September 25, 2017

FEMA has money to spend in Puerto Rico, but Congress will need to act soon

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Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico less than a week ago, but the Federal Emergency Management Administration has more relief funding available than it did after Hurricane Harvey.

After Harvey hit the Houston area, Congress passed a $15.25 billion hurricane relief bill when President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democrats. FEMA was only a few days away from running out of money.

Nearly half of the hurricane relief package that passed in early September, $7.4 billion, is going to FEMA, allowing it to stay afloat while it responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico and cleanup in Florida after Hurricane Irma. A FEMA spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the agency has just over $5 billion in uncommitted disaster relief money as of Monday morning.

That money won’t last long. Congress will likely need to pass additional funding bills to manage long-term recovery efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico before the end of the year.

“Our focus is still continuing to be on the life-saving efforts and the immediate disaster response efforts which are still currently under way,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
 
A Republican staffer with knowledge of the appropriations process said that federal funding for hurricane relief will be “fine until mid-October” and that Congress will likely vote on an additional funding bill in the next three weeks.

“Congress has done its job,” the staffer said.

But Congress only supplies the money. It’s up to local and federal agencies to effectively manage it after a hurricane.

On Monday, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called on the U.S. military to provide more search-and-rescue teams to Puerto Rico. Nelson said last week it will cost much more than $15 billion to manage relief efforts in Florida and Puerto Rico.

 

The White House said Monday that it’s doing everything possible to manage the short-term response in Puerto Rico. Homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA administrator Brock Long arrived in Puerto Rico on Monday to assess the situation and will inform the White House about what is needed most.

But short-term efforts like search-and-rescue missions or restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid are different than long-term projects like hardening the power grid to ensure it can withstand a major hurricane. The FEMA money focuses on the short-term effort, but months from now Republicans and Democrats will inevitably debate the merits of long-term relief for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Texas has 38 votes in Congress and Florida has 29, and if they stick together the majority-Republican states can be an important voting bloc in a contentious negotiation.

In contrast, Puerto Rico has one non-voting delegate.

Read more here.

September 20, 2017

Rubio appears likely to support last-ditch Obamacare repeal effort

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Marco Rubio indicated tentative support for the latest attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare in the Senate, eight weeks after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to act on the party’s signature campaign promise.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., are the architects of a bill that replaces the Affordable Care Act with a system of block grants doled out to state governments. They introduced the bill in July as the Senate debated a separate Obamacare repeal measure, but their plan has gained momentum in recent days.

“I’ve got to see some of the details on how it impacts Florida, but by and large returning power to the states is something I’ve long believed in,” Rubio said to reporters on Tuesday. “I don’t think you can design a one-size-fits-all system on virtually anything for a country this size.”

 

The Graham-Cassidy plan is not expected to garner any Democratic support and Rubio, a Republican who has opposed Obamacare since entering the Senate in 2011, has voted in favor of past efforts to repeal Obamacare.

Republicans have just 10 days to pass the Graham-Cassidy proposal with a simple majority of 50 senators in support plus Vice President Mike Pence’s vote. After Sept. 30, Senate rules will require 60 votes to pass the proposal, which means it won’t pass because Republicans only control 52 seats. 

President Donald Trump and Pence are supportive. Pence was on Capitol Hill Tuesday to woo Republicans on Graham-Cassidy.

 

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson announced in July that he was working with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on a bipartisan health care proposal, and Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander was working with Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray on a health care plan. But the latest effort by Graham and Cassidy has stalled any talks between Democrats and Republicans.

Rubio has said for weeks that bipartisan talks on health care are a waste of time, and he reiterated that stance on Tuesday.

“There’s no realistic chance of a bipartisan solution,” Rubio said. “Ideally you’d be able to fix this in a bipartisan way but there’s a massive difference of opinion on the federal government’s role on health care.”

Read more here.

Rubio, Nelson urge Trump administration to help Puerto Rico

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Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are continuing their push for federal help after Hurricanes Maria and Irma severely damaged the Caribbean, including the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The pair sent two letters to President Donald Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, hours after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category Four hurricane. 

"It is important that the federal government stands ready to assist in the difficult days after Hurricane Maria passes, when hope must be available to combat despair," Rubio and Nelson said in their letter to Trump. "However, as even the best laid plans can be overwhelmed by natural forces, we urge your administration's continued attention to this dangerous storm so that appropriate federal resources can quickly be made available as locally unmet needs arise." 

The letter to Sessions urged the Justice Department to quickly set up task forces to combat "illegal activity" related to Irma and Maria. 

