As of Tuesday afternoon, the Senate floor was empty, devoid of senators from either party trying to debate and propose various amendments that could save DACA recipients from potential deportation.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the only member of Congress who's been to space, had sharp words for President Donald Trump's proposal to cut funding for the International Space Station in 2025 as part of his 2019 budget framework released on Monday.
"The administration’s budget for NASA is a nonstarter. If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA. The proposal would also end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programs," Nelson said in a statement. "Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense."
Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee which has oversight of NASA, is a strong proponent of robust NASA funding and getting astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
Trump's budget proposal isn't likely to get morphed into law by Congress, though his 2019 plan would keep the federal deficit intact if enacted, which is in contrast to his 2018 plan released last year. Keeping the federal deficit intact after 10 years is a deviation from a longtime Republican Party goal of balancing the federal budget.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is getting an infusion of cash to finish Hurricane Irma recovery efforts in Florida.
Congress agreed to spend $18 million for marine debris cleanup and $200 million to help damaged fisheries in Florida and Texas as part of a massive $300 billion spending plan that was attached to a bill to keep the federal government running until late March.
The $400 million for NOAA included about $200 million initially approved by the House of Representatives in October, and the $200 million in fisheries disaster assistance was added by the U.S. Senate in the plan that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday.
The NOAA money will go towards cleaning up debris-clogged canals in the Florida Keys along with $50 million for hurricane and flood forecasting along with flood mitigation.
"NOAA will now have the resources to unclog waterways and clean beaches," said Addie Haughey, government relations associate director at the Ocean Conservancy. "Fishermen from Key West to Galveston will get relief from NOAA so they can get back out on the water. With Hurricane season four months away, Congress has given NOAA the tools to continue predicting storms and prevent flooding along the coasts."
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson both praised the spending bill's disaster help for Florida and ultimately voted for it, though Rubio wasn't happy about adding billions to the federal deficit.
Here's the breakdown of NOAA funds included in the spending bill, according to the Ocean Conservancy:
Repair, replacement of property & equipment: $42.1 million
Marine debris: $18 million
Mapping, charting and geodesy services: $40 million
Hurricane, flood forecasting and mitigation: $50 million
Weather computing and satellite ground services: $50 million
Fisheries disaster assistance: $200 million
Nearly two-dozen senators from both parties want to offer legislation next week that would protect almost 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, but they're stuck on whether their measure should protect the parents of these immigrants from deportation too.
Most Democrats want to preserve the so-called “chain migration” system that lets newly documented immigrants line family members up to attain legal status. Many conservative lawmakers counter this system has to end or at least be substantially scaled back.
President Donald Trump has said DACA, an Obama-era executive action, will end March 5, so Congress is about to get serious codifying the program into law. But getting consensus is difficult, maybe even impossible.
Some Republicans say colleagues should be prepared to accept a short-term extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program if members can’t come up with a deal. Democrats want only a permanent fix.
Fierce disagreements remain over how much to spend on Trump’s border wall, and whether to eliminate the diversity lottery program that incentivizes visas for individuals from countries with lower immigration rates.
All these flashpoints are being vigorously debated among members of the self-described, self-selected “common-sense coalition” that’s been meeting in Maine Republican Susan Collins’ Capitol Hill office for the past three weeks as they prepare in preparation for a free-for-all immigration debate on the Senate floor in the days ahead.
Lawmakers have been meeting almost daily, lured by Girl Scout cookies and the optics of appearing “bipartisan” and collegial on a very complicated and politically divisive issue. They’ve even delighted over the use of a “talking stick” to curb interruptions during heated debates.
Leaving one such meeting Thursday afternoon, senators routinely cited "progress."
But so far, no amount of sweets or gimmicks have helped lawmakers overcome major divides.
The working group was formed during the government shutdown last month with a hope it could reach a deal by Thursday, in time to satisfy Democrats ahead of the next deadline to avert a government shutdown Friday morning.
