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January 16, 2018

New Rubio bill would punish Russian meddling in future U.S. elections

Marco Rubio 3

@alextdaugherty

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have a message for Moscow: Any interference in future U.S. elections will be met with swift punishment if Congress acts.

The Florida Republican who ran for president in 2016 and the Maryland Democrat will introduce a bill on Tuesday that sets explicit punishments for the Russian government — and other countries — if they meddle in future federal elections and directs the Director of National Intelligence to issue a report on potential election interference within one month of any federal election.

Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill comes as President Donald Trump has characterized two congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election as Democrat-led “witch hunts” and cast doubt on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that has already indicted four former Trump campaign officials, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

“For 11 months, they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government, and it has hurt our government,” Trump said. “It’s a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.”

But as some Republicans have joined Trump in questioning Mueller’s motives, Rubio has expressed confidence in the special counsel’s investigation and continues to argue that Russian interference is an ongoing threat for future U.S. elections. A 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary (Hillary) Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

Rubio and Van Hollen’s bill, called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, is the first bill since the 2016 presidential election that sets specific punishments for the Russian government and other countries that interfere in U.S. political campaigns.

“We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” Rubio said in a statement. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”

The bill, if passed, codifies specific penalties for the Russians that must implemented within 10 days if the Director of National Intelligence determines that interference took place.

Read more here.

January 15, 2018

Xavier Suarez won't run for Congress. Eyeing Miami-Dade mayor for 2020

@doug_hanks

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez flirted with running for Congress this year in a long-shot bid to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as an independent. He recently declared that flirtation over, allowing him to now flirt with running for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. 

"I would be running as an independent," said Suarez, a former Miami mayor whose son, Francis Suarez, now holds the job. "A lot of people didn't think that was viable."

Suarez has told supporters privately he will not seek the seat of Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican representing a left-leaning district that's seen as a likely Democratic pick-up in the fall. Bruno Barreiro, a Miami-Dade commissioner, is running for the Republican nomination in the District 27 race, and Suarez's interest raised the possibility of a second commissioner entering the contest. 

County commissioners hold non-partisan posts, as does the mayor. The current mayor, Republican Carlos Gimenez, must leave in 2020 under the county's term-limit rules. The mayoral race is expected to be a wide-open contest to succeed Gimenez.

Suarez, who holds the commission seat Gimenez surrendered to become mayor, almost ran against Gimenez in 2016. Suarez's political committee aired attack ads against Gimenez, but Suarez ultimately decided to run for reelection instead in 2016. He also faces term limits requiring him to leave the commission in 2020, and has privately told supporters he's interested in running for mayor in 2020. 

Suarez declined to address his mayoral ambitions during a recent interview that saw him mostly close the door on Congress.

"I am not considering a congressional race," he said. "But that could change."

Asked why he's no longer considering a run for Congress, Suarez pointed to Washington winters as particularly unappealing for Miami's first Cuban-born mayor.

"I hate to say it, but the cold is a factor," he said, citing a recent trip to Boston. "My blood has thinned." 

Bill Nelson raised $2.4 million in last quarter, campaign says

BillNelsonCarlJusteApril172017

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson raised about $2.4 million in fourth quarter of 2017, his campaign said Monday, and has $8 million cash on hand.

The Democrat "received more than 30,600 contributions from more than 21,500 individual donors during the last three months of 2017 alone," his campaign said in a release.

Nelson is seeking a fourth term and is expected to face Gov. Rick Scott, though Scott hasn't declared he's running.

Miami Republican still silent as others in White House meeting defend Trump

Mario Diaz-Balart

@alextdaugherty

A high-stakes White House immigration meeting has devolved into a debate on whether President Donald Trump used the terms “shithole” or “shithouse” to refer to immigrants, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart still isn’t saying anything.

Two senators in the meeting, one Democrat and one Republican, said Trump used the profane language. Two other Republican senators in the meeting now say he didn’t utter “shit” in any form after initially saying they didn’t recall. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was also in the meeting, isn’t sure.

But Diaz-Balart hasn’t said whether he sides with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who say Trump used disparaging language, or Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., who said they didn’t hear it.

