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- Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick
- The Delegation
- Vern Buchanan
Don’t look up
Sometimes intelligence gathering requires deploying human assets and embedding them unnoticed to spy or foreign adversaries and America’s enemies. Sometimes it involved a giant balloon.
All conversations in D.C. this week — whether about record unemployment, classified documents or school lunch ingredients — seemed to take a back seat to a Chinese surveillance balloon that entered the U.S. and floated above numerous military installations before ultimately being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean.
For Sen. Marco Rubio, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the incident sounded significant alarm bells, as much about the message China aimed to send to the world as about the information the balloon may have gleaned.
“What’s embedded here is a clear message,” Rubio told CNN. “It’s not a coincidence that this happens leading up to the State of the Union address, leading up to (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken’s visit to China. The Chinese knew that this was going to be spotted. They knew that we were going to have to react to it. They flew it over military installations and sensitive sites. And the message embedded in this to the world is, ‘we can fly a balloon over airspace of the United States of America, and they won’t be able to do anything about it to stop us.’”
The presence also prompted sharp dialogue in domestic politics, with many Republican House members in Florida’s congressional delegation criticizing President Joe Biden for not shooting down the balloon faster.
“NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is tracking air traffic and especially that which threatens or violates U.S. airspace, which means we had early detection,” tweeted Rep. Cory Mills, a New Smyrna Beach Republican. “Why didn’t Biden shoot down the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ‘spy balloon’ over the Pacific, rather than allowing it to come across the U.S. to shoot it down over the Atlantic?”
K.T. McFarland, a former Deputy National Security adviser under former President Donald Trump, dismissed the discussion that the balloon seemed like business as usual.
“DOD (Department of Defense) says Chinese spy balloons flew during Trump years too. Trump officials (myself included) knew nothing about it,” she tweeted. “So, three possibilities: DOD lying to give Biden political cover; military knew about it but never told Trump officials; military only recently pieced it together.”
After the high-profile incident this weekend, Rep. Michael Waltz said he was alarmed to learn that this wasn’t the first balloon to make its way to the Eastern Seaboard.
“The Office of the Secretary of Defense has informed my office that several Chinese balloon incidents have happened in the past few years — including over Florida,” the St. Augustine Republican tweeted. “Why weren’t they shot down? And according to several Trump admin national security officials — they were never informed of these intrusions by the Pentagon.”
On the other side, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Parkland Democrat, noted that only the Biden administration had taken strong action to capture a balloon. He pointed to reports the Trump administration detected as many as three similar surveillance efforts. “China Balloon Scoreboard: Biden: 1-0, Trump: 0-3,” he posted.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican and House Armed Services Committee member of note, called for calm amid the hunger for downing the balloon. In a podcast interview with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political strategist, he said. He suggested the balloon served primarily as bait to see how the U.S. would handle airspace violations.
“If you create this sort of jurisdictional pretext, you could see things escalate there very quickly,” he said. He noted the U.S. conducts intelligence missions in the South China Sea, including in areas where China claims to have sovereignty. Now the Chinese government has an idea of the uproar a balloon can cause and the procedures by which the government will take it down.
Rubio, for his part, said intelligence has known for years the Chinese flew surveillance balloons, but this is the first time one crossed the country in such a prominent way and over such sensitive areas. He suggested the Biden administration has been dishonest about the frequency of spy balloons in the past.
“What we’ve never seen, what is unprecedented, is a balloon flight that entered over Idaho and flew over Montana over all of these sensitive military installations, Air Force bases, ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) fields, right across the middle of the country,” he said. “That has never happened before.”
Sen. Rick Scott held a West Palm Beach roundtable with law enforcement last week to discuss the continuing problems fentanyl causes in Florida communities.
“I had the opportunity today to hear directly from some of Florida’s brave law enforcement leaders in West Palm Beach about their efforts to keep our communities safe and combat the dangerous effects President Biden’s open border crisis has brought to our state,” the Naples Republican said.
He continued to characterize the matter because of Biden’s immigration policies.
“I’ve heard story after story about how hard the jobs of our law enforcement and CBP agents have become thanks to Joe Biden’s radical open border policies, and I’ve seen the impacts of the mass migration myself on our southern border and in the Florida Keys just last month,” he said.
“Sadly, I’ve also heard from too many families who have lost children, parents and loved ones to deadly fentanyl. We cannot continue to allow Biden’s failed border policies to let drug traffickers and deadly fentanyl into our communities. As this crisis gets worse and fentanyl deaths rise, we can’t wait. We must take action.”
