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Bipartisan Israel support
While opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nationally polarize voices on the left and right, Florida remains a different story. That difference has been on full display during a week of violence and retaliation between Israel and Hamas when Sunshine State officials spoke with one voice supporting Israel.
The growing gap between Florida Democrats and the Party’s progressive wing was evident in a series of speeches on the House floor. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat and co-chair of Florida’s Delegation, gave a speech alongside a placard headlined “Hamas Rockets Target Civilians.”
“I rise to declare unwavering and steadfast support for the state of Israel,” she said. “Hamas and Islamic Jihad are single-handedly responsible for the escalation that has led to the bloodshed of Israelis and Palestinians.”
That’s a different stance than the one held by high-profile Democrats on the national stage. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, called Israel an “apartheid state.” Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, tweeted that “Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza is an act of terrorism.” Even New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, a Jewish leader and Judiciary Committee chair, said he was “deeply concerned by the violence in Jerusalem, including Israeli police violence, and I urge all parties to exercise restraints.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior Senator, labeled Omar as “out of her mind” for such an assessment. “The only response that you’ve seen from Israel is in response to these attacks, and they live in a very tough neighborhood, and they’ve made abundantly clear if you hit us, we’re going to hit you back five times harder,” the Miami Republican said.
On Monday, Sen. Rick Scott led a resolution co-sponsored by 18 GOP colleagues in the upper chamber. “Now, as thousands of rockets rain down, our resolve to stand with Israel must be stronger than ever,” Scott said. “I want to be clear: no country, certainly not the United States, would tolerate attacks like these and not take whatever action is necessary to end them.”
The near unanimity among those of the right shows a 50-year evolution from the days when the most pointed critiques of Israel could be found in the pages of conservative publications like The National Review. But there may be no greater geographic example of a state delegation where Democrats so thoroughly resisted a shift in the national conversation.
There has been international condemnation of Israel attacking civilian targets, which have resulted in the reported deaths of at least eight children. But that’s not coming from the Florida delegation, where even those members who openly pine for an end to violence put the onus responsibility squarely on Palestinians.
“Terrorists launch rockets at civilians, launch rockets from schools and hospitals. Putting kids at risk, they use humans as shields,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat, on the floor. “Hamas is a terrorist organization sworn to wiping out the only Jewish state on Earth.”
Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat, also took to the floor, telling stories of Jewish families terrorized by attacks. “In the last few days, Hamas terrorists have launched over 1,500 rockets, blowing up homes, schools and busses,” she said. “Thankfully, Iron Dome has stopped most, so millions of Israelis are forced to sleep and eat in bomb shelters as red alert sirens blare across the country. The violence is a cynical Hamas power grab using policy disputes as an excuse for terrorism.”
Omar, meanwhile, criticized the Iron Dome program as one protecting Jewish citizens of Israel but no civilians in Gaza.
Of note, it was Florida’s three Jewish Democrats who took to the floor on the issue. But while many Democrats have not publicly addressed violence this week, all Florida Democrats made clear support for Israel in past statements.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican and the other co-chair of the Delegation, sent a letter to President Joe Biden demanding he cut $325 million in aid to Palestinians. That’s money for the Palestinian Authority previously cut off by former President Donald Trump.
“Suspend all direct and indirect financial assistance from the United States to the Palestinians, which will inevitably be used to help finance these attacks and other horrific acts of terrorism,” he said.
That won’t make Buchanan friends within the Squad, but the letter won’t upset any of his colleagues from the Sunshine State.
Bill Day’s latest
It used to be the only member of Congress who dared talk seriously about UFOs was Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. And, well, ask someone from Ohio about his reputation.
Increasingly, Sen. Rubio has been seeking that limelight. On Sunday night, he was the featured lawmaker in a 60 Minutes report on new revelations on what the military now calls “UAP”s — Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.
The basics of Unidentified Flying Objects and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena are the same: something seemingly mechanical darting through the sky, defying known technological capabilities, often round looking like a saucer, and getting spotted, sometimes by military aircraft crews.