The coalition’s original membership was made up almost entirely of self-described moderates, especially heavy with Democrats from red states who are vulnerable in the 2018 midterms — Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Florida’s Bill Nelson, for instance. But the group has since opened its doors to anyone who wants to get involved, which perhaps has made reaching consensus thornier.
In addition to Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., veterans of crafting immigration policy who are pushing for a more expansive pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who have called for a more restrictive DACA fix, are also now involved.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped write the immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House, has more recently inserted himself into these negotiations. Unlike many of his colleagues in the group who have never waded too deeply into the immigration debate in the past, Rubio is trying to temper expectations and prepare for compromise.
Rubio in particular is advising members to avoid the issue of “chain migration,” also called “family-based migration,” when it comes to the parents of DACA recipients.
“We are likelier to pass a bill that is silent on the parents,” Rubio said Thursday. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a sympathetic population, but I would say there are similarly sympathetic populations that are not being addressed no matter what we do.”
Read more here.
The federal government briefly shut down while you were sleeping, as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul held up a massive $300 billion budget bill that keeps the government running until March 23rd because it increased the federal deficit. House Democratic leaders also opposed the bill because Speaker Paul Ryan hasn't committed to an open debate on a solution for 690,000 DACA recipients who could be eligible for deportation as soon as March.
The bill eventually passed the U.S. Senate at 1:30am by a 71-28 margin and the U.S. House at 5:30am by a 240-186 margin. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Friday morning, reopening the federal government after it shut down at midnight. The massive budget bill included billions in disaster funding for Florida and Puerto Rico along with an increase in defense spending and budget caps.
Here's how South Florida's members of Congress voted:
Sen. Marco Rubio (R): Yes
Rubio praised the deal as a bipartisan compromise that gave Florida much-needed disaster relief. “While no one wants to have a hurricane and no one wants to have a natural disaster, I think this is a response that we should be happy about,” Rubio said on Wednesday. He did voice concerns over the deficit despite voting yes.
"Throughout my time in the Senate, my support for increasing the debt limit has been consistently conditioned on meaningful spending reforms that address our long-term debt," Rubio said in a statement after the vote. "This budget deal does not do that. We must begin to seriously address the long-term drivers of our debt and get our fiscal house back in order. We cannot do that if we continue to govern through short term continuing resolutions that inefficiently spend taxpayer dollars and fail to provide the certainty required for effective planning."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D): Yes
Nelson spoke alongside Rubio on the Senate floor to praise the deal after it was announced. "Senator Rubio and I have been talking about all the things we have done together in trying to get this disaster aid package to finally come to the point at which we can say we are so thankful that we see a path forward,” Nelson said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R): Yes
Curbelo had voted against multiple spending bills because a DACA solution wasn't imminent. But hours before the vote on Thursday Curbelo switched his stance after Ryan said he would "bring a solution to the floor."
In a statement released Thursday, Curbelo said Ryan "delivered his strongest commitment yet that legislation will be considered on the floor of the House" and that was enough to change his vote.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R): No
Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring in 2018, was the only Republican in Congress to join Democrats and vote against the budget bill because it didn't include a DACA solution.
“I will vote NO, as I have pledged to do so in the past," Ros-Lehtinen said in an email on Thursday.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R): Yes
Diaz-Balart, an ally of leadership, has consistently voted in favor of short-term spending bills in recent months.
"This bipartisan legislation continues government operations and funds programs that are critical to Americans across the nation. It also invests in our military during a time where we must provide our troops with the proper resources to defend our country, help our allies, and stand up to our adversaries," Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "I represent parts of Florida that are still rebuilding from Hurricane Irma, and the $89.3 billion supplemental will go a long way in helping these communities recover from storm damage."