While Scott delivered sharp jabs at the White House, he also re-introduced a bipartisan bill, the Eradicating Narcotic Drugs and Formulating Effective New Tools to Address National Yearly Losses of Life (END FENTANYL) Act, which would require updates every three years to Customs and Border Patrol drug interdiction policies.
“I’m continuing to fight to secure the border, hold the administration accountable, and pass critical legislation like my END FENTANYL Act to combat the heartbreaking fentanyl epidemic,” Scott said.
Florida delegation leaders are working across the aisle to combat what they characterize as Mexico’s unfair trade practices.
Rubio and Scott re-introduced the Defending Domestic Produce Production Act. The bill would grant seasonal fruit and vegetable growers the ability to seek relief from unabated imports. Reps. Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican, and Darren Soto, a Kissimmee Democrat, introduced companion legislation in the House.
“We must ensure the viability of Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers, who for years have struggled to compete with dumped and unfairly priced Mexican imports,” Rubio said. “I firmly believe that food security is national security and that to ensure our nation’s food security, we must defend our food producers from malicious trade practices that are intended to undermine our self-reliance.”
Buchanan, for years, has discussed the need for protection. “Illegal seasonal dumping and unfair Mexican trade practices are crippling Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers,” said Buchanan, Co-Chair of Florida’s Congressional Delegation. “It’s time to level the playing field and protect hardworking Florida farmers and our vital produce industry.”
Between 2000 and 2020, Buchanan’s office said produce imports from Mexico to the U.S. rose by 580%. Growers must show year-round damage to their business to secure an import injury grievance with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission.
Soto, whose involvement makes the bill a bipartisan effort, said those who grow specialty crops and do the bulk of their business during one part of the year also deserve support. As agriculture in the state deals with challenges like citrus greening, he said that access to aid is all the more urgent.
“As Florida growers face significant economic losses, it is crucial for us to stand with them and work to find solutions,” he said. “I’m proud to work with Congressman Buchanan on this legislation to help our farmers get relief.”
The House saw 124 female members sworn into the 118th Congress, with women now making up just shy of 29% of the chamber. Now a Florida Congresswoman, Rep. Kat Cammack has been selected as one of the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. The Gainesville Republican will lead the bipartisan caucus along with Rep. Susie Lee, a Nevada Democrat.
The 43-year-old caucus has focused on issues affecting women, leaving alone partisan matters, such as abortion.
“Over the last two years, the Women’s Caucus has played an instrumental role in uniting women lawmakers on both sides of the aisle around key issues including infant and maternal health, early childhood education, support for women veterans and beyond,” Cammack said.
“Through briefings, events and off-site visits, we’ve demonstrated the power of working together to shape policies with real impact. I’m grateful to outgoing Reps. Madeleine Dean and Jenniffer González-Colón for their leadership, and look forward to joining our new Democratic Co-Chair Rep. Susie Lee and Co-Vice Chairs Reps. Monica De La Cruz and Emilia Strong Sykes.”
The Banning Operations and Leases with Illegitimate Venezuelan Authoritarian Regime (BOLIVAR) Act would prohibit any federal contracts with businesses connected to the Nicolás Maduro regime.
“Aside from his dictatorial suppression of democratic principles and human rights in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro is a wanted narco-terrorist by the U.S. State Department,” Waltz said. “It is critical we terminate any funding mechanisms that prop up his illegitimate and brutal regime.”
Wasserman Schultz, Co-Chair of the Florida Congressional Delegation and the Congressional Venezuela Democracy Caucus, said the regime poses a continued threat.
“To achieve our goal of restoring democracy and human rights in Venezuela, we must identify and cut off all potential sources of funding to the brutal Maduro regime,” she said. “I’m proud to lead this effort to preserve independent humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people while blocking any future U.S. transactions with entities who prop up this oppressive government and undermine the impact of our sanctions.”
Scott also re-introduced the measure in the Senate with Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat. “Not one cent of U.S. taxpayer money can be used to prop up this murderous regime. We can never stop fighting for freedom and democracy, especially in our own hemisphere,” Scott said. “I’m proud to lead my colleagues and continue this important work to prohibit all federal agencies from doing business with anyone that supports Maduro. We can’t stand by and let this crisis continue, and that starts with restricting the money Maduro uses to hold on to power. I call on all of my colleagues to once again pass this legislation in this new Congress to support those fighting for freedom and an end to Maduro’s ruthless regime.”
