September 28, 2016

Zika funding inches forward in DC, but obstacles remain




Overcoming its earlier divisions on Zika funding, the Senate on Wednesday approved $1.1 billion in research and prevention aid as it passed a bigger appropriations bill to fund the federal government into December.

Sen. Bill Nelson, aware of a looming potentially divisive House vote later in the day or this week, greeted the Senate's 72-26 vote with guarded optimism.

"We had a small victory today in our ongoing fight against the Zika virus," Nelson said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who's made Zika funding his top priority as he runs for re-election against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, criticized the "political games" that had held it up for seven months.

"This anti-Zika package rightfully prioritizes Americans in Florida and Puerto Rico," Rubio said. "I'm encouraged that my calls for action have been answered, and that real assistance from the federal government is finally on its way."

The Zika money tucked inside a 10-week stopgap funding measure, the larger $1.1 trillion appropriations package went to the House, with a potentially divisive vote looming in the wake of Friday's end of the current fiscal year.

A large chunk of the $1.1 billion for Zika, less than the $1.9 billion President Barack Obama requested in February, would go to Florida, New York and Puerto Rico, which the virus ravaged during the summer.

The National Institutes for Health would receive more than $160 million of the Zika funds to continue its recently launched first clinical trial for a vaccine and to conduct other research.

The virus is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner.

Florida had 904 Zika cases as of Tuesday, 109 of them locally transmitted through mosquitos.

Ninety-one of Florida's Zika infections involved pregnant women, an especially vulnerable group because of the birth defects the virus can cause in newborns.

Microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small brains and heads, is the worst known defect.

The Senate vote Wednesday represented a turnaround for Zika funds in the higher chamber. In three earlier summertime votes, Senate Democrats joined by some Republicans rejected stand-alone Zika bills because of extraneous provisions.

The most contentious provision sought to deny any of the new Zika money from going to Planned Parenthood partner clinics in Puerto Rico.

The island has almost 19,500 cases of Zika, some 84 percent of all cases in the United States and far more than any other state or territory.

The divisive Planned Parenthood clause is no longer part of the Zika funding measure in the overall spending bill. The Puerto Rico clinics will be allowed to seek reimbursement for Zika treatment except for abortions, for which federal money has been banned from paying for four decades.

While Nelson, an Orlando Democrat, and Rubio voted for the $1.1 trillion bill, about 1 percent of it for Zika, 11 Republican senators and 10 Democratic senators voted against it.

That bipartisan split among opponents foreshadowed potential pitfalls in the House, which was expected to take up the appropriations measure later Wednesday.

About $400 million of the $1.1 billion in Zika funds is offset in spending cuts to a range of other programs supported by Democratic lawmakers.

Some conservative Republicans, by contrast, want all the new $1.1 trillion in spending offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, which is not achieved.

Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan voted against the larger measure because it did not include $500 million they'd requested to clean contaminated water and replace lead pipes in Flint.

Negotiators promised to provide $170 million to Flint in a separate water bill moving through Congress, but that didn't satisfy Stabenow and Peters.

Image credit: Marco Ruiz, Miami Herald















How Florida lawmakers voted on Obama veto override

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- The House voted 348-77 to override President Obama's veto of the 9/11 bill. Here's how it went among the Florida delegation.

One Republican voted in the minority: Rep. David Jolly.

Six Democrats voted in the majority: Reps. Corrine Brown, Ted Deutch, Gwen Graham, Alcee Hastings, Patrick Murphy and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

All others voted party line, except Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who voted "present."

Here is Jolly's explanation:

Continue reading "How Florida lawmakers voted on Obama veto override" »

Senate approves budget deal that includes $1.1B for Zika

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a short-term budget deal today that includes $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus, ending months of wrangling over the issue. The House is expected to approve the deal.

Zika funding had been held up as Democrats objected to a GOP provision that prevented money from going to a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Puerto Rico.

"We had a small victory today in our ongoing fight against the Zika virus,” said Sen. Bill Nelson. "The emergency spending approved today will help increase local mosquito-control efforts to contain the spread of the virus and allow federal researchers to continue their search for a vaccine. The threat we face from Zika is a true public health emergency and we need our local, state and federal agencies working together to put this money to use as quickly as possible."

Said Sen. Marco Rubio:

"This anti-Zika package rightfully prioritizes Americans in Florida and Puerto Rico, and I’m encouraged my calls for action have been answered, and that real assistance from the federal government is finally on its way. It's shameful it took so long and that this public health crisis was made worse by people playing political games in Washington. But I'm glad these critical resources are now moving forward so we can help the thousands of Americans suffering from this virus, step up our mosquito eradication efforts, and develop a vaccine to eradicate Zika for good.”

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

September 27, 2016

Nelson breaks with Democrats to back budget deal

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson broke with his party this afternoon to support a stop-gap budget deal that contains $1.1 billion to fight Zika.

