October 03, 2017

Miami politicians received donations from the National Rifle Association in 2016

Mario Diaz-Balart

@alextdaugherty 

Three of the four Republicans who represent Miami-Dade County in Washington received at least $2,000 from the National Rifle Association during the 2016 campaign, according to campaign finance records from the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, who was in the midst of a reelection campaign against former Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, received $9,900 during the 2016 campaign. That total was the largest amount the NRA gave to any Florida lawmaker in Congress. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who won an expensive reelection bid against former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, received $2,500 while Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart received $2,000.

Diaz-Balart is also the single largest recipient of NRA cash among Floridians in Congress since 1998, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Diaz-Balart has received $26,450, according to the Post. 

The National Rifle Association is facing pressure from Democrats and anti-gun activists in the wake of a mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead and over 500 people injured after a lone gunman fired on an outdoor concert from a high-rise hotel.

An NRA-backed bill that would make it easier to obtain gun silencers is facing fresh opposition after law enforcement officers in Las Vegas said that tracking the sounds of the shooting allowed them to find the gunman faster. None of the Miami lawmakers are cosponsors on that bill. 

Critics of the nation's largest gun lobby argue that the NRA blocks sensible measures in Congress that would reduce the chances of a mass shooting. In the 2016 cycle, the NRA contributed $839,215 to federal candidates nationwide and the Post reports that the NRA gave over $3.5 million to members of Congress since 1998. 

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Representatives for Rubio, Curbelo and Diaz-Balart's campaigns did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

September 28, 2017

Lawmakers urge Trump to let U.S. companies assist in Cuba's hurricane recovery (updated)

Cuba Hurricane Irma

@alextdaugherty 

A group of lawmakers who want more trade with Cuba are urging President Donald Trump to suspend an Obama-era restriction on what types of relief and reconstruction supplies can be sent to the island from the United States after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Cuba's north coast as a Category Five storm. 

On Thursday, 65 lawmakers, including 60 Democrats and five Republicans, signed a letter to Trump asking him to let U.S. businesses send construction supplies to Cuba without approval from the Treasury and Commerce Departments. 

"Historical grievances should be put aside during a humanitarian crisis like this, the people of Cuba need urgent support to rebuild," the letter said. "Fortunately, there is a simple change you can make that would provide necessary support to the Cuban people while at the same time helping U.S. businesses: remove restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export needed relief and reconstruction supplies to the Cuban government and its people." 

The plan only applies to private U.S. companies that want to provide construction materials and other forms of relief to the Cuban government and citizens. It does not ask the U.S. government to provide taxpayer funds for Cuba's recovery from Irma. 

Current regulations allow pre-approved sales of construction materials to private entities in Cuba serving privately-owned buildings. Public structures in Cuba, including schools and hospitals, are not eligible for U.S. materials to rebuild after a storm. 

"At the end of the day America is a very big economy, we’re capable of selling building supply products to Cuba and working on aid packages in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico at the same time," said James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties. "It would be different if we were saying pull money out of one pocket and put it into another." 

The Cuban government hasn't reached out to U.S. officials asking for relief after Hurricane Irma. Southcom Commander Adm. Kurt Tidd said in a briefing last week at that Cuban officials did not ask U.S. military personnel in Guantanamo Bay for help after the storm. 

“The Cubans do not ask for assistance there typically," Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, said last week. "I’m hard pressed to remember if the Cubans have ever asked us for assistance after a hurricane or some kind of natural disaster." 

The letter was led by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., one of the more liberal members of Congress. But conservatives who want to end the embargo like Reps. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Ted Poe of Texas also signed the letter. 

"At this difficult time for the Cuban people, denying them the ability to purchase high-quality, American-made construction, medical and other crucial supplies is cruel and counterproductive," the letter said. "This change would not be controversial." 

Hurricane Irma killed at least 10 people in Cuba and caused billions in damage along the island's north coast.

Update 7:41pm Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the longest-serving Cuban-American in Congress, sharply criticized the letter in a statement to the Miami Herald.

"In the aftermath of previous hurricanes that have ripped through Cuba, the Castro regime has responded to the suffering of the people in a feckless and callous manner, as demonstrated by its refusal to accept assistance that comes from the U.S.," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Because they are blinded by ideology, some Members foolishly believe that US regulations are responsible for the destruction of Cuba's infrastructure and are hampering the island's recovery. The regime cares little about the citizens before, during and after hurricanes but it does care deeply about spreading its lies about our warm and generous nation."