The 60 Minutes report revealed newly-released, unclassified video footage and reports. It also offered interviews with three current and former Navy pilots who witnessed and videoed UAPs, a former Defense Department military intelligence analyst named Luis Elizondo.
Rubio raised concerns the phenomena may pose threats to national security. He has asked the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon to present Congress an unclassified report by next month.
“You know, there’s a stigma on Capitol Hill. I mean, some of my colleagues are very interested in this topic, and some kinda, you know, giggle when you bring it up. But I don’t think we can allow the stigma to keep us from having an answer to a very fundamental question,” Rubio told 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker.
Rubio made similar comments in March on Fox Business News.
“I want us to take it seriously and have a process to take it seriously. I want us to have a process to analyze the data every time it comes in. That there be a place where this is cataloged and constantly analyzed, until we get some answers,” Rubio added. “Maybe it has a very simple answer. Maybe it doesn’t.”
Protecting American innovation should come first, even ahead of vaccinating people around the world, according to Scott. The Naples Republican and former hospital executive sent a letter to the White House arguing against a waiver to intellectual property protections for U.S.-developed COVID-19 vaccines.
“America is a leader in ingenuity, innovation, and new technologies, and the record-breaking development of the COVID-19 vaccine was no exception,” Scott wrote. “ … The power of patents and copyrights have led to some of the world’s greatest innovations in science, medicine and technology, making America the best place in the world for businesses to thrive.”
The message came days after the Biden administration signaled support for a World Trade Organization proposal to drop the standard shielding on private research by pharmaceutical companies. That effectively would allow any country to access the figurative recipe for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
Scott did suggest other ways for the U.S. to lead on vaccinating the world — by providing surplus shots to allies. Doses could go to The Bahamas, a Caribbean nation closely aligned to the U.S. (and Florida in particular). He also suggested the vaccine be denied to the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, lest leaders there provide vaccinations only to political supporters. Allowing all research to be made public, in contrast, would let dictatorial regimes have access to the information.
A plane flew over a federal courthouse in Orlando with a banner reading: “Tick Tock Matt Gaetz.” The words referred to a plea hearing for former Seminole Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who is expected to implicate the Panhandle Republican Congressman in crimes including sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl. But the group claiming credit is Remove Ron, a Florida political committee dedicated to unseating Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We are flying this banner around the Orlando federal court where Matt Gaetz’s wingman Joel Greenberg is pleading guilty to sex charges,” reads a tweet from Remove Ron’s official account. “Tick Tock Matt Gaetz, time is running out.”
After the publicity stunt and as the phrase trended on Twitter, the state committee fundraised off it. But what, exactly, is the justification for attacking Gaetz with money meant for fighting DeSantis? Committee chair Daniel Uhlfelder seemed to address that after the hearing by stressing a connection between Gaetz and DeSantis; the Congressman was an early endorsement of his then-House colleague and campaigned across Florida for him in 2018.
“The Remove Ron team will continue working every day to Remove Ron DeSantis and humiliate his best friend Matt Gaetz,” Uhlfelder wrote in his fundraising appeal.
Gainesville Republican Kat Cammack said she’s trying to pull together a working group with Democratic colleagues, hoping to address a growing unemployment concern. Cammack said in Florida’s 3rd Congressional District, there are more signs in restaurants asking patrons: “Please be patient with the people who bother to show up.”
She said the problem is that unemployment benefits have continued too long in the pandemic at levels too high. “The American government has incentivized unemployment,” she said in a video posted by The Hill.
Rubio, an architect of the Paycheck Protection Program last year, also notably told the publication, “enhanced unemployment benefits are creating an incentive for not going back to work until they expire.”
But Congress has been reluctant to cut benefits short before they expire in September, even as Florida lifts business restrictions imposed by the government.
Cammack said some industries like restaurants, which were hit hard during pandemic lockdowns, now struggle to bring a workforce back online. Notably, tipped employees have a lower base minimum wage.