The measure did not include funding for Flint, Mich., which drew Democratic opposition. But Nelson and three other Democrats voted to advance the bill, which failed.

"While I support the people of Flint, my priority is the people of Florida. This bill provides a clean $1.1 billion to help stop the spread of Zika virus with no political riders, and I will support it," Nelson said last week.

Sen. Marco Rubio also supported the bill.

"Today's vote proves some Senate Democrats are looking for any excuse to shut down the government‎ because they think it will help them in the upcoming election," Rubio said. "Bill Nelson and I came together to support this bill to fund the government and the fight against Zika, and Senate Democrats should follow our lead and quit playing political games."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

GOP gay rights super PAC launches ad campaign for Curbelo


Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo's starting to get help for his reelection race from all corners of the Republican Party -- including on Tuesday from American Unity PAC, which backs Republicans who support gay rights.

American Unity launched a $125,000 digital ad campaign for Curbelo on YouTube and other online platforms. The two ads, however, are not about LGBT issues.

Betting that women will be the key swing voters in Florida's 26th congressional district, the super PAC has instead put together two spots highlighting Curbelo's stance on equal pay.

Clicking on the videos leads to a standalone page touting Curbelo's equal-pay stance.

Curbelo co-sponsored the "Workplace Advancement Act," a bill that would protect employees from retaliation for asking or talking about their wages. Democrats have bashed Curbelo for failing to support the "Paycheck Fairness Act," which would require employers to demonstrate that any male-to-female pay disparity is due to job performance and not gender.  

"In the U.S. House, Carlos Curbelo has been a champion for freedom and equal opportunity for all of South Florida," Tyler Deaton, senior adviser to American Unity, said in a statement. "His legislative record in Congress proves that he is a different kind of Republican. Whether he is fighting for women to receive the equal pay they have earned or to protect LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace, he understands that when Floridians excel at work, their families succeed, Florida succeeds and America succeeds."

American Unity plans to air its videos in the Westchester-to-Key West district through Election Day as part of a broader advertising campaign. Next month, according to Deaton, the super PAC plans to make a radio buy of about $300,000 for Curbelo, who faces a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

The super PAC is eyeing about a dozen House races across the country, Deaton said -- including Florida's 27th district, where longtime gay-rights proponent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen faces a long-shot challenge from Scott Fuhrman.

Rubio remembers Marlins ace on Senate floor



Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a moving tribute to Jose Fernandez in the Senate on Tuesday, growing emotional in recalling their shared opposition to the Cuban government.

In a poignant speech on the Senate floor, Rubio said the ace pitcher was on his way to a Hall of Fame career and to leading the Miami Marlins to "a couple pennants" before he died Sunday when his 32-foot fishing boat struck a jetty near Government Cut channel.

Miami residents Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, close friends of the 24-year-old Fernandez, were also on board the vessel and died with him.

"I never met Jose Fernandez, yet I feel like I knew him," Rubio said in his tribute. "And that's how millions of people feel. They feel like they know him. It is, in the end, our story -- as Cuban-Americans, as Americans."

The Miami Republican and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson introduced a resolution honoring Fernandez.

Among the personal qualities and professional accomplishments cited in the measure, it says that Fernandez "came to embody the American dream and was a great source of pride for the Cuban exile community of the United States."

Fernandez's grandfather,  Rubio said, tried and failed to defect from Cuba 13 times before succeeding and settling in Tampa 

As great a pitcher as he was, the former presidential candidate said, "off the field -- as a human being, as a son, as a grandson, as a teammate, as a neighbor -- he was even better."

Fernandez's grandfather, Rubio recounted, tried and failed to defect from Cuba 13 times before succeeding and settling in Tampa.

Rubio then told the by-now familiar story of how Fernandez rescued his mother after she fell overboard in 2007 during the family's fourth attempt to leave Cuba while taking a more perilous, longer route to Mexico instead of Florida.

"Jose was 15 years old," Rubio said. "Before America ever met Jose Fernandez, before his fastball earned him millions of dollars, this young man was revealing himself."

Rubio quoted from a 2012 scouting report on the fellow Cuban-American, then 20, that said he "exudes confidence" and had a "no-fear approach" to pitching.

"This was not arrogance," the senator said. "This was the peaceful self-assurance of a kid who had known life and death."

Rubio said he was touched by Fernandez saying that his proudest accomplishment in life was having become a U.S. citizen last year.

"'I consider myself now to be free,'" Rubio quoted the pitcher as having said.

Rubio added: "Jose knew how special and fortunate and blessed he was and we are," Rubio said. "He went from a Cuban prison to a Major League clubhouse. Jose's story was our story. He reminds so many in my community of someone they knew -- of a brother or a son or a nephew."

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, El Nuevo Herald





Republican ads: 'Garcia has embarrassed South Florida long enough'


The secretly recorded comments by Miami Democrat Joe Garcia about voters not wanting to "have sex" with Hillary Clinton now appear, two weeks later, in a new Miami radio ad paid for by the Republican Party.

