Delegation for 3.12.21: Relief! — China — gun control — vaccines — grad school research

American Captial Building.
Congress comes through with a massive COVID-19 relief bill.

Relief at last?

As a Senate-amended version of the American Rescue Act returned to the House, the Florida delegation once again split down party lines on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Members touted the good and bad of the bill as it headed to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The most immediate impact for many Floridians will be seen in $1,400 checks in direct payment, on top of the $600 passed and paid out late last year. Single filers with incomes up to $75,000, head of household filers with incomes up to $112,500, and joint filers with incomes up to $150,000 will receive the full payment of $1,400. But there will be plenty of other funding sent through state and local governments and benefits offered as an economic stimulus.

Ka-ching! Joe Biden signs the biggest relief bill in history.

Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, noted this bill has $7 billion sent for Florida’s K-12 schools with a 60-day deadline to be disbursed by the state to public school districts; that addresses an issue she’s had with Florida’s Department of Education. She also applauded the expansion of tax exemptions for families.

“Florida families will see $3,000 per child and $3,600 per child under six, with many families qualifying for monthly advance payments of the credit in the historic expansion of the Child Tax Credit,” said. “This is estimated to cut the child poverty rate in half, a transformational initiative to aid so many struggling families in the days ahead. There are over 3.8 million children in Florida who will benefit from this expansion.”

But others see shortcomings. Rep. Scott Franklin, a Lakeland Republican, cast his second vote against the legislation, saying too much was spent in the package — and none of it carefully.

“Congress could have provided targeted relief where it is most needed, yet Democrats chose to load up a nearly $2,000,000,000,000 payoff to political allies while handing our children and grandchildren a legacy of debt,” he said. “The Congressional Budget Office reports that without any new stimulus funding, our economy is projected to reach pre-pandemic levels of real GDP growth by the middle of this year. Sadly, this bill remains a progressive wish list of provisions unrelated to COVID that will keep schools closed, bailout blue states, and pay people not to work.”

Sen. Rick Scott feels there’s so much obvious pork for local governments; he’s asking many just to send back what they don’t need. In an open letter to Governors and Mayors, he suggested fiscally conservative leaders could make a statement by marking the relief funding as “return to sender.

“Each state and local government should commit to reject and return any federal funding in excess of your reimbursable COVID-19 related expenses,” the Naples Republican wrote. “This commitment will serve the best interests of hardworking American taxpayers and will send a clear message to Washington: politicians in Congress should quit recklessly spending other people’s money.”

Capitalist strategy on China …

It’s not enough to criticize China, according to Sen. Marco Rubio. The Miami Republican said the U.S. must implement a strategy to counteract the eastern nation’s aggressive economic expansion. On Thursday, he and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch introduced the Strengthening Trade, Regional Alliances, Technology, and Economic and Geopolitical Initiatives Concerning China Act, or STRATEGIC Act, to advance American competition with the nation in the global marketplace.

“For decades, our nation’s two major political parties ignored — and sometimes furthered — the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to undermine our national security interests, industrial capacity, and the well-being of American workers,” Rubio said.

Marco Rubio believes more must be done to keep China in check. Image via WSJ.

“Congress and the (Donald) Trump Administration made considerable progress over the past four years in reversing course. The STRATEGIC Act helps to build on much of that work. I urge my colleagues and President Biden to pursue real, meaningful reforms when it comes to capital markets, industrial theft, human rights, and beyond. The time for generic messaging and talking points when it comes to Beijing is over.”

The approach is critical, Rubio said, to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party. Risch shared the sentiments, and so far, seven other Senators have signed on as co-sponsors, all Republicans.

“The Chinese Communist Party presents an unprecedented threat to not only U.S. values and interests, but also to the free and open international system characterized by individual freedom and the rule of law — something the United States has carefully built over seven decades,” he said.

