July 24, 2017

Lawmakers divided over a ban on Venezuelan oil amid fears of a Russian takeover



In advance of a July 30 vote that could strip Venezuelan lawmakers of their constitutional power, Cuban-American politicians are going after Venezuela’s jugular: the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Over the past few weeks, as the tough talk on Venezuela reaches a fever pitch, South Florida lawmakers are uniformly behind a ban on Venezuelan oil imports to the United States, a drastic step that could deal a critical blow to Venezuela’s slumping oil industry.

The lawmakers seem convinced that the White House will do something drastic, going beyond the long-used tactic of issuing sanctions on individual Venezuelan government officials suspected of money laundering and drug trafficking.

“We will have a swift and firm response from this administration,” Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said last week.

“If this happens on July 30, I am convinced without any doubt that the President of the United States will act swiftly and decisively to ensure that there will be measures taken against individuals and potentially sectors for the unconstitutional overthrow of democracy and the replacement with a Cuban-style regime,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on Wednesday.

Read more: As Venezuela teeters on constitutional crisis, Miami lawmakers warn of a new Cuba

For now, Congress is united in its disgust toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, but some lawmakers — even among Republicans — disagree over how far the U.S. should go if Maduro’s constituent assembly comes up for its scheduled vote.

The Cuban Americans favor a ban on Venezuelan oil imports, a far-reaching action that could further cripple an economy already mired in hyperinflation. But some leading foreign-policy voices in Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, have doubts.

“I believe there’s a crisis coming in Venezuela, and I think we need to be careful about not making ourselves the focus of that crisis,” Corker said. “Sometimes what we do unifies the chavistas.”

Corker, who is close to Trump, added that he plans to meet with Rubio soon to discuss possible sanctions.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who ran against Trump as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, echoes Corker’s concerns. Kaine said he was “pleased” with the Trump administration’s recent actions in Venezuela, but stopped short of endorsing oil sanctions.

“Before agreeing to sanctions on an industry sector, I would want to hear from the Administration how that would impact the Venezuelan people. Sanctions should be designed to punish and deter bad actors and minimize impact on suffering people,” Kaine, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement provided to the Miami Herald.

Venezuela exported 291 million barrels of oil and oil products to the United States in 2016. The United States buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil, and oil revenues account for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, according to OPEC.

In contrast, Venezuelan oil accounts for just eight percent of U.S oil imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Lawmakers are also worried about the potential for a Russian takeover of U.S.-based oil refiner Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., known as PDVSA.

A Russian state-owned oil company called Rosneft acquired a 49.9 percent stake in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan signed in November 2016. If the Venezuelan government needs additional cash, they could hand over their oil assets, including the Houston-based Citgo, to the Russians.

“There’s already been one default on a loan from Russia to Venezuela,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J, a Cuban-American lawmaker who supports tough sanctions against Venezuela. “If in fact that default or any others is used by Rosneft to get the majority of shareholding of PDVSA, which owns Citgo and all of its infrastructure in the United States, we could have a extensive energy infrastructure here in the United States owned by the Russian government. I think we can all agree that the last thing we need to do is open the doors of our critical infrastructure to Russian interference.”

Read more here. 

July 21, 2017

At key moment, Cuban-American lawmakers adopt Venezuela cause as their own

Venezuela Political Crisis

@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

For months, Cuban-American lawmakers have deployed familiar rhetoric to warn Washington colleagues of a democracy under threat in Latin America, where people are deprived of food and the ballot box, and where economic collapse could empower Russia uncomfortably close to home.

“This is a dysfunctional narco-state that is in a death spiral in terms of its ability to function,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“We are talking about a nearly failed state in our own hemisphere,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“We will have a swift and firm response from our own administration,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But the tough talk isn’t about Cuba. It’s about Venezuela.

The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade.

“Just like it has been too long for the Cuban people, most people are coming to the understanding that this is part of the same movement, the same cancer that has been sickening the Cuban people and the Venezuelan people for decades now,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a Capitol Hill speech to Venezuelan activists and lawmakers Wednesday.

Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats agree President Nicolás Maduro must be stopped. Their united front could amplify their clout: As with Cuba, one of their own — Rubio — has proven to be the White House’s go-to legislator on Latin America.

Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart back banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic measure once considered unthinkable against the No. 3 oil supplier to the U.S. But also in favor is a local Democrat, Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans.

The message: On Cuba, Rubio and company faced significant opposition, both on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s administration. On Venezuela, they don’t.

“There’s not a single senator that I’ve seen, and no House member that I’ve heard from, who still supports this regime,” Rubio told the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute in bilingual remarks Wednesday. “Once there were people who sometimes backed [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, or said things about Chávez in the past. But that doesn’t exist anymore. No one here supports Maduro.”

