of the letter. With signatures from three Congress members raised in South Florida’s Cuban American community, the presence of a U.S. base on the island looms unmentioned as another issue when many wonder if the Biden administration will pursue normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Obama had started that process shortly before the end of his term, but Trump reversed many of those actions.

Reef relief?

Would you want to dive an old naval ship?

Miami Republican Salazar and Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto are spearheading a bipartisan quest to make that happen. The two led a letter last week asking the U.S. Navy to voluntarily sink a defunct ship off the coast of Florida, where it would serve as a reef.

The 844-foot U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard soon heads for the scrap heap after sustaining fire damage off the San Diego coast in a suspected arson attack. The lawmakers cite reports showing the Navy could spend as much as $30 million to scrap the ship after repairs were deemed too costly.

Darren Soto and Maria Salazar ask the Navy to intentionally sink a defunct ship in Florida, creating an artificial reef.

Proposing an alternative, the lawmakers write, “We respectfully ask that the United States Navy consider preparing and sinking it off the coast of Florida where, as an artificial reef, it could become an environmental and economic benefit to the local community and state.”

The Florida delegation spearheads the letter. Also signing are Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Cammack, Crist, Val Demings, Díaz-Balart, Neal Dunn, Scott Franklin, Matt Gaetz, Giménez, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Brian Mast, Stephanie Murphy, Bill Posey, John Rutherford, Steube, Waltz, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Daniel Webster.

The letter points to Florida’s existing federal permits allowing artificial reef construction and notes large vessels may be used in the waters near Miami. And other ships have already been used in similar ways off Florida’s coast, including the USS Oriskany near Pensacola, the USS Mindanao near Daytona Beach and the U.S.S. Spiegel Grove near Key Largo.

“These ships created an instant ecosystem for fish and wildlife, created brand-new recreational fishing destinations for anglers, provided a water wonderland to divers, boosted local and state economies, and increased military maritime heritage visibility for military veterans and businesses,” the letter reads.

Added Mast in a separate statement supporting the move, “At a time when Florida’s reefs are at risk from degradation, sinking the decommissioned USS Bonhomme Richard off our coast gives the ecosystems — reliant on coral — an anchor for growth!”

On this day

Feb. 23, 1953 — “Clinical trials begin for Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine” via The New York Times — Children from the Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh received injections of Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine in a mass vaccination. The clinical trials of the Salk vaccine were the largest ever conducted, involving nearly 2 million children. Though one bad batch of the vaccine had killed 11 people and gave 200 others polio, in April 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. of the University of Michigan announced that the vaccine was found to be 90% effective and that it was “safe, effective and potent.”

Feb. 23, 1927 — “Calvin Coolidge signs the 1927 Radio Act” via Forbes — The Radio Act created the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission. By 1927, the technology and growth of radio had outpaced existing Congressional regulation, written in 1912 when radio meant ship-to-shore broadcasting. Radio was loosely regulated through its growth years in the 1920s. By mailing a postcard to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, anyone with a radio transmitter, ranging from college students experimenting in science classes and amateur inventors who ordered kits to newspaper-operated stations broadcasting on the frequency chosen by Hoover. The airwaves by 1927 were an open forum for anyone with the expertise and equipment to reach a platform with 25 million listeners.

Happy birthday

Best (belated) wishes to Rep. Neal Dunn, who turned 68 on Feb 16.

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Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, with contributions by A.G. Gancarski and Ryan Nicol.

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