… and a diplomatic one

Sen. Scott, meanwhile, focused on ways to isolate China, though he’s displeased at disinterest from the new administration in doing so. He slammed a decision by the Biden administration to set up a meeting in Alaska between CCP officials and Secretary of State Antony Blinken with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

“General Secretary Xi [Jinping] knows President Biden is weak on China and wants nothing more than to appease the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “Since the Biden Administration is intent on meeting with the Chinese Communist Party next week, Secretary Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan need to make clear that the United States will not waiver in its commitment to human rights and the protection of our national security.”

Rick Scott blasts Joe Biden for being ‘weak on China.’

That list of grievances against China includes the genocide of the Uyghurs and a quashing of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan. On Thursday, Scott took to Twitter to criticize a “final assault on Hong Kong’s democracy.” He also joined in a Republican resolution this week condemning China’s military movements in the South China Sea and praising the Navy and Coast Guard for their efforts to keep the waters navigable for all.

“The Communist Party of China, led by General Secretary Xi, continues to militarize the South China Sea and is eager to expand its territorial claims in the region. This aggressive and unlawful action cannot be tolerated. I’m proud to lead my colleagues today in a resolution to applaud the hardworking men and women of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard for working to defend our freedoms and to send a clear message to General Secretary Xi that his aggression cannot continue.”

Manatee crisis

Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy called for a federal investigation into the sudden die-off of manatees in the Indian River Lagoon and other Florida waterways, with the potential for a federal response.

Through Feb. 26, the state recorded 403 manatee deaths, about triple the normal level. Reports suggest the manatees may be starving to death due to a decline in sea grass, their primary food source. Murphy sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested that the federal agency look into it.

Stephanie Murphy is looking into a sudden die-off of manatees.

“The spike in manatee deaths is of great concern to many Floridians,” said Murphy. “I’ve asked federal government experts to swiftly examine what is occurring, if human actions are contributing, and to take any and all appropriate actions to help address the problem.”

In her letter to Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Murphy asked the agency to determine whether these manatee deaths constitute a Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event. Federal law defines a UME as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”

Graduate research

Rockledge Republican Bill Posey successfully attached a couple of provisions to a graduate-school research pilot program to provide financial assistance for new American researchers.

Posey attached two amendments to HR 144 this week in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The bill, which has a bipartisan list of co-sponsors and received bipartisan support in the committee, would provide $250 million to the National Science Foundation to establish a two-year pilot program to award as many as 3,200 fellowship grants. Those will be offered over two years to “highly-qualified early-career investigators” to conduct independent research in universities and other research centers.

Bill Posey is promoting a plan for more funds for American graduate students.

The program’s goal is to create new opportunities for research fields that have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing opportunities for freshly-produced graduate students. Posey’s amendments would assure that the grants go to American researchers working at American universities and research centers.

The grants will be available to graduate students and those pursuing postdoctoral research, emphasizing new researchers. However, the definition of “new” is a little vague and left to the National Science Foundation to sort out.

“Nearly 65% of U.S. Citizens who pursued a graduate degree in STEM took out loans yet are now faced with hardship in advancing their studies and careers due to the pandemic,” Posey stated in a news release. “These amendments will ensure that federal research dollars are set aside specifically to help American higher education research institutions and American students and researchers rather than funding research outside the United States or international researchers.”

Paging Merrick Garland

St. Pete Democrat Charlie Crist has hammered former colleague and potential political opponent Ron DeSantis for weeks over Florida’s vaccine rollout. Now he leads every Democrat in the delegation to ask newly minted Attorney General Merrick Garland to step up the investigation of the Governor.

Crist’s and delegation co-chair Alcee Hastings’ names top a letter to the Justice Department leader laying out a litany of favoritism accusations. First among those is the opening of a Lakewood Ranch pop-up clinic that provided 3,000 vaccines to the swanky Manatee County community and limited access to those in two ZIP codes. “Disturbingly, wealthy contributors to the Governor’s campaign have direct ties to the affluent development,” the letter notes. It continues to spotlight media reports on similar clinics in Key Largo’s Ocean Reef Club and at the Grand Palm and Boca Royale gated communities in Southwest Florida.