Even Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who worked with the late Chávez, frequently traveled to Venezuela during Chávez’s presidency and is the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral, supports sanctions.

“We are compelled to take a stand on what’s right,” Meeks said. “Sanctions that are being considered are the right things to do.”

Behind the bipartisan push is a deeply held belief that Maduro is just another Fidel — and a sense that if Cuban Americans and their allies don’t defend Venezuela in Washington, no one will.

“We need to let the Venezuelan people know that they are not alone in this fight, that we stand together with them, that we will not rest until Venezuela is free from oppression and is once again a nation of democracy and the rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

The position is certainly heart-felt, but politics aren’t entirely out of the picture: Venezuelans fleeing Chávez and now Maduro could emerge as a significant voting bloc in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.

Read more here.


July 18, 2017

Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen vote against rollback of Obama's ozone standards



Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo joined Democrats in an unsuccessful effort to keep ozone regulations proposed by Barack Obama that would lower acceptable ozone levels and require oversight from the Environmental Protection Administration.

Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo were among 11 Republicans who voted against the Ozone Standards Implementation Act sponsored by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas. The bill delays the implementation of Obama's ozone rule and would require the EPA to reexamine the rule every 10 years instead of every five years. 

Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted in favor, along with four Democrats and the majority of Republicans. The bill passed with by a vote of 229-199. A slew of environmental and public health organizations opposed the bill while business and manufacturing groups were in favor.

Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen are part of a group of House Republicans and Democrats concerned about climate change dubbed the Climate Solutions Caucus. 

This post was updated to clarify that the Climate Solutions Caucus consists of Republicans and Democrats.  

July 14, 2017

Curbelo’s gang of moderate Republicans defeats anti-climate change legislation

Miami flooding


Carlos Curbelo touts himself as a rare Republican in Washington willing to criticize Donald Trump and conservative members of his own party.

And after months of talk and lots of tweeting, Curbelo’s effort to build a bloc of moderate Republicans capable of swaying anti-climate-change legislation appears to have paid off.

Curbelo’s Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats who are concerned about the impacts of climate change, voted en masse on Thursday against a proposal to nix a Defense Department report on the threats posed by climate change to military installations.

“A bipartisan majority of Members are on the record saying climate change and sea level rise must be taken into account when planning for our national defense,” Curbelo said in a statement. “With military bases like Naval Air Station Key West extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, this vote was a huge win for our coastal military communities. I’m proud of the Climate Solutions Caucus Members who worked to defeat this amendment and I look forward to continuing to build momentum for this cause in the Congress.”

A Curbelo staffer said that an informal vote-counting push by Climate Solutions Caucus Republicans occurred before the vote. Every Republican on the caucus voted against the proposal by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., with the exception of Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who voted in favor, and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who was absent. The full House vote was 234-185.

Curbelo, who represents a Miami-to-Key West district, identified Thursday’s vote, part of the massive annual Defense Department funding bill which passed on Friday, as an area where moderate Republicans can make an impact.

But environmental groups are keeping a close eye on moderates like Curbelo and making sure their future votes match their rhetoric.

“It’s important to give the Pentagon the tools to plan for this threat to our military readiness, but of course we need to take a lot more concrete steps to solve this carbon solution before it’s too late,” said League of Conservation Voters deputy legislative director Alex Taurel.

Taurel said that funding for green energy, preparing for the effects of climate change and stopping offshore drilling are three policy areas where moderate Republicans could join Democrats, but that more Republicans must speak about ways to reduce carbon emissions.

“This is called the Climate Solutions Caucus, so that’s the key kind of yardstick they should be measured by,” Taurel said. “To what extent are they supporting solutions to climate change?”

Curbelo argues he’s doing his part by urging his colleagues to buck conservatives in Congress.

“I assume that now when we get into appropriations season there will be many amendments where I assume our group is going to be critical to blocking bad policy,” Curbelo said last month.

On Thursday, two Republican members of the climate caucus, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, took to the House floor to oppose Perry’s amendment before the vote.

“I have a Coast Guard base in my district... located right there on the water in Miami Beach and we know the impact of sea-level rise in that area,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “As a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus I urge my colleagues to oppose this Perry amendment.”

Read more here.

Two Democrats raise six figures in bid for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat

Pjimage (1)


The money race for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's open congressional seat is underway. 

Two Democrats, Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Miami City commissioner Ken Russell, told the Miami Herald they both raised over $100,000 during the second quarter of 2017.  

Rosen Gonzalez told the Miami Herald she has raised $193,000 with $171,000 cash on hand. Russell told the Miami Herald he raised $133,000 and has $128,000 cash on hand. 

Both totals have not been publicly released yet. 

National Democrats see Ros-Lehtinen's seat, which includes major portions of Miami Beach and the city of Miami, as a prime pickup opportunity in 2018. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 20 percentage points in Ros-Lehtinen's district, the highest margin of any seat in the country currently held by a Republican. 