“No one is working right now,” Cammack said. “It’s very, very tough as a small business to find help. So this is not a Republican problem. It’s not a Democrat problem. This is an American problem.”
She rejected assertions by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen that the unemployment compensation rates had less impact on employment than other factors like access to child care.
“I’m sorry, that is an absolute fallacy,” Cammack said. “I’ve talked with Democrat business owners, and they say that this unemployment situation is a problem. When you have Chipotle, that is paying six figures for managers, that tells you quite a bit about the state of affairs.”
Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson was selected to be Assistant Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It is a privilege to welcome Rep. Al Lawson back as an Assistant Whip during the 117th Congress,” Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said. “He is a valuable member of our Whip organization, and I look forward to continuing our work together to advance the Democratic agenda.”
In a 2018 Democratic primary, Lawson defeated indicted incumbent Corrine Brown, who was found guilty in a federal trial for financial fraud and related offenses, but whose verdict has since been overturned by an appellate court that took issue with the judge removing a dissident juror.
Whatever might happen with Florida’s 5th Congressional District in redistricting, Lawson has a new platform of seeming significance should he face a Primary challenge of his own.
“I am honored to receive this esteemed position and have the opportunity to create a lasting legislative impact for the residents of North Florida,” Lawson said. “Together, we can further mold and improve the quality of life for all Americans and ensure an equitable future for generations to come. I am thankful to Whip Clyburn’s leadership, and I am ready to work with my colleagues to move our nation forward.”
Lawson and Clyburn teamed up on an event for then-candidate Biden late last year, lamenting the effects of Trumpism on North Florida’s rural communities.
The Whip pick is yet another sign that House leadership likes Lawson. In 2018, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to town to campaign for him, as former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown was primarying him. Lawson proved competitive in Jacksonville and dominated Brown west of I-295.
Tarpon Springs Republican Gus Bilirakis again earned distinction as Florida’s most bipartisan member, as ranked by The Lugar Center.
“I am honored to once again be ranked as the Most Bipartisan Member of Congress from Florida and the 27th Most Bipartisan Member in the House,” Bilirakis tweeted. “My constituents expect me to get things done, which is only possible through hard work and cooperation.”
Lugar based the rankings on voting records during the 116th Congress from January 2019 until a new Congress was sworn in at the start of 2021.
Orlando Democrat Darren Soto ranks second among Florida members on the bipartisan index and No. 31 overall. John Rutherford, a Jacksonville Republican, is next among delegation members and sits at No. 43 nationwide.
On the flip side, Hollywood Democrat Frederica Wilson stands out as Florida’s least partisan member, ranked at 415 out of 437 members. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Miami Democrat who lost her seat in 2020, was next from the bottom at No. 391. Panama City Republican Neal Dunn is listed 349th in the House.
As for the Senate side, The Lugar Center lists Rubio as the Senate’s No. 13 most bipartisan member. Scott came in at No. 86.
Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican, has seen opioids ravage Florida’s 16th Congressional District for more than a decade. It’s time, he said, to recognize synthetic drugs as a threat that won’t soon fade. He joined with New Hampshire Democrat Chris Pappas to introduce legislation classifying all fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I narcotics.
“The number of overdose deaths across the country annually due to illegal fentanyl-related substances is tragic and alarming,” Buchanan said. “These illegal drugs are destroying lives and families not only in our backyard here in Southwest Florida, but across the country. It’s clear we need to do much more to address this growing epidemic.”
After seeing drug overdoses in 2018 go down for the first time in 28 years, the numbers since then spiked upward again. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 36,000 overdose deaths in 2019 tied to fentanyl or synthetic analogs of the drug, representing 73% of opioid deaths that year. In Florida, fatal overdoses in 2019 leapt 35%, from 2,091 to 2,837. That’s roughly 8% of fatal overdoses nationwide.
