September 19, 2017

Puerto Rico will need billions in federal help after Hurricane Maria

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Puerto Rico’s power grid is a mess.

The island’s utility provider filed for a form of bankruptcy in July, and two months later Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

With thousands still without power, Hurricane Maria is approaching. It will likely be Puerto Rico’s first direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.

“No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San Felipe II in 1928,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a statement on Tuesday. “This is an unprecedented atmospheric system.”

The Puerto Rican government, which sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, will need federal assistance to recover from Maria and Irma. Repairing and replacing power lines and stations throughout the territory after Maria will likely cost billions, though the island doesn’t have any voting power in Congress.
 
“No member of Congress is going to want to see thousands of people die in Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat of Puerto Rican descent whose Orlando-based district includes a large number of Puerto Ricans.

“Certainly... the fiscal crisis has made PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] less financially prepared to do this on their own and the fact remains that this is part of the U.S,” Soto added.

Congress passed a Hurricane Harvey relief bill two weeks ago after Texas sustained billions in flood damage. The $15.25 billion package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democrats that included raising the nation’s debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that Irma and Maria will require “much more” than $15 billion in federal relief.

“We’re going to have to put the full resources of the federal government in there because this is a Cat 5 and they lost power on the last hurricane that brushed them,” Nelson said. “This is going full bore right into the island.”

Read more here.

Airlines were accused of price gouging before Irma. Some are capping fares before Maria

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Taking a page from Hurricane Irma’s book, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is asking airlines to proactively limit the cost of their flights for travelers trying to get out of Hurricane Maria’s path.

And airlines are agreeing.

On Monday, Nelson sent a letter to CEOs at 10 major U.S. airlines asking them to regulate the prices of their flights to areas that will likely be impacted by Maria — and to do it earlier than they did in the case of Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

Prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida, airline fares skyrocketed into the thousands of dollars due to a spike in demand, a regular practice for last-minute tickets that nevertheless had frantic travelers claiming price gouging. Eventually, some airlines started capping flights out of Florida at $99, but not until after the outcry.

In his letter, Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, thanked airlines who ultimately capped their flights, but encouraged them to do so sooner with the case of Category 5 Maria, which is on track to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
 
“I urge you to begin the process now for implementing capped airfare and ensuring that refunds are promptly issued for canceled flights. I also request that your policies on capped airfare be communicated clearly and in writing so that affected residents can evacuate quickly and safely,” he wrote. “Individuals and families should not be forced to delay or cancel their evacuation efforts because of confusion over the cost of airfare.”
 
Nelson’s letter was sent to American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air.
 
Read more here.

September 18, 2017

Bill Nelson criticizes Rick Scott over nursing home deaths

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Sen. Bill Nelson decried the lax regulatory standards for backup generators in Florida nursing homes after the deaths of eight elderly people at a Broward County facility during a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, and his criticism included a jab at his likely 2018 senate opponent: Gov. Rick Scott

"Eight people died in a nursing home right across the street from a major hospital in Hollywood, Florida," Nelson said. "Eight frail, elderly (people) from ages 70 to 99. Eight needless deaths." 

Nelson said that "all the phone calls that had been made that were not answered both to the government as well as to the power company as reported" will "come out in the criminal investigation." 

He was referencing a report by CBS Miami that an official from the nursing home called a cellphone provided by Scott 36 hours before the first death. The nursing home also called Florida Power and Light, though the utility did not immediately restore power to the building. 

"We don’t know all the facts, it will come out in the criminal investigation, but it is inexcusable that eight frail elderly people would die," Nelson said.

Hurricane Irma was already turning into a political spectacle for Nelson and Scott, as President Donald Trump encouraged Scott to run against Nelson while viewing storm damage in the Naples area on Thursday.

"I hope this man right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate," Trump said. Scott wasn't present during Trump's remarks. 

Nelson did not mention Scott by name during his floor speech, where he also jabbed his likely opponent over a reluctance to attribute powerful hurricanes like Irma to climate change. 

“Clearly the environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I couldn’t tell you which one it is,” Scott said last week. “But I can tell you this: We ought to solve problems.”

Nelson disagreed with Scott, who generally avoids using the term climate change. 

"Hurricane Irma is just another reminder that we are going to confront huge natural occurrences and maybe just maybe people will relate that there is something to the fact that the earth is getting hotter," Nelson said, adding that warmer oceans allow hurricanes to gain strength. 

Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio were absent for votes in Washington last week after Irma. 

September 12, 2017

Florida presses for federal dollars after Irma, but budget hawks resist

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Many members of Florida’s congressional delegation couldn’t be in Washington for votes on Tuesday, as the state began a massive cleanup after Hurricane Irma. But that hasn’t stopped them from pressing colleagues who were spared Irma’s wrath to join in their quest for federal help.

Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only member from Florida in office when Hurricane Andrew made landfall 25 years ago, is urging Washington to treat her state as it did Texas just a week ago.

Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a press conference. “We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we're going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma.”

But efforts to spend billions on hurricane relief will likely meet resistance from conservative Republicans who bristle at any new spending that doesn’t include corresponding cuts elsewhere. For them, Florida’s storm damage is a secondary concern to the long-term consequences of increasing the federal deficit.

“The unsustainable national debt remains the greatest existential threat to our nation that is routinely ignored in Washington,” said Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling in a statement. “Emergency funding should not come to the House without an opportunity to propose offsets, a number of which can easily be found in President Trump’s budget.”

Last week, Hensarling, along with 106 Republicans in the House and Senate, voted against a $15.25 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill that was coupled with an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and a measure to keep the government funded for a short period, signaling that a faction of conservatives will likely vote against billions in Irma relief if they deem the money isn’t directly related to storm recovery.

“The extremists in the Republican conference who somehow think we should be offsetting the cost of an emergency don’t understand the concept of an emergency,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “ It was the largest storm to hit the state in modern times. We are going to need significant relief and recovery.”

But despite the opposition, Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, including Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are united in getting attention, and funding, for Florida.

“I spoke to Speaker Ryan last night and we were talking about how we have to get FEMA funded,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s no question that we’re going to need an emergency supplemental. He’s already put people on notice.”

Wasserman Schultz said it’s impossible to even ballpark how much money Florida will need from the federal government. The cleanup is just beginning, and the immediate priorities are restoring power and getting fuel into the state. Those efforts don’t require additional funding from Congress.

Nelson and Rubio have teamed up for a variety of press conferences and events before and after the storm, notably a flyover of the Florida Keys with Coast Guard personnel on Monday to view the damage and recovery efforts.

Read more here.

September 07, 2017

Rubio would have grudgingly voted for a $15 billion hurricane relief bill, but he was in Miami preparing for Irma

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The U.S. Senate passed a $15 billion Hurricane Harvey disaster relief bill on Thursday, but Marco Rubio wasn't there. 

He was in Miami preparing for Hurricane Irma and meeting with local officials. 

Hours after the bill passed on Thursday, Rubio issued a statement explaining that he would have voted in favor of the package even though he had "significant reservations." 

“Today, I am in West Miami, which is now under a watch for Hurricane Irma and currently projected to take a direct hit from this Category 5 storm," Rubio said in a statement. "Tropical Storm conditions are expected in South Florida less than 48 hours after the time of today’s vote, and I am using this crucial time to safely secure my home, my mother’s home and otherwise prepare my family to face the brunt and the aftermath of a potentially catastrophic storm. If I had been able to participate in today’s Senate vote in Washington, I would have voted to approve the supplemental package before the Senate. But my vote would come despite significant reservations about some of the other items attached to this legislation."

Rubio's vote wasn't critical, the measure passed with an overwhelming 80-17 vote. A number of conservative Republicans, most from non-coastal states, voted against it. 

The Harvey relief bill, which helps to fund FEMA as it runs out of money, was tied to an increase in the nation's debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program after Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday. 

Rubio opposed the deal. 

"I strongly disagree with the decision made by the administration to agree to pair funding for FEMA and emergency disaster relief to short-term extensions to the continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program unaccompanied by significant reforms," Rubio said. "Absent extenuating circumstances such as the outbreak of the Zika virus last year, I have consistently opposed passage of short term continuing resolutions, because they are an incredibly inefficient way of spending taxpayer dollars and fails to provide the certainty required for effective planning. Additionally, I am frustrated Congress has once again temporarily reauthorized the outdated National Flood Insurance Program without enacting a long-term solution that provides much-needed improvements for the people of Florida and places this vital program on a sustainable path for the future." 

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson voted in favor of the proposal. Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn also voted in favor, even though Cruz has been a vocal critic of raising the nation's debt ceiling in the past, as Texas faces a massive recovery effort from Hurricane Harvey. 

"Given that Texas continues to recover from the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey and that the state of Florida is facing the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, I have no choice but to support this measure," Rubio said. "Nevertheless, I consider the manner in which this measure was structured, linking emergency disaster relief for victims in need of immediate assistance with other controversial measures we still have time to debate through regular order, to be among the most politically cynical efforts I have ever witnessed."

 

Congress confident it will find money for Irma as FEMA runs low on funds

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Donald Trump gave Florida some fiscal breathing room as Hurricane Irma approaches the state’s east coast.

The president gave Congress more time to pass a recovery package worth billions if Irma causes major damage when he defied Republicans on Wednesday. Trump cut a deal with Democrats to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and keep the government running as part of a package to provide hurricane-related aid.