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D): No
Wilson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus that opposed the deal and one of the more liberal members of Congress, voted no.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D): No
Wasserman Schultz was a firm no hours before the vote as some Democrats wavered on whether or not to follow leader Nancy Pelosi and vote no or vote to keep the government open without a DACA solution.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D): Yes
In a statement, Deutch said he voted for the budget bill to keep the government open "finally beyond just weeks." The bill keeps the government running until March 23rd.
"Tonight, I voted for a compromise budget deal because it will allow us to keep the government running, finally beyond just weeks," Deutch said. "This bill helps the millions of Americans in Florida and Puerto Rico, Texas, California and the Virgin Islands whose lives were turned upside down by natural disasters. It provides a potential lifeline to families struggling with opioid addiction."
He also added that Congress must focus on passing the DREAM Act to help DACA recipients. President Donald Trump has indicated he does not support the DREAM Act.
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D): No
Hastings is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus that opposed the deal and is one of the more liberal members of Congress.
Congress is poised to pass its first disaster relief plan since October on Thursday as part of a massive government spending deal, but the funds doled out to Puerto Rico fall far short of what Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked for in November, and more money may not be on the horizon.
Rosselló asked for $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild and remake Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage and triggered an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland.
He got about $17 billion.
Included in the $17 billion total is $2 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid, about $15 billion less than Rosselló requested, and $4.8 billion for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid fund that was set to run out of money in a matter of weeks.
The $2 billion for Puerto Rico’s electric grid, which affects about 3.5 million people, is less than what Congress secured for Florida’s citrus industry after Hurricane Irma destroyed most of last year’s crop, resulting in a loss of about $760 million and higher orange juice prices.
Florida’s citrus industry, which employs about 45,000 people, received $300 million more than Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“Let’s put it this way, we cannot miss the fact that obviously we lack representation in Congress,” Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration executive director Carlos Mercader said. “We don’t have two senators, we don’t have four or five congressmen to be like Florida. Florida is one of the biggest delegations in Congress, and the storm in Florida happened before the storm in Puerto Rico and they were working for [citrus funding] to be included even before this last supplemental, and they got it here.”
Mercader said Thursday’s disaster funding agreement “was a very good step towards recovery” and said it was a massive improvement over the last disaster funding bill passed in October, which didn’t include any specific funds for Puerto Rico.
“We know this is a process and we’re glad that Congress included Puerto Rico,” Mercader said. “We’re glad that Democrats and Republicans were able to agree on this. Now we’re hopeful we can continue to work with them on the steps that need to be taken.”
But a Democratic aide said it was unclear if a Republican-controlled Congress will have the appetite for another massive disaster deal in 2018.
“With GOP in control, I think a lot of people around here would be surprised if we see another one this year,” the aide said. “Whether we see one next year will depend on who controls Congress.”
Read more here.
The U.S. Senate isn’t seriously considering a path to permanent residency or citizenship for more than 300,000 Temporary Protected Status recipients as part of an immigration deal to keep 689,000 Dreamers from being deported.
Two senators involved in ongoing immigration talks, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, said there aren’t active serious discussions about the fate of TPS holders from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
“The bipartisan group is trying to get some consensus of what can pass that will protect the DACA Dreamers,” Nelson said. “What I expect is within two weeks we are going to get a DACA solution. I would hope it includes TPS, but if it messes up getting votes in order to pass the Dreamers, I think that would not be considered then and would be held for more comprehensive immigration.”
Flake said a proposal did exist at one point to take some visas from the diversity lottery and apply them to TPS recipients. But the idea, part of an immigration proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was rejected by President Donald Trump.
TPS has been discussed at recent Senate immigration meetings, according to Flake, but the topic isn’t under serious consideration as Senate Democrats and Republicans try to negotiate an immigration proposal that will receive 60 votes in the upper chamber, along with the approval of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Trump.
“It’s been discussed but nothing firm,” Flake said, adding there’s “no serious discussion” about TPS.