Other Democrats in the running include state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, state Rep. David Richardson, academic adviser Michael A. Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person. Rodriguez and Richardson officially declared their candidacies in July and therefore won't have fundraising totals in the latest quarter, which ended on June 30. 

Rosen Gonzalez said she was running before Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement and filed her candidacy on April 13, meaning she was fundraising throughout most of the quarter. 

"My campaign is using an unconventional local team to make sure that our donors' dollars are put to the best use possible," Rosen Gonzalez said in an email. "While I know that raising money is important, I want to stay focused on meeting people. My campaign finances reflect a diverse group of people who believe in me, especially Miami Beach, where I currently serve."

Russell isn't officially in the race. He filed an exploratory committee to gauge interest and began fundraising about four weeks ago. Russell said he'll make a decision one way or the other by the end of the summer. 

"Anyone who declares right off the bat is going to be the first out the gate and get the attention and publicity around that," Russell said. "For me, it’s more methodical, it’s more having a proper plan in place so that when I do declare I’ll be geared up." 

Republican Bruno Barreiro, a Miami-Dade County commissioner, raised $176,000 during the quarter, he told the Miami Herald earlier this week. Barreiro is one of three Republicans, including former Miami-Dade mayoral candidate and school board member Raquel Regalado and Maria Peiro, planning to run in the Republican primary.




July 13, 2017

Republicans fail in last-ditch push to ban medical treatments for transgender troops


@alextdaugherty @verambergen

As the House of Representatives debated a proposal that would ban medical treatments for transgender individuals serving in the military, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California had a brief message:

“Choose what gender you are before you join.”

A smattering of Democrats gathered to oppose the amendment offered by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., quietly gasped.

After Hunter finished speaking, Sean Patrick Maloney, an openly gay congressman from New York, took his turn at the podium.

“No one in the Pentagon has called for this,” Maloney said. “The Hartzler amendment would single out and rob a small group of military service members and their families of their health care merely because these folks, or members of their family, experience gender a little differently.”

Just under an hour later, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down Hartzler’s proposal 214-209, to audible cheers from the House floor.

Two dozen House Republicans voted with 190 Democrats to sink the amendment that would prohibit military funds for soldiers seeking medical treatment related to gender transition.

“It’s a hurtful amendment, it’s not needed,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, a noted advocate for LGBT rights who has a transgender son. “I view it as a personal issue, because as a mom I’m impacted, but it’s an issue of fairness for everyone. You don’t have to know someone that’s transgender or have someone in your immediate family to feel this impact. It’s just needlessly hurtful and serves no useful purpose.”

Ros-Lehtinen was among the 24 Republicans, including Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who voted against the amendment. Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted in favor.

Hartzler argued that her amendment would save the military money, and said the Department of Defense could buy 13 more F-35 fighter jets with the money that would be used for gender reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender service members.

Read more here. 

July 10, 2017

Former Doral council member may run for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat



Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former Doral city council member and Republican, said she is seriously considering a bid for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat in 2018.

Rodriguez Aguilera was a council member from 2012 to 2014 when she lost to former councilman Pete Cabrera. She previously worked as the city's economic development director.

Rodriguez Aguilera owns Bettinara Enterprises, a company that assists people in understanding how government works. She also created a women's leadership certificate program which she teaches at Miami Dade College.

Democrats view Ros-Lehtinen's retirement as a chance to pick up a left leaning seat. Ros-Lehtinen, who did not vote for President Donald Trump, has often disagreed with her own party including her vote against the GOP health care plan.

Rodriguez Aguilera said she voted for Trump.

"I am a Republican -- I had to look at the choices," she said. "I voted for who I believed at that point was the person that I needed to vote for but I would like to consider the issues and problems that the community has. Money and economic development do not have a Republican or Democratic stamp on it."

Asked about the GOP health care plan that narrowly passed the House in May, Rodriguez Aguilera said she is still "studying the different options." 

Other Republicans who have said they are running including former School Board Member Raquel Regalado and Miami Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. Maria Peiro, who ran against Ros-Lehtinen in the 2016 primary, is also running.

On the Democratic side, the candidates include state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person.




June 29, 2017

Miami Republicans vote against bill to expand penalties on sanctuary cities



Donald Trump campaigned as a tough-on-immigration Republican who would roll back Obama-era protections for undocumented immigrants.

But he can’t count on Miami’s Republican delegation in the House to back him on every facet of his immigration agenda.

The three Republicans, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen voted against a bill on Thursday that would deny federal law-enforcement funds to cities that choose not to comply with the federal government’s effort to enforce tougher immigration laws.

“I think this one is frankly too broad,” Diaz-Balart said.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 228-195. The Miami trio were among just seven Republicans who voted against the bill, which passed largely on party lines.