The Miami Republican has not confirmed or denied either of the accounts, even after Cotton and Perdue shifted their story on Sunday. Two Diaz-Balart staffers did not respond to questions on Monday and the congressman’s Washington and Doral offices were closed for Martin Luther King Day. It isn’t clear if Diaz-Balart challenged Trump in the meeting on his language towards immigrants.

Diaz-Balart confirmed he was at the White House in a statement on Friday and a spokesperson told Miami Herald news partner CBS 4 on Sunday that he doesn’t comment on private meetings.

“First of all, in his three decades of public service, Congressman Diaz-Balart has NEVER repeated, stated, or leaked what is said in private meetings,” a spokesperson said to CBS 4. “Secondly, he remains focused on the fact that in March, some 800,000 young people face deportation, and he continues to work on a bipartisan deal so that won’t happen. And finally Congressman Diaz-Balart fights and stands up for his community every single day, and his record in doing so is clear.”

Read more here.

Frederica Wilson says she’ll boycott Trump’s State of the Union speech

Frederica Wilson 2

via @learyreports

Rep. Frederica Wilson says she will not attend President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, citing his “recent racist and incendiary remarks about Haiti and African nations.”

The Miami Democrat, who earlier fought with Trump over his call to the widow of a fallen soldier, announced her decision Sunday evening. Several other Democrats, including Reps. Maxine Waters, John Lewis and Earl Blumenauer, have also said they will not attend.

“For the first time since I began serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, I will not be attending the president’s State of the Union address,” Wilson said in a statement. “I have no doubt that instead of delivering a message of inclusivity and an agenda that benefits all Americans, President Trump’s address will be full of innuendo, empty promises, and lies.

“During his disappointing and destructive first year in office, Mr. Trump has demeaned the presidency at every opportunity and cast doubt on our nation’s standing as a global leader. The United States’ reputation is smoldering in the ashes of his recent racist and incendiary remarks about Haiti and African nations. Many of his proposed domestic policies are harmful to people of color, low-income communities, and the middle class. It would be an embarrassment to be seen with him at a forum that under any other president would be an honor to attend.”

Read more here.

January 12, 2018

Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ comment may have a silver lining for Haitians

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@alextdaugherty

President Donald Trump’s descent into vulgarity during a high-stakes immigration meeting has brought attention to an often overlooked group in the national conversation: the over 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and potentially Honduras who could be forced to leave the U.S. in 2019.

The president’s remarks — he reportedly said “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out” and “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” — were in reference to immigrants living and working legally in the United States under Temporary Protected Status and to making changes to the visa lottery system.

The more than over 300,000 immigrants whose TPS will expire in 2019 have been largely under the radar compared to the 800,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. An Obama-era executive action known as DACA that allowed Dreamers to be protected from deportation expires in March, and is at the forefront of immigration discussions in Washington.

Several Miami lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, along with Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, have offered legislative solutions that would provide a path to permanent residency for some or all TPS recipients. South Florida is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haitians along with a sizable number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans.

“This is obviously tragic and very disheartening and disappointing in every way but I’m generally an optimist and when anything like this happens there’s also opportunity,” Curbelo said. “Now, many more Americans are aware of these immigrants who are in our country legally, who work here, pay taxes here and have been here in some cases more than two decades. All of a sudden they are extremely relevant in discussions regarding an immigration compromise, where before the conversation was almost exclusively about Dreamers and border security.”

Until now, most of the lawmakers pushing for letting TPS beneficiaries stay represent large urban areas like Miami and New York City, and many of them are Democrats outside Miami. Curbelo’s office also said his bill that addresses Dreamers, called the Raising America’s Children Act, has gotten significantly more attention than his bill to help TPS beneficiaries from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, called the ESPERER Act.

Curbelo said Trump’s vulgar comments will raise awareness outside Miami, and his spokesperson said “several Republicans have approached Carlos about it. They want to learn more.”

“We’ve added TPS beneficiaries as candidates for inclusion in a deal and that’s good news,” Curbelo said.

Read more here.