The Senate stance on TPS comes after Trump reportedly blasted TPS recipients in a White House meeting, saying, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out,” and “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” — in reference to immigrants living and working legally in the United States under TPS and to making changes to the diversity lottery system.
Read more here.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott hasn't decided whether he'll run for Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate seat this year, but if he does a new poll suggests the race will be a photo finish.
A poll conducted last week by Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy shows Nelson with a 45 percent to 44 percent lead over Scott, with 11 percent of voters undecided. Nelson's one percentage point lead is within the poll's four percentage point margin of error.
Scott received a slight bump in Mason-Dixon's poll in October after Hurricane Irma, but little has changed in the four months since as Scott finishes up his last legislative session in Tallahassee while Nelson tries to forge an immigration deal and a disaster relief bill for Florida in Washington.
Nelson has the advantage among Democratic, women, black and Hispanic voters while Nelson leads with Republican, white and male voters. Nelson has a 33 percentage point lead in Southeast Florida while Scott maintains big leads in North Florida and Southwest Florida. Scott leads Nelson by six percentage points in the crucial I-4 corridor in Central Florida though Nelson leads Scott by five percentage points in Tampa Bay. Scott has both a higher favorability and unfavorability rating compared to Nelson. Only three percent of Florida voters don't recognize Scott while Nelson is unknown to 12 percent of voters.
The Mason-Dixon poll was conducted statewide by telephone from January 30 to February 1 and included a total of 625 registered Florida voters.
Scott is expected to make a decision on the Senate race after the 60 day legislative session ends.
Republicans currently control 51 U.S. Senate seats, and beating Nelson, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, would go a long way towards Republican control of the upper chamber of Congress in a year where Democrats are expected to make gains.
Sen. Bill Nelson, the only member of Congress who has been to space, was giddy after SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched a red Tesla Roadster towards Mars on Tuesday.
He had his entire staff watch the launch on TV and then walked to the Senate floor to inform his colleagues.
"The largest rocket since the moon program, the Saturn V, launched from the Kennedy Space Center today," Nelson said. "The test launch of the Falcon Heavy is a spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida’s Space Coast and of the U.S. commercial launch sector, which is succeeding in a big way. That’s good news for the civil space program. It's good news for national security. It's good news for employment in the U.S. and it's great news for jobs and the economy."
Nelson hurdled into space 32 years ago from the same launch pad in Cape Canaveral that SpaceX used on Tuesday.
"The icing on the top of the cake was the two boosters coming and simultaneously landing a hundred yards apart on two landing pads on Cape Canaveral air force station," Nelson said.
Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over the nation's space program. He said Tuesday's launch is a big step for future exploration of Mars.
"By all means when we launch in a year in a half, Americans on American rockets, that will rivet the attention of the entire country and that will help enormously as people start to focus that we're serious about this, taking humans all the way to Mars and returning them safely," Nelson said, referencing the NASA plan to get humans on Mars by the 2030s.
NASA still doesn't have a permanent director after Nelson and other Democrats, along with a few Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, voiced concerns over Trump's pick to run the agency, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Bridenstine's Senate confirmation is currently in limbo, though Trump did renominate Bridenstine after his nomination expired at the end of last year.
Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that the threat of Russian interference in elections is not over and faulted the Trump administration for not imposing further sanction.
"As the 2018 midterm elections are now only months away, there is no time to lose in countering Russian influence through multiple means," the Florida Democrat, running for re-election this year, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
"Because Russian influence is conducted largely through cyberspace, National Mission Teams (NMTs), part of the U.S. Cyber Command's Cyber Mission Force, should be ordered to prepare to engage Russian cyber operators and disrupt their activities as they conduct clandestine influence operations against our forthcoming elections. The mission of these forces is to defend the Nation, including critical infrastructure like our election systems, from foreign attack and we urge the Department of Defense to consider employing them as soon as possible."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has voiced similar concern — as recently as this morning on Fox News — and has offered legislation to punish Russia.