Nelson said Tuesday that a federal hurricane relief package for Irma and Maria will cost "much more" than the $15.25 billion package passed by Congress after Hurricane Harvey caused flooding in Texas. Puerto Rican officials estimated that Irma caused $1 billion in damage on the island and knocked out power to nearly 1 million people.

Irma, unlike Maria, did not directly hit Puerto Rico. 
 

September 19, 2017

Puerto Rico will need billions in federal help after Hurricane Maria

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Puerto Rico’s power grid is a mess.

The island’s utility provider filed for a form of bankruptcy in July, and two months later Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

With thousands still without power, Hurricane Maria is approaching. It will likely be Puerto Rico’s first direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.

“No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San Felipe II in 1928,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a statement on Tuesday. “This is an unprecedented atmospheric system.”

The Puerto Rican government, which sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, will need federal assistance to recover from Maria and Irma. Repairing and replacing power lines and stations throughout the territory after Maria will likely cost billions, though the island doesn’t have any voting power in Congress.
 
“No member of Congress is going to want to see thousands of people die in Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat of Puerto Rican descent whose Orlando-based district includes a large number of Puerto Ricans.

“Certainly... the fiscal crisis has made PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] less financially prepared to do this on their own and the fact remains that this is part of the U.S,” Soto added.

Congress passed a Hurricane Harvey relief bill two weeks ago after Texas sustained billions in flood damage. The $15.25 billion package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democrats that included raising the nation’s debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that Irma and Maria will require “much more” than $15 billion in federal relief.

“We’re going to have to put the full resources of the federal government in there because this is a Cat 5 and they lost power on the last hurricane that brushed them,” Nelson said. “This is going full bore right into the island.”

Read more here.

Airlines were accused of price gouging before Irma. Some are capping fares before Maria

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Taking a page from Hurricane Irma’s book, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is asking airlines to proactively limit the cost of their flights for travelers trying to get out of Hurricane Maria’s path.

And airlines are agreeing.

On Monday, Nelson sent a letter to CEOs at 10 major U.S. airlines asking them to regulate the prices of their flights to areas that will likely be impacted by Maria — and to do it earlier than they did in the case of Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

Prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida, airline fares skyrocketed into the thousands of dollars due to a spike in demand, a regular practice for last-minute tickets that nevertheless had frantic travelers claiming price gouging. Eventually, some airlines started capping flights out of Florida at $99, but not until after the outcry.

In his letter, Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, thanked airlines who ultimately capped their flights, but encouraged them to do so sooner with the case of Category 5 Maria, which is on track to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
 
“I urge you to begin the process now for implementing capped airfare and ensuring that refunds are promptly issued for canceled flights. I also request that your policies on capped airfare be communicated clearly and in writing so that affected residents can evacuate quickly and safely,” he wrote. “Individuals and families should not be forced to delay or cancel their evacuation efforts because of confusion over the cost of airfare.”
 
Nelson’s letter was sent to American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air.
 
Read more here.

September 18, 2017

Bill Nelson criticizes Rick Scott over nursing home deaths

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Sen. Bill Nelson decried the lax regulatory standards for backup generators in Florida nursing homes after the deaths of eight elderly people at a Broward County facility during a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, and his criticism included a jab at his likely 2018 senate opponent: Gov. Rick Scott

"Eight people died in a nursing home right across the street from a major hospital in Hollywood, Florida," Nelson said. "Eight frail, elderly (people) from ages 70 to 99. Eight needless deaths." 

Nelson said that "all the phone calls that had been made that were not answered both to the government as well as to the power company as reported" will "come out in the criminal investigation." 

He was referencing a report by CBS Miami that an official from the nursing home called a cellphone provided by Scott 36 hours before the first death. The nursing home also called Florida Power and Light, though the utility did not immediately restore power to the building. 

"We don’t know all the facts, it will come out in the criminal investigation, but it is inexcusable that eight frail elderly people would die," Nelson said.

Hurricane Irma was already turning into a political spectacle for Nelson and Scott, as President Donald Trump encouraged Scott to run against Nelson while viewing storm damage in the Naples area on Thursday.

"I hope this man right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate," Trump said. Scott wasn't present during Trump's remarks. 

Nelson did not mention Scott by name during his floor speech, where he also jabbed his likely opponent over a reluctance to attribute powerful hurricanes like Irma to climate change. 

“Clearly the environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I couldn’t tell you which one it is,” Scott said last week. “But I can tell you this: We ought to solve problems.”

Nelson disagreed with Scott, who generally avoids using the term climate change. 

"Hurricane Irma is just another reminder that we are going to confront huge natural occurrences and maybe just maybe people will relate that there is something to the fact that the earth is getting hotter," Nelson said, adding that warmer oceans allow hurricanes to gain strength. 

Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio were absent for votes in Washington last week after Irma. 

