June 16, 2017

Trump defies congressional Republicans who want closer relations with Cuba

Trump Cuba

@alextdaugherty 

Congressional Republicans from outside South Florida opposed President Donald Trump’s revamped Cuba policy announcement on Friday, as lawmakers from states with agricultural and trade interests on the island fretted about the economic implications of a ban on U.S. business with the Cuban military apparatus.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a proponent of ending the Cuban embargo.

Flake introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake implored Senate leadership to put his legislation on the floor for a vote.

“The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” Flake said in a statement.

But President Trump ignored the wishes of the majority of the Senate to fulfill a campaign pledge for conservative Cubans in South Florida: As part of the policy change, travel to Cuba for American citizens will face increased scrutiny.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism, we will enforce the embargo and we will take concrete steps to insure investments flow directly to the people,” Trump said in Miami on Friday.

As the president doled out heaps of praise for Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the two South Florida Republicans who played an integral role in shaping the revamped Cuba policy, other congressional Republicans began to voice their displeasure.

“I have a bill that would allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, one of my compatriots has a bill that would allow agricultural exports,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a proponent of ending the trade embargo. “These are all Republican measures these are all Republican bills. We tried the same approach for 50 years and it didn’t work.”

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who represents a state with a large agricultural sector, said the newly announced changes will hurt U.S. businesses seeking to expand abroad.

“Cuba is a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and when we don’t sell to Cuba, another country does,” Moran said.

Read more here. 

June 15, 2017

Inside Rubio and Diaz-Balart's Oval Office push to crack down on Cuba

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@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sat in the Oval Office last month, surrounded by two Cabinet secretaries, the national security adviser and an array of top White House staff, and asked President Donald Trump to put his power behind their plans for Cuba.

The Miami Republican lawmakers had been pressing Trump for months to unwind former President Barack Obama’s policies, bringing up Cuba at every opportunity: Diaz-Balart when he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met in private with their former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence, in February; Rubio when he and his wife joined the president and first lady for an intimate dinner two days later, and again when the senator flew aboard Air Force One to Florida in March.

The administration had been waiting for deputies across Cabinet agencies to review existing Cuba regulations. By the May 3 Oval Office meeting, their recommendation was in: Keep Obama’s push to normalize U.S. relations with the regime of Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

That’s not what Trump wanted. As a candidate, he’d promised change to South Florida’s Cuban-American hardliners, including Bay of Pigs veterans who endorsed him, a gesture that stuck with Trump and that he repeatedly mentioned as president.

“The president said, ‘Look, I want to do this,’” Rubio said.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press

June 13, 2017

Rex Tillerson doesn't get into Cuba policy review specifics during Senate hearing

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@alextdaugherty 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not get into specifics when asked about President Donald Trump's Cuba announcement set for Friday in Miami as senators from both parties questioned Tillerson during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"Can you give us some of the general contours you see shaping up relative to what that policy is going to be?" asked committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and Trump ally. 

"The general approach...is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity go to on as possible," Tillerson said. "We do see the sunny side as I describe it, we do see the benefits of that and to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and the treatment of its people. Our concern is that they may be the biggest beneficiaries of all of this which promotes the continuance of that regime." 

Tillerson said that pressure on the Cuban government to implement democratic reforms "has been, in our view, largely removed now" after former President Barack Obama strengthened relations between the United States and Cuba in 2016. 

"I was down there not long ago and America has always felt that if it could do more business with folks it would pave the way for democracy," Corker said. "I do hope we end up with a policy that will cause the Cuban people themselves to reach their aspirations." 

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, a supporter of Obama's efforts, rattled off a host of business ventures now possible in Cuba after Obama's changes, including the introduction of Airbnb into the Cuban economy. 

"Do you agree we should continue these efforts or do you believe we should return to the failed policies of the Cold War?" Udall asked. 

