February 20, 2018

Where South Floridians in Congress stand on gun legislation

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@alextdaugherty

The pressure is building in Washington.

Students are meeting with President Donald Trump, organizing protests outside the White House and planning a mass demonstration in March with the aim of getting Congress to do something to prevent another mass school shooting. after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week.

In response, Trump has indicated he’s considering support of a narrowly tailored bill that would ensure federal and state authorities accurately report relevant criminal-history records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and penalize federal agencies that fail to upload relevant records. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, also has the blessing of the National Rifle Association and Republicans from South Florida, though Murphy tweeted that “no one should pretend this bill alone is an adequate response to this epidemic.”

Trump also directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday to craft regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons.

But where does South Florida’s congressional delegation stand on various federal bills that could limit access to guns and firearm accessories if passed into law?

Below is a list of relevant recent congressional legislation related to guns, and where South Florida’s two U.S. senators and eight U.S. representatives stand on such proposals, including campaign contributions from the NRA.

BILLS, RATINGS, CONTRIBUTIONS

▪ Assault weapons ban: Congress passed a ban on certain semi-automatic “assault style” firearms like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting in 1994, though the ban expired in 2004 and wasn’t renewed. A bill to reinstate the ban in 2013 after the Sandy Hook school shooting failed in the U.S. Senate.

▪ Raising the age to legally own semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 from 18 to 21. The 19-year old Parkland shooter suspect legally purchased an AR-15 rifle after he turned 18 old. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce legislation that would raise the age requirements.

▪ Bump stock ban: Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced a bill after the Las Vegas shooting in October that would ban “bump stocks,” or legal modifications to semiautomatic weapons that allow them to fire like automatic weapons. So far, there haven’t been any votes on Curbelo’s bill.

▪ Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act: This bill would allow concealed carry permits obtained in one state to be valid in another state, essentially transforming concealed carry permits into transferable documents like driver’s licenses. The bill passed the House and awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.

▪ Purchasing guns while on the terror watch list: Feinstein introduced legislation after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 that would prevent U.S. citizens under investigation for suspected terrorist activity from purchasing a gun, while Cornyn countered with legislation that would have installed a review period for people on the terror watch list wishing to purchase guns. Both measures failed in the U.S. Senate; the House didn’t vote on them.

Read more here.

February 15, 2018

NRA-backed South Florida lawmakers say gun control laws won’t prevent mass shootings

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@alextdaugherty

As Democrats called Thursday for restricting access to weapons after the worst high school shooting in American history, two South Florida Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio, who received millions of dollars in political help from the National Rifle Association, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the single largest recipient of direct NRA campaign cash among Floridians in the House of Representatives since 1998, said gun control legislation won’t stop mass shootings.

Rubio’s voice trembled with emotion during a 30-minute interview with the Miami Herald in which he argued that legislation to limit access to semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 or laws to make it tougher to purchase firearms legally wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“It is unfair to argue that there’s nothing we can do other than be more careful,” Rubio said. “It’s also unfair to argue that the reason why people are suffering today is because there’s some great law out there that if we had just passed it, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s not accurate. Both of those things are wrong.”

Rubio, who earned an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association during his 2016 reelection campaign and who ranks among the top 20 members of Congress in money received — $3.3 million — from gun-rights interest groups in either direct or indirect campaign help, said Wednesday’s shooting touched on multiple areas of public policy, including firearms, mental health funding, school safety and law enforcement oversight. A bill that affects one area of public policy doesn’t prevent the next mass shooter from successfully plotting an attack, Rubio said.

“I’m not saying that these can’t be balanced out, but these public policy issues are more complex that what is often reported,” Rubio said. “There’s a rationale beyond just the NRA why some of these things meet resistance.”

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former Marine who used a version of the AR-15 when he served in the Iraq War, said Rubio’s response to the shooting was no different than anything else he’s heard from Republicans.

“When you have people like Marco Rubio, who has had several killings in his state by people using these types of weapons, and he consistently asks for prayers and does nothing, its symptomatic of what is going on with the Republican Party,” Gallego said. “Marco Rubio and the Republican Party are in the pockets of the NRA and they’ll never do anything. They’ll just talk a game and think everyone forgets.”

Rubio said groups like the NRA support him and run crucial television ads during heated campaigns because he supports gun rights.

“I think there’s two reasons why they would do it,” Rubio said. “One, they didn’t like my opponent, and two I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment and I remain a supporter of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is not the cause of this. The cause of this is individuals who happen to abuse that liberty and that constitutional right for the purposes of conducting these atrocities.”

Read more here.