FEMA is set to run out of money by Friday, but Congress is expected to quickly send a $15 billion relief bill for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and potential damage from Irma to Trump’s desk. The Senate passed the bill 80-17 on Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., like many Republicans, was not happy that Trump made a deal with Democrats instead of GOP lawmakers. But he acknowledged that the agreement makes it easier to get funding as Florida prepares for a major hurricane. The deal would extend government funding and the debt limit, which was expected to be reached this month, through December 15.

I have “never supported a debt limit increase without fiscal restraint,” Rubio told Fox News radio. “And about the only good news in this whole endeavor is that it does provide funding for FEMA and it does those sorts of things I’ve talked about until December, which hopefully gives us time to go about doing it the right way.”

Members of Congress from South Florida expressed optimism that Congress will provide FEMA with the funding necessary to help Florida recover.

“Congress has always been there for the victims of natural disasters and I have no doubt that we will use the people’s money wisely,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “This isn’t the government’s money, it’s the taxpayer’s money and that’s what they expect from their government agencies, to replenish the coffers of state and local officials who have dedicated a lot of funds to helping the community. I have no doubt that Congress will come through for us.”

The relatively quick response from Congress on Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged parts of Texas and Louisiana, as well as potential Hurricane Irma relief is in contrast to the months-long debate over funding for a Superstorm Sandy aid package in 2012 and 2013. When Congress was debating how much money to spend on Sandy, FEMA was relatively flush with cash to provide short-term relief to affected areas in New Jersey and New York.

That isn’t the case with FEMA in 2017.

The agency only has a few hundred million dollars, and it’s spending it fast.

“Earlier today, we had a conference call with FEMA officials, and the latest update is that FEMA has approximately $460 million remaining in its disaster relief fund,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo said at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center in Doral on Thursday. “They are spending at a clip of $200 million a day.”

The $15 billion Congress is considering gives FEMA 75 more days of funding if it spends about $200 million a day. FEMA’s spending could go up depending on how much is needed for Harvey and Irma.

“I want the Senate to be forewarned that this $15 billion package, this is only temporary, it will probably only take us through mid-October at the most,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday.

Members of Congress from Florida and Texas were confident more money will be available if needed.

Read more here.

September 06, 2017

Rubio voted against Sandy aid in 2013. Now he wants money for Irma.

Marco Rubio

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Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson urged Congress to approve additional funds for disaster relief as Hurricane Irma threatens Miami, a bipartisan ritual for politicians with constituents facing hardship from a major storm.

But in 2013, Rubio was one of 36 Republican senators who voted against a Hurricane Sandy relief bill for New Jersey and New York, and now his South Florida colleagues hope he has learned a lesson.

“You can be a fiscal conservative until it hits you and your community and then you have a different point of view,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Rubio in 2013 argued that the $60 billion bill for Sandy relief, which passed after months of delays, was filled with unnecessary spending.

“The Hurricane Sandy supplemental bill goes far beyond emergency relief to impacted victims and communities, which is why I voted no on final passage,” Rubio said in a 2012 statement. “The current spending bill goes far beyond emergency relief and all efforts to strip the bill of unrelated pork are being blocked.”
 
He was the only member of Congress who represented Miami-Dade County to vote against the bill. Nelson, Republican Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia and Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson all voted in favor of the Sandy bill, which passed after a minority of Republicans joined Democrats.
 
Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who came to Congress after the Sandy vote, described the decision by some Republicans to vote against Sandy relief as “horrible.”

“I’m sure a lot of them are regretting it today,” Curbelo said of the Sandy vote. “My message is, you could be next. When a significant number of Americans are suffering due to a natural disaster, we need to come together as a country and we’re really worried about spending around here, we should look at our entitlement programs, not refuse to help people who are homeless and lacking food.”

On Wednesday, Rubio and Nelson issued a joint letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging Congress to include additional funds for Irma relief in the spending package that lawmakers are preparing to help Texas recover from Harvey.

“As Floridians are preparing for one of the worst storms on record, they need to know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct the necessary resources needed to help them in the recovery process,” Rubio and Nelson wrote. “As such, we strongly urge you to include additional funding in the Hurricane Harvey aid package to account for the additional costs FEMA will likely incur responding to Hurricane Irma.”

Read more here. 

September 01, 2017

As Dems play catch-up on Venezuela, immigration attack could fall short

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Democrats see Donald Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance as a political pitfall for Florida Republicans who profess to care about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

But Venezuelan immigration advocates disagree.

A Trump-sponsored system that rewards job skills and English speakers over familial connections could actually benefit Venezuelans, whose relatively high levels of education and English competency could put them ahead of other groups trying to get into the United States, especially other Latin American groups.