"Well, what you have described is the sunny side of the relationship and it's all positive and it's great," Tillerson said. "There is the dark side though and that is Cuba has failed to improve it's own human rights record. What we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is if were going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship Cuba must begin to address the human rights challenges. Within the sunny side of the relationship there are troubling elements to us that bring the relationship into conflict with existing statute obligations. Are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is, we are." 

Tillerson also said he supports efforts to improve internet access in Cuba, but hedged that the focus of the policy review is making sure the Cuban government does not financially benefit from increased U.S. involvement on the island. 

In late May, 55 senators from both parties signed on to a bill that would fully eliminate travel restrictions to the island. 

Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — have been involved in the Cuba review in recent months. 

Friday's announcement will reportedly take place at the Manuel Artime Theater, a former church that is symbolic for Cuban exiles. 

June 05, 2017

Progressives plan to target Diaz-Balart, Mast in summer campaign

@PatriciaMazzei

A progressive political group plans to target two Florida Republicans -- Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Brian Mast -- over the summer, to try to drum up grassroots political attention to potential congressional races.

"The groups will help mobilize communities through on-the-ground grassroots engagement and investments in multi-platform media campaigns to hold Republicans accountable for betraying the needs of their constituents and work to put more districts on the map for Democrats in 2018," according to Monday's announcement from House Majority PAC, America Votes Action Fund, Priorities USA and American Bridge.

Diaz-Balart, Mast and 10 other Republicans will be targeted over their vote for House Republicans' healthcare plan.

The progressive groups aren't going after Rep. Carlos Curbelo -- not because he's not important to them, but because he's already a top-level Democratic target for 2018. Mast and especially Diaz-Balart are less vulnerable, so their reelections have drawn less political scrutiny so far.

May 17, 2017

As Trump World turns, Republican lawmakers are forced to react. And react. And react.

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@PatriciaMazzei

It’s become de rigueur for members of Congress: another day, another request from reporters to comment on the latest crisis overtaking the White House.

This week, the questions centered on the momentous revelations that President Donald Trump gave classified information to Russia in the Oval Office — and that fired FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo saying Trump asked him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Democrats have been uniformly critical. But for many Republican lawmakers, navigating the halls of the U.S. Capitol has turned into an exercise in deploying deliberately cautious language — while also sounding increasingly frustrated with the Trump administration.

Take, for example, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

Curbelo, one of the most threatened GOP congressmen, is a frequent Trump critic who had been facing stinging criticism in his Democratic-leaning district for voting for House Republicans’ healthcare legislation. He backs the formation of a select committee to investigate the allegations against Trump.

More here.

Photo credit: Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images

May 04, 2017

Curbelo, Diaz-Balart vote for Obamacare replacement

Curbelo
@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart voted Thursday for the American Health Care Act, the House GOP’s controversial proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Both congressmen had refused to divulge their positions on the legislation ahead of the high-profile vote. Their districts have among the highest Obamacare enrollment rates in the country; Curbelo in particular is politically vulnerable in the Democratic-leaning 26th district.

“I refuse to condemn my community and the country to a health care system burdened by ever-increasing costs, fewer options, government threats and fines against citizens, rampant fraud, inefficiency, and mismanagement,” Curbelo said in a statement. “So along with my colleagues, I’ve been working on legislation to create a truly patient-centered healthcare system where every American has access to quality care.”

Curbelo highlighted improvements from the original version of the AHCA, which was pulled before a vote in April because GOP leaders knew it would fail. That time, Curbelo refused to take a position on the bill.

Since then, Curbelo said, lawmakers secured $38 billion to help more vulnerable patients get access to health insurance, and $1.5 billion in Low Income Pool money for public safety-net hospitals, like Miami’s Jackson Memorial.

Still, he noted the legislation continues to need work, and said he’s reached out to the Senate, which will now take up the proposal.

“Today’s vote is just a step in the legislative process for this bill — not the end of it,” Curbelo said. We have worked hard to improve the legislation, but we have a long way to go.”