Update 11:20pm Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who helped draft Trump's tougher Cuba policy earlier this year, is also against the proposal. 

"When the United States generously offered humanitarian aid in the wake of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Castro regime flatly rejected that offer," Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "Instead, it cynically attempted to leverage the devastation to demand financing that would bolster its coffers. I wholeheartedly support humanitarian and pro-democracy assistance to the Cuban people.   But as the regime has demonstrated for more than half a century, business deals with the regime only benefit the regime."

September 26, 2017

Lawmakers warn Trump: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands could become Katrina-like disaster

AP_17269090675075

@alextdaugherty 

The Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could become a Hurricane Katrina-like political disaster if he does not respond to the storms’ aftermath more decisively, congressional lawmakers from both parties warned Tuesday.

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spent Monday in San Juan with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress, warned Trump that “If you don’t take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.”

 

President George W. Bush’s response to Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, was criticized as initially weak and insensitive.

Bush did a flyover in Air Force One to survey the damage rather than land, a move that he described in 2010 as a “huge mistake.”
When Bush did visit the area, he praised the much-maligned performance of then-FEMA Secretary Michael Brown.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said as water and provisions were in short supply for New Orleans survivors of the storm.

Tuesday, lawmakers delivered the dire message to the White House following a Monday night tweet by Trump in which he spoke about the devastation in Puerto Rico but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president wrote.

Read more here.

September 21, 2017

Trump wants to eliminate the federal program that oversees long-term hurricane relief

Tropical_Weather_67855

@alextdaugherty 

The federal agency tasked with managing billions in long-term hurricane-relief money is on the Trump administration’s chopping block.

In May, President Donald Trump announced that he wanted to cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Block Grant Program, which administers about $3 billion a year to local communities for programs like Meals on Wheels.

“The program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated a measurable impact on communities,” the White House explained it its budget document.

But the Community Block Grant Program has also managed more than $50 billion in taxpayer dollars since 1993 to help with long-term disaster relief. Another $7.4 billion is coming after Congress approved a Hurricane Harvey aid bill earlier this month, and more money will likely flow to HUD as Congress formulates relief packages for Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“We have gained a high degree of experience and knowledge as to how these funds can be applied to long-term recovery,” said Stan Gimont, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for grant programs.
 
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is tasked with short-term disaster relief, HUD coordinates requests for long-term relief by local governments. The agency determines which state and local governments are most in need and evaluates various grant proposals from areas hit by natural disasters.

In many cases, the HUD money often ends up in the hands of homeowners and businesses after local governments dole it out.

“They have been silent warriors really since [Hurricane] Andrew,” said Jeffrey Thomas, a New Orleans lawyer who supervised that city’s long-term disaster recovery plan after Hurricane Katrina. “Much attention is given to FEMA in the aftermath of a disaster, but the importance of HUD can’t be understated. FEMA repairs broken public things... but that goes away pretty quickly. A rebuild in the private sphere is all about the HUD money.”

Thomas said FEMA gives as much as $33,000 per household in the 18 months after a disaster, but HUD money will be vital to homeowners in the Florida Keys who lost everything.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear how the federal government would coordinate long-term disaster relief without the Community Development Block Grant program.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, is a member of the powerful congressional committee tasked with determining how much money HUD should get for disaster relief. He doesn’t think the Community Block Grant Program should be eliminated.

“The CDBG Disaster Recovery program is a critical tool that helps communities and neighborhoods rebuild and start the recovery process following a natural disaster,” he said.

Diaz-Balart’s office cited the sewer system in Everglades City as an example of a public project that would benefit from HUD funding after Hurricane Irma. The system, which runs on electrical power, is still not working and sewage is backing up into the street.

The long-term funds could be used for a project like the Everglades City sewer to not only repair it, but strengthen so it can better withstand future hurricanes.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who serves alongside Diaz-Balart on the federal spending committee, wasn’t happy that the Trump administration’s initial request for hurricane relief money earlier this month didn’t include HUD funding.

“The president in his initial request for Irma supplemental funds did not include CDBG,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It was only at the request of Congress that those funds were added. They lack the empathy and understanding of what the essential impact of CDBG funds are.”

Read more here.

September 14, 2017

Miami Republican demands straight answer from Trump on Dreamers

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

@alextdaugherty 

Donald Trump was striking a deal over dinner with Democrats on Wednesday night to save Dreamers from deportation. By Thursday morning, his aides were playing catch up and insisting nothing changed in his position on immigration or border security.