The upper chamber notably passed the BOLIVAR Act last year. Waltz, in 2017 successfully for a limited version involving only defense contracts for inclusion in the federal budget.
First Step Shelter, offering addiction services for the homeless, has been in operation for three years now and just held its first major gala.
Mills attended the Daytona Beach event and promised there to aid the mission and help more people off the streets.
“Homelessness is not always because you make a poor choice,” Mills said in remarks reported by The Daytona Beach News-Journal. “They’re not beneath us just because they fell on hard times. I want to break the stigma around homelessness.”
The first-term Congressman also vowed to pursue federal funding for the shelter.
“This is an apolitical issue,” he said. “This is an American issue.”
The State of the Union address is a chance for President Biden to address America. Still, the guest list offers members of the Congressional Delegation an opportunity to make political statements. While members often give tickets to spouses to attend, many members of the Florida Congressional delegation use the opportunity to spotlight other matters.
Rep. Maxwell Frost, an Orlando Democrat long active in March for Our Lives, will bring Parkland father Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in 2018. Frost’s move is done in conjunction with Rep. Greg Cesar, a Texas Democrat whose district suffered the Uvalde shooting last year.
“I got involved in the fight against gun violence because I didn’t want to get shot at school, but five years later, we’re still mourning the loss of life at Parkland and new painful wounds from places like Uvalde,” Frost said. “Rep. Casar and I both know that there is so much more that has to be done so that families don’t have to suffer like this. But that means forcing change and making sure our leaders in Congress don’t just offer thoughts and prayers after a shooting, but commitment and action.”
Meanwhile, Scott will draw attention to the fentanyl crisis by inviting Miami Shores Police Chief David Golt. The law enforcement leader fights the drug trade but also felt the tragic touch of the opioid situation when his son Zachary died from an overdose. “While we cannot reverse the damage fentanyl has done, we can and must keep working to tell these stories, make sure families like Chief Golt’s know they are not alone and finally end this devastating epidemic,” Scott said.
Agriculture took a heavy hit from Hurricane Ian, with the storm touching part of 375,000 acres of Florida citrus groves and causing up to $675 million to those crops. Now Florida farmers are voicing support for a change to grant funding that would allow more flexibility in helping growers out.
The Florida Citrus Mutual supported bipartisan legislation that would loosen restrictions on allotting $3.7 billion in aid from the Block Grant Assistance Act. Sens. Scott and Rubio filed legislation in the Senate (S 180). Meanwhile, Reps. Scott Franklin, a Lakeland Republican, and Wasserman Schultz, a Weston Democrat, filed it in the House (HR 662).
“Just as Florida’s citrus industry was on the verge of a comeback, Hurricanes Ian and Nicole dealt us another blow,” said Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “The Block Grant Assistance Act will enable Florida’s citrus growers to rebuild and replant so we can continue to harvest and produce America’s favorite breakfast juice.”
Lawmakers said Florida can’t let the citrus industry wither.
“Our Florida citrus industry is synonymous with the Sunshine State and the backbone of many of our rural communities,” Franklin tweeted.
Agriculture advocates stressed an urgency to relief, as the damage to growers persists into the next season. The Department of Agriculture estimates Florida will produce 18 million crates of oranges this year, about half last year’s yield.
“Time is of the essence,” Joyner said. “If the hurricane relief does not reach Florida groves soon, these generations-old family businesses could be lost forever. We urge members of the Senate and House to support this measure and pass it quickly.”
Culture water war
Rep. Greg Steube continues his crusade against transgender women competing in female sports. The Sarasota Republican reintroduced The Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, requiring school athletics to “comply with Title IX” by restricting participation based on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.
“Allowing biological males to participate in women’s sports is a complete affront to the hardworking women and girls who have spent their lives training to achieve their dreams. It’s simple: biological males have no place in women’s sports,” Steube said. “Last Spring, Sarasota’s own, Emma Weyant, was robbed of her NCAA Championship in the 500 Freestyle by a biological male, Lia Thomas. Floridians and Americans across the country are rightly outraged at what has become of women’s sports. We’ve seen time and time again how the far left only favors fairness when it aligns with their woke agenda. That’s why today, I’m pleased to reintroduce legislation that ensures women and girls a fair playing field in competitive sports.”
Weyant, an Olympic silver medalist, has never criticized the NCAA championship loss to Thomas last year, but the matter spurred outrage on the right.
Rep. Daniel Webster, a Clermont Republican, was an introducing co-sponsor for Steube’s bill.