His spokeswoman said Curbelo was making a “game-time decision” on the vote. But his office released pre-taped video statements in English and Spanish explaining his decision moments after he voted yes. His staff later said Curbelo prepared two sets of statements to be able to provide an immediate explanation of his decision once he made it.

Curbelo and Diaz-Balart’s local colleague, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who announced her retirement from Congress earlier this week, voted no, as she had promised. She was the only Florida Republican to do so, along with all Florida Democrats.

More here.

 

March 29, 2017

Miami Republicans divided over internet privacy rules

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@PatriciaMazzei

Two Miami Republicans, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, voted this week to lift restrictions on internet providers from tracking and sharing personal data without consent, joining a Republican majority that sent the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk.

Diaz-Balart's office said he supported the bill because it "eliminates confusing regulations" that allow both the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet. The FCC rules that would be repealed by the law apply only to major providers like Verizon but not to giant websites like Google.

"This evens the playing field for the entire internet," Diaz-Balart spokeswoman Katrina Valdés said in a statement. "At the end of the day, the bill doesn't strip consumer privacy, but rather, strengthens the power of the one agency that had already been enforcing it."

Curbelo made a similar argument.

"The FCC has been trying to expand its rulemaking authority and grow our government and regulations in a way that inhibits the free market competition," he said in a statement. "This joint resolution does not modify or reduce existing privacy regulations, and does not put consumers at any increased risk."

But the third local Republican lawmaker, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, disagrees. Ros-Lehtinen was absent from Tuesday's vote because she had to go out of town to be with her daughter, the congresswoman's office said Wednesday. But if Ros-Lehtinen had been in Washington, she said she would have broken with Diaz-Balart and Curbelo.

"I would have voted no on the bill because of the potential for individuals' private information to be shared," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald after a reporter inquired about her absence. "Many treat their online searches and activity as a part of their private lives and to have that information exposed for no or little other purpose than targeted advertising or data mining betrays the public's trust." 

All House Democrats voted against. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which plans to target Curbelo in the 2018 election, accused him of putting "corporate interests over the private, personal interests of Florida."

When the Senate passed the measure last week, Floridians Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio split their votes along party lines. Rubio, a Republican, voted in favor, while Nelson, a Democrat, voted against.

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald

March 27, 2017

Democrats launch first video ads against Curbelo and Diaz-Balart over healthcare votes in committee

@PatriciaMazzei

Republicans failed last week to pass an Affordable Care Act replacement -- but not before two GOP lawmakers from South Florida voted for the proposed American Health Care Act in congressional committees.

Those votes by Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart will be highlighted in a new digital ad campaign -- the first of the 2018 election cycle -- by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which says it's spending five figures to roll videos against 14 vulnerable Republicans who also voted in committee for the doomed legislation.

"You deserve better," the ads say. 

The ads, geographically targeted and set to pre-roll ahead of videos on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, are geared at "swing voters 35 years and older, grassroots activists in the districts, and those that have engaged with the topic of 'healthcare' on social media," the DCCC said. 

The party will be spending more in Curbelo's swing 26th district than in any other district in the country -- six times more, to be exact -- in order to test which voters might be more persuaded by healthcare attack.

Curbelo voted for the AHCA in the Ways and Means Committee but later said he was undecided on the final bill; Diaz-Balart voted in the Budget Committee and ultimately said he'd vote for the legislation. It never came to a vote because Speaker Paul Ryan withdrew it, knowing he didn't have enough Republican support.

"This targeted ad campaign makes clear that Representatives Curbelo and Diaz-Balart’s vote for this devastating Republican repeal bill will not be forgotten," DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement. "Curbelo and Diaz-Balart knowingly voted for a bill to raise premiums and deductibles, slap an age tax on older folks, and rip insurance away from 24 million hardworking Americans."

The National Republican Congressional Committee came to Curbelo and Diaz-Balart's defense, particularly noting Curbelo's ambivalence toward the final bill.