Charlie Crist demands a federal investigation into Ron DeSantis.

“Given the Governor’s own admission that he does not have a comprehensive strategy for distributing vaccines, Floridians deserve transparency on how the decisions for pop-up vaccination sites are being made,” the letter continues. Text messages between a DeSantis-allied county commissioner and a large DeSantis donor before the Lakewood Ranch pop-up was established seem to indicate that politics and campaign donor influence are trumping the public health needs of our state.”

The letter goes on to suggest if DeSantis were wielding shots as political favors or tools of retribution, that would be an “unspeakable abuse of power and possibly a violation of federal law.”

Notably, before becoming a House member (or a Democrat), Crist served a term as Governor of Florida. Even more relevant, many political observers expect him to challenge DeSantis next year in an attempt to win his old job back.

Shots for vets

Legislation backed by Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan passed in the House on Tuesday could mean veterans will soon enjoy more access to COVID-19 vaccines. The VA VACCINE Act aims to allow any veterans to receive shots through the Veterans Affairs Administration regardless of whether they already registered for regular health care through the agency.

“It’s a national disgrace and unacceptable that aging veterans with health conditions are being turned away and denied the vaccine because of a loophole in VA rules,” Buchanan said. “The Senate should quickly follow suit and send this important legislation to the president’s desk that will more than double the [number] of veterans eligible to receive the vaccine from the VA and help save lives.”

Vern Buchanan wants veterans to get ahead of the vaccine line. Image via Twitter.

A 95-year-old constituent in Florida’s 16th Congressional District has served as a bit of a poster child for the legislation; James Stillwell was turned away twice from the VA because he’s not enrolled for regular health service, even though the World War II veteran qualified for a vaccine for months.

Buchanan worked closely with House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, and ranking member Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican, to draft legislation and bring it to the floor. It passed without objection.

Gun switch

Some delegation members who voted in 2018 for legislation on background checks for gun purchases this week voted against a bill with the same mission, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021. The reason? This bill includes many gun control measures not included in the last Congress, perhaps because House Democrats are aware a more welcoming Senate and President await.

“Just because you give a bill the same name doesn’t mean it’s the same bill,” Mast said. Since Congress last voted on background check legislation, the far-left has attempted to undermine the 2nd Amendment and intimidate law-abiding gun owners out of exercising their Constitutional rights. Caving to this pressure from the far-left, the bill that House Democrats passed today is very different from background checks legislation I have supported in the past. Changes to this legislation have subverted the original purpose of the bill and dramatically expanded the power of unelected D.C. bureaucrats to unilaterally implement new gun control measures.”

Brian Mast says he can’t get behind the big changes in legislation for gun background checks.

Specifically, Mast said this version lacks protections for private businesses facilitating firearm transfers, and there’s no cap on fees business may charge gun buyers, and could allow the government to put gun sellers out of business by forcing them to provide a service for free. The new language could also enable an administration to require citizens to keep records, violate their privacy, and let prosecutors create a national firearms registry, something Mast opposes.

Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart also changed his support, saying he voted for the bill two years ago as a starting point but doesn’t think it went anywhere good. “My position in support of background checks has not changed,” he said. “Regrettably, the radical left altered this bill and, in the process, made it far worse and indefensible. By giving unelected bureaucrats unchecked, free reign over the implementation of this legislation, the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens are significantly threatened.”

But the bill did manage to receive eight GOP votes, three of them from Florida. Buchanan, a co-chair of the delegation, was the only Florida Republican to vote for background checks two years ago and stick with his vote this time as well. But he was joined by freshmen Republicans Carlos Giménez and Maria Elvira Salazar.

Remembering Robert Levinson

Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch spoke out on the 14th anniversary of Robert Levinson’s disappearance in Iran.

Levinson became a hostage on March 9, 2007. Last year, his family announced U.S. officials concluded Levinson was likely dead, though it’s not clear how or when Levinson passed away. He was last seen alive in 2011.