"Remember why you got rid of former Congressman Joe Garcia? Scandals. Election fraud. Campaign payoffs. Former employees sent to jail," the narrator sneers. "Now Joe Garcia is running again and embarrassing you again."

The spot notes Garcia "was caught on camera making lewd and sexist comments about Hillary Clinton." He was taped by a political tracker and later apologized.

"Whether it's something he says or something he does, Joe Garcia has embarrassed South Florida long enough," concludes the ad by the National Republican Campaign Committee, which is helping incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo try to keep his Democratic-leaning seat.

"Trump-Republicans and Carlos Curbelo are desperately trying to distract South Florida voters from Curbelo's Republican record," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Javier Gamboa said in a statement. "Bad news for them, South Florida voters are rediscovering that Carlos Curbelo falls in line with the Republican Party, and they will reject the Trump-Curbelo ticket this November."

A version of the ad is also running in Spanish.


UPDATE: The NRCC has now launched a version of its ad on TV, so we've updated the headline for this post, too.


Democrats slam Curbelo on environment, immigration in pair of TV ads


And now, for a little bit of congressional counterprogramming.

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and his allies have been on the Miami TV airwaves for weeks, promoting him as a moderate lawmaker who ably represents his Democratic-leaning Westchester-to-Key West district, especially when it comes to issues like climate change.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Party stepped in to challenge that message.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a pair of TV ads: one slamming Curbelo on the environment, and the other on immigration. Both try to tie him to Donald Trump, though Curbelo has criticized and refused to back his party's presidential nominee.

The environment-themed ad shows Curbelo on an oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico and says he favors offshore drilling.

The immigration-themed ad notes that Curbelo's super PAC, which he said he created to support fellow pro-immigration reform Republicans, gave money to some GOP lawmakers who've appeared unlikely to share Curbelo's position. 

These are the DCCC's first TV ads of the election cycle in Florida's 26th congressional district. The party has been airing a Spanish-language radio spot attacking Curbelo -- and supporting Democratic challenger Joe Garcia.

"It's obvious that the DCCC is in full-blown panic mode after their endorsed candidate, Annette Taddeo, narrowly lost her primary to the scandal-plagued Joe Garcia," National Republican Campaign Committee spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement. "This is nothing more than an attempt to distract from Garcia's comments where he used having sex with Hillary Clinton to discuss her qualifications to serve as president."


September 26, 2016

Digital currency popular in Miami draws congressional scrutiny



WASHINGTON Lawmakers have formed a special group in a bid to stay on top of the exploding use of bitcoins and similar forms of digital currency in Florida and elsewhere in the country.

Miami has become a bitcoin hotbed, which some federal prosecutors say is tied to South Florida’s reputation as a money-laundering hub tied to drug-trafficking.

The new Congressional Blockchain Caucus is named after the online foundation of bitcoins: The blockchain is a digital ledger that records every bitcoin transaction with an encrypted 32-digit code.

“Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the financial services industry, the U.S. economy and the delivery of government services,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a North Carolina Republican, said of the caucus he helped form.

Bitcoin proponents say it’s a revolutionary way to move value quickly and anonymously from one point to another, whether around the corner or across the globe, with no middlemen, no fees, no central banks, no collection of personal data and almost impenetrable computer security.

In the first money-laundering cases tied to bitcoins, a Miami-Dade judge last month dismissed charges against website designer Michelle Espinoza. He was charged with illegally transmitting $1,500 worth of bitcoins.

Polner ruled that the Bitcoin is not “tangible wealth,” is not backed by any government or bank, and “cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars.”

Polner wrote: “Even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it becomes the equivalent of money.”

The judge also said that Florida law’s description of money-laundering is too vague to apply to use of bitcoins.

Espinoza paid his lawyer in bitcoins, which fluctuate in value based on buying and selling demand through digital exchanges.

As of Monday afternoon, one bitcoin was selling for $608, more than double its worth of $298 in January 2015.

Andrew Hinkes, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, said that Polner’s ruling could prompt Florida legislators to pass legislation more focused on bitcoins and other forms of digital currency.

“Hopefully, Florida’s Legislature will consider the impact of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and craft legislation to balance their potential for abuse with their potential to foster innovation, create jobs and generate wealth,” Hinkes wrote on, which provides news about the controversial currencies.

Polner in her ruling also urged state legislators to update its money-laundering laws.

The IRS calls bitcoins “virtual currencies” and describes them as property, not money.

Bitcoin enthusiasts from across the country gathered in Miami in January for the 2016 Bitcoin Hackathon.

Held at LAB Miami in the trendy Wynwoood neighborhood, the conference encouraged developing Smartphone apps and other software to expedite the use of bitcoins.

Photo credit: Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News