Rubio and Nelson say Senate stalling on disaster relief

Citrus

via @learyreports

Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson today urged their respective leaders to speed up a vote on a massive disaster relief package that will help Florida.

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

We write to highlight the importance of the disaster supplemental and urge you to consider this much needed appropriations measure on the floor as soon as possible. As you are well aware, last fall produced a number of devastating natural disasters, and our communities are still in need of federal assistance in order to continue their recovery efforts.  In particular, hurricanes and wildfires caused catastrophic destruction throughout the country, and we are deeply concerned that affected states, territories and local governments will not have the resources needed to address critical issues including agricultural aid, healthcare, and housing if Congress does not act immediately.

These disasters caused unprecedented destruction, and yet the federal government has still not provided an acceptable response.  Congress has a duty to fulfill, and a disaster supplemental appropriations bill would provide the federal aid our states and territories were promised months ago.  The House of Representatives passed a disaster supplemental, and while it did not fully encompass what is needed, it is past time for the Senate to act.  Unfortunately, Congress has delayed providing this aid for too long while our communities face the consequences of our inaction.

It is imperative that Americans nationwide know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct resources needed to help them in the recovery process. As such, we strongly urge you to bring the disaster relief measure to the floor for consideration at the earliest opportunity to ensure that our communities are able to address and assist their respective needs.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Also, Gov. Rick Scott has called on Senate leaders to act.

"It is imperative that we as a state see relief from Congress in the aftermath of these storms. Now that the House passed a significant relief package prior to Christmas, the Senate must act immediately to lock in this critical funding for Florida and ensure the full recovery of families in our state and across the country," Scott wrote in a Jan. 3 letter.

Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen to vote against a spending bill (again) unless there's a DACA fix

105Daca06 NEW PPP (1)

@alextdaugherty

The federal government will shut down on January 19 if Congress can't pass a temporary spending bill, and Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen both said they will vote against the legislation, like they did in December, if an immigration deal is not imminent. 

Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen are frustrated with the pace of negotiations on a solution for 800,000 immigrants, known as Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as young children. Congress must find a legislative solution for Dreamers by March after President Donald Trump announced he will rescind an Obama-era executive order that protected them from deportation. 

"The way things stand today, I plan to keep my commitment to Dreamers and if there’s some breakthrough next week I will consider (voting yes)," Curbelo said on Friday. "If the status quo persists I am going to continue pressuring the leadership in both parties to forge a compromise because 800,000 lives are at risk." 

The two Miami Republicans were the only House Republicans who voted against the bill that keeps the government running due to immigration concerns. If enough Republicans join them, they could gain leverage to forge an immigration deal.

The vast majority of House Democrats voted with Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen against the plan in December, though moderate Florida Democrats like Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Charlie Crist voted in favor of the spending bill, even though Democratic-leaning immigrant advocacy groups urged Democrats to vote against it. 

A Miami Republican was there, but won’t say if Trump called Haiti a ‘shithole’ country

Mario Diaz-Balart

@alextdaugherty @newsbysmiley

There were only seven lawmakers in the room when President Donald Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries.” Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart was one of them.

Did the Miami Republican hear the words himself? Did he challenge the president’s comment? He refuses to say, even after the lone Democrat in the room said Friday that Trump had “said hateful things, and he said them repeatedly.”

In a statement, Diaz-Balart merely confirmed that he was at the White House meeting on Thursday, but he did not back up Trump’s Twitter denial of the “shithole” comment, or the claim made by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said Friday that Trump had said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

“For months, I have been involved in numerous high level bipartisan meetings negotiating DACA, including Thursday’s meeting at the White House,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “There are almost 800,000 young DACA beneficiaries who will face imminent deportation in March if we do not reach a deal. I will not be diverted from all possible efforts to continue negotiating to stop the deportations. Nothing will divert my focus to stop the deportation of these innocent people whose futures are at stake.”

Diaz-Balart left Washington, D.C., on Thursday after his meeting with Trump. A Miami Herald reporter unsuccessfully attempted on Friday to find Diaz-Balart at his office in Doral, located across the street from the Trump Doral resort.