Rubio votes against bipartisan immigration bill; Nelson votes for it

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via @learyreports

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson were on opposite sides of a bipartisan immigration bill that died Thursday afternoon amid a veto threat from the White House.

Rubio, who helped write the 2013 bipartisan immigration overhaul, voted against the bill, while earlier indicated he could be supportive. Nelson voted for the measure.

It would have provided 1.8 million Dreamers a chance for citizenship plus budgeted $25 billion for a border wall.

The bill was crafted by moderate Republicans and Democrats billing themselves as the "Common Sense Coalition." They described the proposal as having the most bipartisan support in the Senate, but it came under fire from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security.

The vote was 54-45, six votes short of the 60 needed to advance.

The moderates' measure does not alter a lottery that distributes about 55,000 visas annually to people from diverse countries. Trump has proposed ending it and redistributing its visas to other immigrants.

The group spent weeks trying to craft a middle ground on the thorny immigration issue.

The defeat casts serious doubt about a solution for the Dreamer issue.

February 14, 2018

‘I said a little prayer’— Florida lawmakers react to Broward school shooting

Bill Nelson

@alextdaugherty 

Democrats representing Broward County and South Florida seethed Wednesday over congressional inaction on firearms, hours after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 people dead. It was the second time in just over a year that Florida’s second-most populous county experienced a major mass shooting.

But while Democrats demanded action, Republicans generally avoided calling for legislative change, at least in the immediate aftermath.

“I said a little prayer, for all of them, then the next thought that popped into my head was, do we have to go through this again?” Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said. “Look how many of these mass shootings have occurred and we say enough is enough and then nothing is done. Here in the Senate we cannot even get Senator [Dianne] Feinstein’s bill that would prohibit people on the terrorist watch list from buying a gun.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat who represents Parkland in Washington, choked up during an interview as he waited for a flight home. He said he spoke at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just a few weeks ago.

“I have a picture of an adorable six year old who was killed at Sandy Hook whose father gave me that picture so I can remember every day why were working so hard to try to reduce gun violence,” Deutch said. “Everyone cares about safe communities. I shouldn’t need a mass shooting in my district to give me legitimacy to talk about why we need to prevent more mass shootings but I guess that’s the sad reality.”

Florida state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who represents northern Broward County in Tallahassee, said “This country and its elected leaders collectively have failed our children.”

Read more here.

February 13, 2018

The FBI is investigating a state-affiliated Chinese institute targeted by Marco Rubio

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@alextdaugherty

The top FBI official said his agency is investigating the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-affiliated institution operating at Miami Dade College that has been criticized and canceled at some American universities over concerns about propaganda and censorship. 

"We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes, we've been watching that development for a while," FBI director Chris Wray said during a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on Tuesday. "It's just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program but it is something we're watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps." 

Wray was responding to questions from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who sent a letter last week to Miami Dade College and three other Florida colleges along with Broward County’s Cypress Bay High School urging them to disassociate themselves from the Confucius Institutes. 

"It is my view that they are complicit in these efforts to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half-truths designed to present Chinese history, government or official policy in the most favorable light," Rubio said to Wray. "Do you share concerns about Confucius Institutes as a tool of that whole of society effort and as a way to exploit the sort of naive view among some in the academic circles about what the purpose of the institutes could be?" 

In November, Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón referred to the institute as “a treasure in our community.” The college praised the program as “a relentless driver of positive social change through the expansion of community education and enrichment services in Chinese language and culture.” 

Rubio's comments came during an open hearing with top intelligence officials to discuss world wide threats. Rubio used his line of questioning to ask about Chinese infiltration of the U.S. academic community. 

"We have intensive studies going on throughout the intelligence community relative A to Z on what China is doing," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said. 

The Confucius Institutes are also viewed by detractors as a quiet way for the Communist Chinese government to spread its influence across the world through classes over which it holds tight editorial controls that are written into its contracts with host universities. In addition to Miami Dade College, there are also programs at the University of South Florida, the University of West Florida and the University of North Florida. 

The University of West Florida said it would not renew its contract with the Confucius Institutes after Rubio sent his letter last week. 

This post was updated to include the University of West Florida's decision not to renew the Confucius Institutes' contract. 

February 12, 2018

NOAA gets $400 million in disaster funds in latest spending bill

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@alextdaugherty

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 

February 09, 2018

Here’s what’s blocking senators from reaching a DACA deal

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via @emma_dumain

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.

How South Florida lawmakers voted on a budget deal without a DACA fix

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@alextdaugherty

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. 

February 08, 2018

Why Florida’s orange growers will get more money than Puerto Rico’s broken power grid

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@alextdaugherty

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.

February 07, 2018

TPS solution for Haitians not a priority in high-stakes immigration debate

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@alextdaugherty

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.