Now, as confusion reigns over Trump’s true intentions for dealing with 800,000 people affected by a now-canceled Obama-era order that allowed them to live and work in the United States, one senior Republican lawmaker wants the White House to come clean.

“It is unfortunate that the President continues to play coy with young people who benefit our American society instead of being serious and straightforward about an important policy that will impact the lives of nearly 800,000 DREAMers,” said Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a statement provided to Miami Herald.

Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior Republican from Florida and a co-sponsor of a bill called the Dream Act that gives these young people a path to citizenship, was unable to be in Washington for congressional business this week, as her district continues to recover from Hurricane Irma.

“We hear reports that he is working on a deal that would help DREAMers, but he flatly denies such a deal,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Instead of changing with the prevailing wind, the President must be clear about his intentions. If he is interested in protecting DREAMers, he must cut out the rhetoric of trying to please all sides and, instead, put forth clear guidance on what legislative language he is willing to accept or reject on protecting Dreamers.”
 
As Trump looks increasingly willing to buck his far-right base to score some legislative victories — first on the nation’s borrowing limit and now on border security and the immigration policy known as DACA — three Miami-based Republicans find themselves in a new and potentially influential role as center-right lawmakers able to form a coalition with Democrats. Including Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo have something to gain from Trump’s dealmaking with Democrats.
 
Read more here.

September 12, 2017

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

Middle Key Boat Block

@alextdaugherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

September 06, 2017

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

Marco Rubio

@alextdaugherty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here. 

September 05, 2017

Trump administration 'rescinds' DACA, and Miami Republicans are not happy about it

@PatriciaMazzei

South Florida reaction is started to roll in about President Donald Trump's decision to wind down a program that protects immigrants brought into the country illegally as children -- and his fellow Republicans are unhappy about it.

August 31, 2017

Diaz-Balart to Miami-Dade: 'C'mon, man. Use me.'

Diaz-balart
via @doug_hanks

As Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart tells it, he watches from the chairman’s perch of a powerful transportation committee just waiting to use his authority to steer billions of dollars in federal transit aid to his home county of Miami-Dade. The wait continues.

“C’mon man,” Diaz-Balart said. “Use me.”

His comments to the Miami Herald Editorial Board this week capture one of the biggest divides in Miami-Dade’s ongoing debate about whether to pursue an expensive rail expansion or make do with some sort of modernized bus system.

Advocates of rail say county leaders’ unwillingness to pick a single rail corridor to be built first has left Miami-Dade paralyzed. An ongoing study of six potential rail lines, they say, leaves Miami-Dade unable to start the lengthy federal application process that could eventually let Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, use his influence as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for transportation to advance a hometown project to the top of the funding list.

Skeptics see the years required for federal approval as a delay that residents won’t tolerate as traffic worsens. Now, Mayor Carlos Gimenez has joined their ranks. A recent memo from the mayor and his financial team outlines a more daunting objection: Even if Washington came through with billions to build new rail lines for Miami-Dade, the county doesn’t have the millions needed to operate it.

More here.

July 27, 2017

Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart's office dogs named top 10 cutest on Capitol Hill

Nola Jefferson Memorial

@alextdaugherty

There's a ton of inside-the-beltway lists that rank the most beautiful, powerful or wealthy people in Washington.  

But one inside-the-beltway list eschews humans in favor of dogs, and Miami is well represented. 

A weeks-long competition by Independent Journal Review ranked the top 25 dogs on Capitol Hill, and two dogs that frequent Rep. Carlos Curbelo's office and Mario Diaz Balart's office made the top 10. 

Riggins, a 2-year-old Welsh terrier owned by Curbelo communications director Joanna Rodriguez, placed ninth in the voting. Riggins donned a blue bow tie in his photo shoot and according to Rodriguez, Riggins was cute enough to end the Curbelo office's ban on dogs.

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Nola, a 7-year-old French bulldog owned by Diaz-Balart's chief of staff Cesar Gonzalez, placed sixth in the voting. Nola is named after the city of New Orleans, where Gonzalez attended college. She enjoys eating plastic water bottles. 

Nola Couch

The winner of the competition after more than 30,000 votes was Koji, a 2-year-old American Eskimo who belongs to House committee staffer Zach Hunter and White House staffer Mallory Hunter. Koji won a golden water bowl for his cuteness. 

Follow Riggins on Instagram here.