The threat posed by fentanyl prompted the federal government in 2018 to temporarily designate it as a Schedule I narcotic, allowing crackdowns on those making or selling the drugs. President Biden already signed legislation to extend the classification until October 2022, but the Federal Initiative to Guarantee Health by Targeting Fentanyl Act would affix its spot on the list alongside heroin, LSD, meth and marijuana.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody endorsed Buchanan’s bill. “Opioid abuse is ruining lives, destroying families and exacerbating public resources created to respond to overdoses in Florida. Fentanyl is a major force behind the increasing number of opioid deaths,” she said.
Buchanan said it’s an essential step in the battle against opioids.
“This bill is one more tool for law enforcement to use to fight back against the illegal fentanyl producers, smugglers and dealers who are directly responsible for the deaths of so many Americans and reduce the amount of illegal fentanyl on our streets,” he said.
Biden’s shift in immigration policies draws wide scorn from the right. At a recent Congressional hearing. Sarasota Republican Greg Steube said it’d generated a spike in gang violence involving teenagers.
“Despite the horrific nature of these crimes, we continue to hear calls to not fully prosecute the criminals that are responsible for these crimes,” Steube said. “It is all part of the ‘defund the police’ agenda. For example, a prominent spokeswoman for the Black Lives Matter movement recently said that teenagers have been fighting, and I quote, ‘with knives for eons’ and ‘we don’t need police to address these situations by showing up to the scene and using a weapon.’ So, I guess police are just supposed to let people stab each other.”
Steube pressed the matter during testimony by Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. He asked for examples of extreme violence from those associated with MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. Vaughan obliged.
“Some of the victims have not been fellow gang members, or sometimes they use who they thought might’ve been involved with a rival gang, or are simply people who were killed because these kids are trying to prove their value to the gang and are expected to carry out random, senseless violence in order to be accepted into the gang, and they are eager to do that,” she said. “They will pick out random victims to do that. These gangs lure in kids in a very predatory and frightening way, and that also makes it difficult for them to escape from the gangs.”
“You just hit on the challenges that we’re seeing at the border and how this is causing (an) increase in crime, especially with juveniles,” Steube responded. He said Biden’s policy of not deporting unaccompanied minors creates a hole in enforcement that MS-13 and other organizations are happy to exploit.
Included in a $1.9-billion emergency funding bill coming before Congress this week will be $348,000 in death benefits for two recently deceased members of Congress. That includes gratuities for the family of Alcee Hastings, according to a budget summary published by Punchbowl News. The other death was Texas Republican Ron Wright.
Hastings died in April following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Wright died in February from complications with COVID-19.
There’s been pushback through the years on death benefits for members. Tennessee Republican Jim Cooper once filed legislation to toss the payouts, but it only ever picked up a single co-sponsor, and the matter has never come up for a vote.
Traditionally, when a sitting member dies, the House and Senate vote to award a year’s salary in benefits to the surviving family. That’s what happened here, with Hastings’ and Wright’s families receiving $174,000 each, the equivalent to a year of pay.
On this day
May 18, 1860 — “Abraham Lincoln nominated for presidency at Republican Convention” via History.com — Lincoln, a Kentucky-born lawyer and former Whig Representative to Congress, first gained national stature during his campaign against Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois for a Senate seat in 1858. The senatorial campaign featured a remarkable series of public encounters on the slavery issue, known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln argued against the spread of slavery. At the same time, Douglas maintained that each territory should have the right to decide whether it would become free or slave state. Lincoln lost the Senate race, but his campaign brought national attention to the young Republican Party. In 1860, Lincoln won the party’s presidential nomination.
May 18, 2020 — “Donald Trump says he is taking hydroxychloroquine despite FDA warning” via Reuters — Trump said he is taking the malaria drug as preventive medicine against the coronavirus despite medical warnings about its use. Trump volunteered the disclosure during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House as he met restaurant executives whose businesses are reeling from the impact of the virus. “I’ve been taking it for the last week and a half. A pill every day.” Trump had promoted the drug as a potential treatment based on a positive report about its use against the virus, but subsequent studies found it was not helpful. The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about its use.
Best wishes to Reps. Frankel, who turned 73 on May 16, and Steube, turning 43 on May 19.
Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, with contributions by A.G. Gancarski and Scott Powers.