"Congressman Curbelo and Congressman Diaz-Balart promised to reform health care, and were committed to moving proposals forward to continue the debate," NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said in a statement. "For his part, Curbelo never came out in support of the bill because he was working to secure changes would be made to in the Senate to protect his most vulnerable constituents, and that the Administration would rectify Obama's disastrous funding cuts to Florida's Low Income Pool."

This post has been updated.

March 24, 2017

Diaz-Balart, previously a 'lean no,' says he'll vote yes on health care

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via @lesleyclark

WASHINGTON -- Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said Friday he will vote for the American Health Care Act, after saying for a week that he was leaning against it.

The congressman said the bill isn't perfect.

"There are still some issues," he said. But he credited the centrist House GOP "Tuesday Group" with making some modifications, such as adding $15 billion for certain healthcare services. That was "a really big improvement," according to Diaz-Balart.

"I've been focused on trying to get changes," he said. "We had some success. Did I get everything I wanted? No, by any stretch of the imagination."

Diaz-Balart was among the lawmakers who met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday.

"It's pretty clear that this president is very serious about fulfilling what he said he was going to do," Diaz-Balart said, and the AHCA's failure would put a "big damper" on tax reform.

"If this fails, it's a big hit," he said. "It makes it very difficult to do the tax reform that a lot of us think that we need to do."

One of the issues Diaz-Balart previously raised with White House officials during the healthcare debate was the administration's inaction on Cuba policy.

Though Diaz-Balart insisted his vote isn't about politics, he said sinking health care would be "a big blow to the agenda -- and that means everything."

"In the legislative process, every day there is a tough issue, and the reality is that once this is done, we go on to the next issue," he said. "The repeal and replace is dead if it dies today... This is the one shot to deal with health care."

--with Patricia Mazzei

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

March 23, 2017

Miami Republicans will have to make up their minds on health care today

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@PatriciaMazzei

With a vote looming Thursday evening on House Republicans' healthcare bill, two of three Miami lawmakers whose districts have among the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees have yet to announce their support or opposition.

Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart have been undecided -- with Curbelo leaning "Yes" and Diaz-Balart leaning "No" -- since both voted for the American Health Care Act in different House committees.

Curbelo helped move the law out of the Ways and Means Committee before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that 14 million Americans would drop or lose their insurance coverage in 2018 under the law; Diaz-Balart helped break a tie to pass the legislation out of the Budget Committee, despite saying he had concerns with it.

The White House has been wooing Diaz-Balart and other ambivalent Republicans all week. Curbelo was among the group of moderates who met Wednesday night with House Speaker Paul Ryan. They reached no broad agreement.

The third Miami Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was the first Florida member of Congress to oppose the bill -- and she still does, she said Thursday.

"After studying the impact of this legislation on my constituents, I will vote no on this bill because it does not provide adequate solutions for the working poor, disabled, and elderly in South Florida," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "Too many of my constituents will be left paying more for coverage and many will be left without coverage at all. The cuts and changes to Medicaid will make it more difficult to effectively care for uninsured patients as well as individuals with high costs of coverage due to special needs or chronic diseases. Additionally, costs for seniors will increase significantly as insurance companies will charge older Americans exorbitantly high premiums and fees which many cannot afford."

Later, Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview on WIOD-AM (510) that any of the proposed cuts to "essential" healthcare benefits to appease the most conservative members of the GOP caucus would amount to a "humongous concession."

"Oh my gosh -- why have insurance?" she told host Fernand Amandi, who is also a Democratic pollster.

Amandi asked if the White House had tried to entice Ros-Lehtinen to change her mind. She said she'd gotten overtures from "people who never even knew I existed."

"I did get invited to bowl at the White House. Yaaaay!" she said. "But I turned that down."

Spokeswomen for Curbelo and Diaz-Balart said Thursday morning the lawmakers are in negotiation meetings over the bill all day.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed 56 percent of respondents oppose the AHCA, and only 17 percent support it.

This post has been updated.

Photo credit: Hector Gabino, el Nuevo Herald