“Allowing biological males to compete against biological women is patently unjust,” Webster said. “This bill leverages Congress’ constitutional power of the purse to protect women and girls who have dedicated their lives to physical training and discipline to achieve excellence in their sport. I will continue to stand up for female athletes and oppose biological males from competing against them.”
With great reach comes great responsibility.
Wasserman Schultz, along with her fellow Israeli and Canadian Co-Chairs of the Interparliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, is asking big social media platforms to step up.
The Weston Democrat joined Canadian Parliament member Anthony Housefather and former Israeli Knesset Member Michal Cotler-Wunsh, in writing letters to senior executives of Meta, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok pointing to the real-world attacks on the Jewish community that corresponds with online hate.
And they have specific questions about what they will do about it.
“Will you commit to specific, consistent policy for removing content and users who deny the Holocaust or call for violence against Jews, Israelis or Zionists?” the letter asks.
“The algorithms governing these platforms have provided unprecedented reach to those who espouse antisemitic beliefs, with serious consequences for the global Jewish community,” Wasserman Schultz said. “These companies play a major role in steering the public discourse, and we’ll keep pushing them to live up to their commitments.”
The authors urge executives to pursue a world without hate and to consider why Jews comprise 55% of all religious bias crimes despite being only 2% of the U.S. population.
Antisemitic rhetoric amplifies far beyond one keyboard.
In 2021, 700 posts with antisemitic rhetoric were viewed a collective 7.3 million times, according to a report issued by the Center for Countering Digital Hatred.
“In light of several studies documenting the relationship between the proliferation of online antisemitism and the growth in antisemitic attacks around the world, it is clear that what starts online does not stay there,” the letter reads. “The burden is on all of us to stop the trend and prevent hate speech online from moving to in-person violence.”
The Center for Countering Digital Hatred found social media moderators acted on about 21% of online hatred.
“These numbers prove that there is still much more work to be done,” the letter reads.
A newly issued travel advisory from the State Department states visitors to the Dominican Republic have reportedly been delayed or detained based on their skin color. “Reports of disparate treatment of U.S. citizens by Dominican authorities are a matter of ongoing concern to the U.S. Embassy,” reads the advisory.
But the wording alarmed U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar, a Miami Republican who recently took over as House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chair. She and House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul sent a letter to Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, on the “unprecedented treatment” of the Dominican government and said the accusations now threaten the economy of a country where 80% of residents are of African descent. “Given that the Dominican Republic has a relatively diverse population,” she wrote, “the U.S. Government’s formal accusation of racism was surprising.”
Of note, other Florida’s House delegation members, including U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus McCormick, have raised alarms about the Dominican Republic deporting Haitian refugees taken into custody. In a December letter to Blinken, she cited video evidence National Police are discriminating based on African features.
But Salazar called that into question.
“The problem, however, is that advisories based on perceived danger to individuals on account of their skin color, while permissible if backed by strong evidence, can at times raise suspicions that divisive ideologies have seeped into State Department analysis,” Salazar wrote.
She demanded a full report on any Americans detained in the republic, a detailed description of how the State Department verified its allegations of racism, and a timeline for issuing the alert.
On this day
Feb. 7, 1962 — “Full U.S.-Cuba embargo is announced” via History.com — President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order broadening restrictions on trade with Cuba. The ensuing embargo, which effectively restricted all trade between Cuba and the United States, has had profoundly adverse effects on the island nation’s economy and shaped the recent history of the Western Hemisphere. Though Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries had deposed a government backed by the U.S. in 1959, the new regime initially sought a friendly relationship with its most powerful neighbor. Castro undertook a goodwill tour of the States and spoke excitedly of greater regional cooperation, but Americans remained skeptical, fearing he was a communist. President Dwight D. Eisenhower barred American companies from selling oil to Cuba the following year.
Feb. 7, 1839 — “Henry Clay declares ‘I would rather be right than President’” via History Musings — Sen. Clay of Kentucky believed his time to win the presidency would finally be ripe in 1840. There were many obstacles to his winning the Whig Party’s nomination. He needed support from Southern Whigs, but at the same time, he needed support from the Northern Quakers, who were passive abolitionists. The most important aspect was to distinguish himself from the most extreme abolitionists, the “ultras.” The speech was Clay at his worst, which his supporters lamented. Clay claimed the only thing he had in common with the abolitionists was the “abhorrence of slavery.” Still, their positions were entirely different, and in no way did he identify with them.
Best wishes to Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who turns 60 on Wednesday, Feb. 8.
Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, edited and assembled by Phil Ammann and Ryan Nicol, with contributions by Anne Geggis.