“The vast amount of Venezuelans who are coming here have advanced degrees,” said Jorge Guttman, a Miami-based attorney and Vice President of the Venezuelan American National Bar Association.

According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Venezuelan immigrants ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to just 29 percent of Hispanic immigrants overall. About 70 percent of Venezuelan immigrants speak English proficiently, according to Pew.

“If there were to be some sort of merit-based immigration measure imposed I think that Venezuelans for the most part would not be necessarily affected,” Guttman said.

That could neutralize arguments against a merit-based immigration system as a political weapon for Democrats to use against Republicans, who are already emerging as the key advocates in South Florida for Venezuelan-Americans.

Trump has spent months talking tough on Venezuela, arguing that Barack Obama and Democrats did little to help Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition and political violence. As the situation worsens, Venezuelans fed up with Nicolás Maduro’s regime will likely turn to the Untied States for refuge.

“The community that is coming to the U.S. from Venezuela is highly educated and most obtain their green cards through an employment-based opportunity,” said Adriana Kostencki, president of the Venezuelan-American chamber of commerce and an attorney who focuses on immigration law.

In fact, Venezuelans are more educated than the overall U.S. population, where 33 percent of all adults have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher and the U.S. Hispanic population, where 15 percent have bachelor’s degree or higher.

Part of the Trump-sponsored plan, dubbed the Raise Act, would slash the number of green cards available on a yearly basis from more than 1 million to about 500,000. The Venezuelan attorneys and some Republicans, including Marco Rubio, are not in favor of reducing the number of green cards.

But a system that curbs the overall number of immigrants and downplays family ties would have less of an effect on Venezuelans than on other immigrant groups, given the number of Venezuelans living in the U.S., about 225,000, is lower than the number of Mexicans, Cubans or Dominicans currently in the United States.

There are still questions over how the Raise Act will move through Congress. Rubio said the bill won’t pass as written.

“I think the White House knows that you don’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he’s long been an advocate for an immigration system that priorities job and language skills over familial connections, even though his parents came to the United States as low-skilled Cuban immigrants in the 1950s.

Venezuelans in Florida see the recent sanctions on Venezuela by Trump and supported by Rubio as hard evidence that Republicans are going to bat for them. And the community is still wary of elements of the Democratic Party that associated with Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Read more here.

August 30, 2017

Democrats around the country urge Trump to expand TPS to Venezuelans

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Nearly two dozen Democrats from 11 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke on Tuesday calling for the expansion of Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans currently in the United States, joining a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties and Venezuelan activists pushing for the Trump administration to take action. 

Florida lawmakers including Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Kathy Castor, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Stephanie Murphy and Debbie Wasserman Schultz signed the letter. 

"Granting TPS in these circumstances is also in line with our national interest," the letter reads. "Venezuelans in the U.S. have not just become a vibrant part of our communities, but have also made important contributions including as lawyers, doctors, and small-business owners. Further, sending these individuals back could spur mass forced migration, destabilizing the region as neighboring Colombia implements its peace accord and as we seek to curb illicit narcotics flows to the United States." 

Donald Trump, who continues to talk tough on immigration, hasn’t indicated that he is open to extending the program to another country.

The TPS program is designed to help individuals affected by “ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, an epidemic or other extraordinary and temporary conditions,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Read the letter here.

Florida Democrats urge state lawmakers to remove Confederate statue in U.S. Capitol

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The entire Florida Democratic congressional delegation wants Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to remove a statue of Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith from the U.S. Capitol.

On Wednesday, 11 House Democrats from Florida sent a letter to Scott, State House speaker Richard Corcoran and State Senate president Joe Negron urging the trio to call a one-day special session to replace the statue in September.

“No family visiting our nation's Capitol should have to explain to their child that the statue representing our state honors someone who fought for a philosophy built on hatred, inequality and oppression,” the letter said.

Last year, the state legislature agreed to remove Smith's statue but it remains in National Statuary Hall in Washington, where daily tours are conducted in the Capitol, because lawmakers couldn't agree on a replacement.

But with the recent violent protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere over the legacy of Confederate statues, and debates about streets named after Confederate generals in Florida, Democrats around the country are pushing to remove statues in public places.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, asked state lawmakers to make the change.

“It's time to stop playing games,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Now, Wasserman Schultz is joined by her Democratic colleagues in Washington, including Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson.

Scott and Corcoran ruled out the possibility of a special session two weeks ago.

“Like most politicians in Washington, the Congresswoman is out of touch,” Corcoran said on Twitter. “We've already made this decision and are now having a conversation about which great Floridian we should honor. The Congresswoman should stop grandstanding and focus on balancing the Federal budget.”

Read more here.