A bill sponsored by Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson that aims to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire bad employees passed the House by an overwhelming majority on Tuesday, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign it soon.
The bill, dubbed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, passed the House by a vote of 368-55. A group of liberal Democrats, including South Florida Reps. Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson, voted against the bill.
The legislation would authorize VA secretary David Shulkin to fire or demote senior and non-senior employees and lowers the burden of proof needed to dismiss an employee. The bill also protects whistleblowers by not allowing Shulkin to fire employees who have filed a formal complaint regarding conduct at the VA.
In 2014, the VA was rocked with scandal after a some veterans died while waiting months for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital and employees created secret lists to cover up the delays.
The House passed a similar bill earlier this year that passed largely along party lines when the largest union of federal employees opposed the swift appeals process for employees accused of misbehavior.
The Senate revamp of the bill lengthened the appeals process to please Democrats and won the approval of the union, and it passed the upper chamber on a voice vote last week.
Hastings, a 12th-term congressman from Miramar, will be joined by Reps. Charlie Rangel and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and by Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green of Texas in a swing through Broward County.
Almost 30 percent of Broward residents are black, forming one of the state's largest African-American voting blocs and a hub of a critical demographic group for Clinton to win the nation's biggest swing state in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
"With the rhetoric that we've heard from the Republican ticket, there can be little doubt how dangerous a Trump presidency would be for our country," Hastings told the Miami Herald. "We are here, first and foremost, to rally the African-American community in South Florida to elect Hillary Clinton as president and Patrick Murphy as our next United States senator."
Murphy, a Democratic congressman from Jupiter, is running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami.
The congressional group's first stop was slated to be tonight at 7 p.m. to address a meeting of the Haitian American Democratic Club at Diecke Auditorium in Plantation.
Hastings and his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues had six events planned for Friday:
9 a.m., Breakfast at Betty's Soul Food Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale;
Noon, Visit the combined Clinton/Hastings campaign offices, 1033 NW Sixth Street, Fort Lauderdale;
12:55 p.m., Lunch at Ponderosa Soul Food Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale
1:40 p.m., Visit the headquarters of the Broward Democratic Executive Committee, 8320 W. Sunrise Boulevard, Plantation
3 p.m., Visit the Clinton campaign office, 3519 North Pineland Road, Sunrise;
4 p.m., Canvas homes on foot in Sunrise neighborhood around the Clinton campaign office.
Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald
Several Florida Democrats -- including U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, the two main contenders in the Democratic primary for Florida's U.S. Senate race -- are among the dozens of members of Congress participating in a sit-in protest this afternoon on the U.S. House floor to persuade Republican leaders to take up "no fly, no buy" legislation.
The protest began before noon, led by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Both Grayson and Murphy support the "no fly, no buy" bill, which would prevent people on the FBI's terrorist watchlist from buying guns. A Senate vote on the issue failed earlier this week.
Just after 2 p.m., Murphy stepped away from the sit-in for about 15 minutes to speak with state and national reporters on a conference call arranged by his U.S. Senate campaign for Murphy to comment on Republican Marco Rubio's decision today to seek re-election. Murphy said gun control reform "is going to be one of the defining issues of this Senate race," and he blasted Rubio for voting against reform proposals.
Many members of Congress, including Grayson and Murphy, shared pictures of themselves on social media to capture the sit-in, since the official House cameras were turned off amid the disruption. (As an alternative, CSPAN was airing a live Periscope feed from U.S. Rep. Scott Peters of California.)
Every June, the city of Yulin in China’s southwestern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region hosts a spectacle that has drawn international condemnation. An estimated 10,000 dogs are butchered as part of a dog meat festival that started about six years ago.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., moved to put his colleagues on record against the practice. In a House resolution, he highlighted that "dogs who reach the slaughterhouses are typically beaten to death with shocking brutality, without any regard for their welfare," and that the dog meat trade "poses a risk to human health by exposing people to a multitude of diseases, including rabies and cholera."
Action is needed, the resolution continued, because the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin "threatens global public health."
We are not insensitive to how ugly the scene might well be in Yulin.
But our focus is on whether this festival in itself poses a threat to global public health.
Payday lenders have donated about $2.5 million to Florida politicians and and both political parties in recent years, according to a new analysis by a liberal group.
Allied Progress has drawn attention to the issue of payday lending in Florida by attacking U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic national committee chair, and other politicians who have taken money from the industry.
The group gave the Miami Herald an advanced copy of its new report, “A Florida Plan: How Payday lenders bought Florida’s political establishment.” The report lists donations given to federal and state candidates as well as the state’s Republican and Democratic parties since 2009.
Overall, Republicans received $1.6 million and Democrats received about $890,000, while $29,000 went to independents. But the top individual recipients were South Florida Democrats.
Keep reading from the Miami Herald.
Only five Republican lawmakers stood up to their party leader in voting against allowing House Speaker Paul Ryan to file an amicus brief opposing President Barack Obama's decision to withhold deportation for more than 5 million undocumented immigrants.
All three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Marco Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo -- were among the five Republicans who voted against a resolution that the House passed Thursday almost entirely along party lines.
The Supreme Court next month will hear a case brought by Texas, joined by Florida and 24 other states, arguing that Obama's bid to shield about 5.2 million illegal aliens from deportation imposes unaffordable health-care, education, law-enforcement and other costs on them.
Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who replaced Ohioan John Boehner as speaker in October, acknowledged that House intervention in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court was unprecedented, but he insisted it was necessary to prevent executive overreach by Obama.