But the three Republicans did vote for another bill on Thursday trumpeted by Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that would expand criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes. The bill, dubbed Kate’s Law, is named after Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman murdered by an illegal immigrant who was in the U.S. despite multiple deportations.

“I think most people would agree, you’re here in this country illegally, you’re doing terrible things, you’re just a bad apple. Let’s get rid of you,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We have so many good people who want to come. That’s totally different than the sanctuary cities issue where so many of those folks are good people. That makes no distinction between whether they are good people or criminals. But in Kate’s Law we’re talking about criminals who have done horrible things. I don’t care if they’re American or from Central America. You’re bad, you’ve got to be in jail and you should be deported.”

Read more here. 

June 22, 2017

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz take on the media — in softball



Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had her shot to one-up the Fourth Estate on the softball field Wednesday night, as she suited up against Washington reporters decades her junior who spend their days needling members of Congress about Donald Trump’s latest tweet or trying to snag a quote for their story.

But just after Ros-Lehtinen took her place in right field in the first inning of the ninth annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game, NPR reporter Tamara Keith blooped a single that scooted underneath the glove of the longtime Miami Republican.

“Sorry!” Ros-Lehtinen yelled as she ran after the ball.

Sprinting after her was Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ultra-competitive second baseman for congressional team, ready to field Ros-Lehtinen’s cutoff throw.

But their combined efforts couldn’t stop two runs from scoring, and the play turned out to be the decisive blow in a close 2-1 game won by the reporters.

“We come out here to practice two or three mornings a week and for an old lady like me it feels really good,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Wednesday’s game was more than just an opportunity for reporters and politicians to take out their frustrations on one another, it was also a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness.

The annual game was started by Wasserman Schultz and former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., in 2009 to build bipartisanship and raise funds for a charity dedicated to helping young women identify and treat breast cancer.

Wasserman Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and when she decided to go public in 2009, Emerson approached her about starting the game.

“The idea was the baseball game was played by men but we didn’t really have a sport the women played,” Wasserman Schultz said.

The first game in 2009 pitted members of Congress against their staffers, but “they were much younger so we didn’t do very well,” Waserman Schultz said. Ever since, members of Congress have played the press.

Wednesday’s game raised $292,097.59 for the Young Survival Coalition and the game has raised more than $1.1 million for charity since 2009.

“It’s so personal for me and all these women on the press team,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The softball field is a politics-free zone.”

But it’s not a competition-free zone.

Wasserman Schultz, a team captain along with Ros-Lehtinen, was involved in numerous collisions at second base and pumped her fist when Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida made an accurate throw to her to nail a runner.

“I’m a little competitive,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Read more here. 

What Jon Ossoff’s loss means for Democrats trying to win swing seats in Miami

IMG_2021 (2) (2)


Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old centrist Democrat who didn’t live in the Atlanta-area district he was seeking to represent in Congress and whose resume includes stints as a Capitol Hill staffer and documentary film producer, just ran the most expensive campaign ever for a House seat.

He lost.

Now, the focus turns to the 2018 election for Democrats where their best chance at breaking up a Republican-controlled government runs through the House.

“We as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat gaining buzz for a potential presidential run in 2020. “We’re the party that stands up for working families, the middle class and yet many of them are not voting for us.”

Democrats must flip 24 seats to control the House, and two Miami-Dade seats currently occupied by Republicans are considered near must-wins: the open seat occupied by retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Miami-to-Key West seat occupied by Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

“I applaud the enthusiasm behind Ossoff’s candidacy, but how many Democrats could we have gotten elected for $30 million?” said Scott Fuhrman, a Miami Democrat who lost to Ros-Lehtinen by 10 percentage points in 2016 even though national Democrats chose not to spend in the race. Fuhrman was planning to run against Ros-Lehtinen again before she announced her retirement and a slew of Democrats jumped in the race. He dropped out in early June.

Local Democrats are quick to warn outsiders like Daily Kos Elections, a liberal blog that kick-started the cash flow to Ossoff, that using messages that resonate with the Democratic base nationally may not be the best idea in Miami, where foreign policy issues in Latin America are of large importance to Democrats, independents and Republicans alike.

“In Miami generally it is very difficult to tie national winds to what goes on in Miami-Dade County because we’re such a unique little island of diversity,” said Ben Pollara, a Democratic consultant who worked on Fuhrman’s campaign and will work in the election to replace Ros-Lehtinen.

Fuhrman put part of the blame on minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democrats’ fundraising organization.

“Moral victories in politics are BS and at the end of the day Democrats needed a win last night and they didn’t get it and people should be held accountable,” Fuhrman said. “For whatever reason people tend to fail up in our organization.”

The nearly $50 million invested into Ossoff’s campaign, along with months of attention from national Democrats and constant media coverage, didn’t pan out.

Read more here.