“Bob’s legacy lives on every day through his incredible wife, Christine, his seven remarkable children, and his many grandchildren,” Deutch said this week. “It has been my great honor to know them and to serve as their voice in Congress.”

Ted Deutch marks 14 years since Boca Raton resident Robert Levinson has been a hostage.

Deutch has long pressed for U.S. hostages in Iran to be released. Among that list was Levinson, a former FBI agent working for the CIA who lived in Coral Springs. Deutch’s jurisdiction, Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, encompasses Coral Springs.

Deutch used this week’s anniversary to push President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken to focus on securing the release of the handful of hostages still held by the Iranians.

“Iran cannot continue this despicable practice, and I will work with the Biden Administration to implement the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act to support families of those taken hostage or wrongfully detained,” Deutch said. “We will continue to work to bring closure to the Levinsons and bring every American home.”

That act details a mandatory government response whenever an American is taken hostage, including issuing sanctions against the body responsible.

Voice of the exiles

Salazar, a Miami-Dade Republican, made clear to Secretary of State Blinken at a House hearing this week that South Florida remains gravely concerned about communist Cuba. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, the first-term Congresswoman pressed Blinken on whether his administration will enforce the Helms-Burton Law, referencing a strengthened version of the Cuban embargo passed in 1996.

She voices frustration that the law “wasn’t (enforced) for 30 years up until the last administration.” As one of his last acts in office, former President Donald Trump put Cuba back on a terrorist list and stepped up enforcement of economic sanctions. But considering former President Barack Obama had started a process of normalizing relations with Cuba, many who favor a hard line with the nation anticipate a shift in Biden’s diplomatic direction.

Blinken, for his part, said there would be no rapid or surprise shifts in the immediate future in terms of U.S. posture toward Cuba.

“We’re not taking any unilateral actions on Cuba in advance of any consultations with the Congress,” he said. “We will absolutely consult and engage with Cuban Americans on anything to do with Cuba.”

Maria Salazar makes it clear she is no fan of communist Cuba.

Describing Miami as the Capitol to the Americas, Salazar stressed the number of exiles who now call South Florida home. She is also reminding of Cuba’s negative influence, which extends beyond the island’s shores.

“Two months ago, the Colombian media intercepted a dossier coming from Cuba, which outlines in detail how Havana was plotting to steal Colombia’s presidential election,” she said.

That’s likely because Colombia’s current government eradicated a record 130,000 hectares of cocaine, she suggested. Salazar pushed Blinken on supporting the current government and its effort to stop the corrupt drug trade, an area where the Secretary of State gladly made that commitment.

But she also pushed him on Nicaragua issues and whether they subverted democracy there. While Blinken agreed that the U.S. is concerned about whether upcoming elections will be free and fair, he would not commit to cutting off relations with the nation regardless of fears an election becomes corrupted.

On this day

March 12, 1933 — “FDR’s first fireside chat” via the Roosevelt Library — When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, one in four Americans was out of work nationally. Equally troubling were the bank panics. Between 1929 and 1931, 4,000 banks closed for good. Millions of Americans lost their money because they arrived at the bank too late to withdraw their savings. Roosevelt declared a four-day “bank holiday” almost immediately upon taking office and made a national radio address to explain the banking problem. Roosevelt’s first “fireside chat” demonstrated the new President’s remarkable capacity to project a personal warmth and charm into the nation’s living rooms.

March 12, 1959 — “The last time Congress created a new state” via Constitution Daily — Congress approved Hawaii for admission to the union as the 50th state, marking the last time statehood was subject to votes in the House and Senate. The Constitution grants general state-creation powers to Congress in Article IV, Section 3, under the Admissions Clause, which reads: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union, but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Happy birthday

Best wishes to Rep. Val Demings, who turned 64 on March 12.

___

Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, with contributions by Ryan Nicol and Scott Powers.

Staff Reports



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