Trump’s reported comments caused an uproar in Miami, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Haitian Americans.

“The president calling Haiti a ‘shithole country’ ignores the contributions thousands of Haitians have made to our SoFla community and nation,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “Language like that shouldn't be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn't be heard in the White House.”

After the White House initially did not deny the “shithole” comment, which was first reported by the Washington Post, Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning to offer his version of events.

“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump tweeted. “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made — a big setback for DACA!”

Read more here.

January 11, 2018

Senate has its solution to sexual harassment problem: one hour of sexual harassment training for each senator

Lizbeth BenacquistoAfter months of dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against one of states' most powerful legislators -- and fear of retaliation by his accusers -- the Florida Senate has concluded it needs to make just one modest change to the rules that govern the conduct of senators: require each senator to take a one-hour of training course on sexual harassment, online or in person, before every annual legislative session. 

"We are in the process of making changes to our administrative policies and in doing so want to make sure that everything we do that governs all of our legislative employees applies to senators,'' said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. "Everyone will be encouraged to complete the process as soon as possible."

The rule will be voted on by the full Senate, but Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, one of the most outspoken members of the Senate process, raised questions.

Rodriguez said the proposal was "very welcome and very necessary" but wondered what happened to the many other proposals that had been under consideration to end the fear of retaliation that accusers had if they came forward with an allegation against a legislator. 

"Is that sufficient protection against the conduct and retaliation? '' Rodriguez asked. Absent any change in rules, he asked, "how can we reassure the public that we have the processes in place without rules changes?"

"I actually believed that the rules we had in place worked,'' Benacquisto replied. "We had a complaint filed. We moved through the process. And findings were made."

After a Senate investigation found that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, likely sexually harassed at least two women and may have been guilty of criminal misconduct after seeking sex with a female lobbyists in exchange for promising to help with legislation, the veteran legislator resigned. A month earlier, Sen. Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a young lobbyist. And on Tuesday, Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, were forced to publicly explain they had apologized to their families for their extramarital affair, after a video of a secret surveillance camera was posted online. 

Each of these issues brought attention to the issue of abuse of positional power -- such as that by Latvala and Clemens over female lobbyists -- and Rodriguez and others suggested the Senate reform its rules to explicitly prohibit and define sexual harassment (as the Florida House does.)

Rodriguez and others also suggested the Senate establish a method for complaints to be made against senators and staff that allowed people to go to someone outside the Senate, and he sought an increase in the penalties for attempts at retaliation.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president, commended Benacquisto for rejecting the push for major change. 

"If your mother raised you with manners and a little common sense, 99 percent of this isn't rocket science and there's a tendency to over-react to these things when it's such high profile -- and over-compensate to try to send a message that not only do we get it, we get it on steroids,'' he said.

During the Senate investigations,  several women came forward to talk about their experiences of verbal and physical harassment by Latvala but only two women were willing to make statements under oath before retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, hired by the Senate to be the special master of its investigation into Latvala's alleged violations of the rules. 

The Senate's the investigation of Latvala also cost taxpayers a yet-to-be determined amount of money. At least five outside lawyers were hired to advise the Senate, including a Tampa-based employment law firm, Judge Swanson and a lawyer assisting him, and the Senate's outside counsel, George Meros.

If the Senate rules has been more explicit, better defined and provided a safe outlet for accusers to come forward, would that reduce the cost of future investigations or serve as a more effective deterrent? 

"That's a fair point,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is scheduled to become the next Senate president. "If you're streamlining and are prepared for things to come up, it is usually more efficient and it is incumbent upon us to learn from these situations and make sure we're better prepared.'' 

He said he is preparing additional recommendations for his two-year tenure in 2018-20. 

"As we go through these administrative changes, you will see a lot of what has changed adopted into the Senate rules, including the Senate training,'' he said. 

Benacquisto said next week she will propose additional changes to the Senate administrative policies, which will not require a vote of the full Senate, and they will be more comprehensive. She has also signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to create new penalties for sexual harassment and to establish a permanent task force to review the sexual harassment issues on a regular basis.

Photo: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.