With no Democrats voting for the bill, Ryan and other Republicans said Obama's executive orders dating to 2012 amount to the president legislating immigration reform without going through Congress.
"I recognize that this is a very extraordinary step," Ryan said on the House floor. "I feel it is very necessary, though. In fact, I believe this is vital."
In a joint statement Friday, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart said that although individual members of Congress have the right to file briefs supporting court cases, the House as a whole should not do so.
"All amicus briefs should carry the same weight, and beginning this pattern may signal to the Supreme Court that Congress is prioritizing certain cases over others," the two Miami Republicans said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a first-term Republican from Kendall, went further. He accused Republicans of playing politics with the important issue of immigration.
"For two long, both parties have preferred to score petty political points using the immigration issue rather than passing meaningful reform to secure the border, reform our visa system and find a fair solution for the undocumented," Curbelo said.
"The surest and most constitutionally solvent way to end the president's executive overreach is to pass meaningful immigration reform, not by employing empty tactics that ignore the root cause of the problem," he said.
The two other Republicans who voted against the House resolution were Reps. Richard Hanna of New York and Robert Dold of Illinois. Rep. Alex Mooney, a West Virginia Republican and one of five other Cuban-Americans in Congress, voted for the measure, which passed by a 234-186 margin.
Among Florida's 24 other U.S. House members, 22 voted along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan failing to vote.
Nine other Florida Democrats voted against the measure, among them Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Two lower courts have ruled in favor of the states, most recently the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans.
With only eight justices on the Supreme Court since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, a 4-4 decision after the scheduled April 18 arguments would uphold the lower courts' rulings and overturn Obama's executive orders protecting millions of undocumented parents and their children from deportation.
Obama on Wednesday chose Merrick Garland, a former federal prosecutor and current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Scalia on the high court, but Senate Republican leaders are refusing to take a vote or even hold hearings on the nomination, saying Obama has only 10 months left in office.
Immigration has become perhaps the most divisive issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, ridiculed Republican lawmakers, many of whom he said have disingenuously tried to distance themselves from Trump's hardline stance on immigration.
"They keep saying, 'Well, Trump doesn't represent us, he doesn't (represent) our views, he doesn't represent our values,' and now they want to know where Trump gets all of his anti-immigrant, xenophobic views from," Gutierrez told reporters. "Try the House of Republicans."
In a speech Friday on the House floor, Gutierrez accused his Republican colleagues of "stoking anti-immigrant fears and mass-deportation fantasies."
"The vote is a political stunt disguised as a legal brief because the Republican majority sees a crass political opportunity to stand with the anti-immigration wing of their party," he said.
The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 60 individual business leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, filed an amicus brief supporting Obama last week.
Before the vote Thursday, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said "the Latino community is being used for political purposes."
Sanchez added: "We are being demonized, we are being marginalized, and we see a frightening level of hateful rhetoric and vile hate speech aimed at our community, and nobody is standing up within the Republican Party to say that this is unacceptable."
America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, said the vote Thursday was the eighth "anti-immigration" vote taken by Republicans in the current session of Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 223 other Democrats filed an amicus brief backing Obama earlier this month, but there was no vote on the brief and it represents them as individuals.
In still another amicus brief, almost 120 cities and counties across the United States on March 8 expressed support for Obama, among them Pembroke Pines, Tampa and Sunrise.
Miami for-profit college operator Alejandro Amor had a 54-foot yacht, a $2 million waterfront home, and his own private plane.
Now he’s headed to prison.
On Tuesday, a Miami federal jury convicted Amor of 12 counts of theft of government money, and one count of conspiracy. He will be sentenced on Feb. 3.
Before being raided by the FBI in 2012, prosecutors say FastTrain admitted roughly 1,300 students who didn’t have high school diplomas — using fraud to make the government think the students were eligible for financial aid.
In return, FastTrain received $6,560,000 in Pell grants and student loans for those students. For-profit colleges are known for aggressive recruiting, but FastTrain turned it up a notch. Ex-employees told investigators that Amor boosted enrollments by hiring former strippers as recruiters, some of whom wore “short skirts and stiletto heels” to work.
Amor allegedly told one employee to “hire some hot mommas” and “hire the sluttiest girls he could find.”
When it came to high school diplomas, FastTrain took advantage of lax federal rules that are vulnerable to abuse. A college that wants to enroll non-eligible students can accept diplomas from a “diploma mill” school — and there is no federal or state of Florida list that identifies known diploma mills.
Some accreditors allow their colleges to simply take a student’s word that they finished high school. The student signs an “attestation” that they have a diploma, and no further verification is done.
Another Florida Democrat, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, has come out against the Iran nuclear deal.
“After careful review, I have decided that I cannot support this deal," Hastings said in an op/ed in the Palm Beach Post.
“The goal of the recently concluded negotiations was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The negotiators worked diligently, but in the end, the JCPOA allows Iran to remain a nuclear threshold state while simultaneously reaping the benefits of relief from international sanctions.
“Under the JCPOA, Iran is limited to approximately 6,100 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges for a period of 10-15 years. However, after this time passes, Iran will again have the ability to pursue its nuclear program with more advanced centrifuges. Iran simply needs to be patient and it will once again have the ability to enrich uranium."
Last week, Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton said he opposed the deal as well.
One to watch: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston. The DNC chairwoman is undecided and facing enormous pressure on both sides.
--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times