September 12, 2017

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

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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 11, 2017

House of Representatives off on Monday due to Hurricane Irma

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The House of Representatives will not convene for votes on Monday due to Hurricane Irma. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made the decision on Sunday as Hurricane Irma moved up Florida's Gulf Coast. 

"Due to the large number of absences as a result of Hurricane Irma, Members are advised that no votes are expected in the House tomorrow, Monday, September 11th," a release from McCarthy's office said. 

The House is expected to reconvene on Tuesday. 

Last week, the majority of Florida's congressional delegation including Miami Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart missed votes, including a $15 billion hurricane relief package, as they left Washington to prepare for Irma.   

The U.S. Senate will convene on Monday afternoon. 

 

September 08, 2017

Rubio asks FEMA to prioritize debris removal from Florida roads

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Sen. Marco Rubio is concerned that debris from Hurricane Irma will clog roads in Florida, and he sent a letter to FEMA administrator William Long on Friday to urge the federal government to prioritize debris removal on roads after the storm passes through. 

"Local leaders and I are particularly concerned about debris removal on county, state and private roads that serve as crucial access points to hospitals and serve as important conduits to aide those in need, or who need to evacuate post-storm," Rubio said in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald. "These must be clear so that emergency services and utility repair crews are able to do their jobs. Also, the storm is a significant threat to Florida’s numerous inland and coastal bridges, which may be rendered impassable following the storm, cutting off residents from life-saving assistance and recovery resources. I urge your agency to work with the state of Florida to rapidly assess the connectivity of Florida’s road networks after the storm has passed and ensure that these residents are identified and assisted as quickly as possible." 

Rubio spent Thursday in Miami meeting with local officials and preparing his home for Irma. He missed a Senate vote on a $15 billion hurricane relief bill that also raises the nation's debt ceiling. The bill was devised after Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders. 

Rubio was opposed to the deal but said he would have voted in favor of the bill to keep FEMA afloat as it prepares for Irma. 

Read the letter below: 

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Florida Republican calls hurricane funding bill "generational theft"

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Florida Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Ted Yoho of Gainesville voted against a $15 billion hurricane relief package on Friday despite calls from South Florida lawmakers to support increased FEMA funding as Hurricane Irma threatens Florida. 

The relief package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders to raise the nation's debt ceiling for three months and temporarily fund the government through December. 

Gaetz bristled at the spending package, calling it "generational theft." 

"Only Congress can find a way to turn a natural disaster into a trillion new dollars in spending authority," Gaetz said. "I have a pretty strident view that I will only vote to raise the debt limit if that vote is accompanied with reductions in entitlement spending. If conservatives don’t start voting no against debt limit increases all the FEMA in the world won’t save us from our must unfortunate destiny."

Gaetz and Yoho did vote in favor of a standalone $7.5 hurricane relief bill on Wednesday, which passed the House with only three no votes. Gaetz represents a conservative-leaning district on the western part of Florida's panhandle, an area of the state less likely to be heavily damaged by Irma. 

The House passed the spending bill with the $15 billion in hurricane relief by a 316-90 vote. All 90 no votes were Republicans. 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin huddled with Republican lawmakers before the vote and urged them to "vote for the debt ceiling for me." 

"Ha. He's not one of my constituents," Yoho said to the Associated Press. 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also urged the House to vote in favor of the bill, circulating a dear colleague letter on Thursday evening ahead of the vote. 

"As Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, I would ask that all my Congressional colleagues reflect on the fate of Florida’s 20.61 million residents when they are asked to again vote on this vital emergency disaster funding as it comes back from the Senate," Ros-Lehtinen said. 

Three Florida Republicans, Reps. Tom Rooney, Francis Rooney and Brian Mast, and every Florida Democrat left in Washington voted in favor of the bill while 11 Florida Republicans were not present as they left Washington to prepare for Irma. 

Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday after the U.S. Senate passed the hurricane relief bill by an 80-17 margin that he would have voted in favor even though he had "significant reservations." Rubio was in Miami preparing for Irma.

"I strongly disagree with the decision made by the administration to agree to pair funding for FEMA and emergency disaster relief to short-term extensions to the continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program unaccompanied by significant reforms," Rubio said in a statement. "Absent extenuating circumstances such as the outbreak of the Zika virus last year, I have consistently opposed passage of short term continuing resolutions, because they are an incredibly inefficient way of spending taxpayer dollars and fails to provide the certainty required for effective planning." 

But Rubio said the need to keep FEMA afloat would have led him to vote yes despite his objections. 

Gaetz felt differently. 

"The federal government has a significant role to play in disaster relief, and I support that role, but we didn’t have to authorize over 1 trillion in new spending to help hurricane victims," Gaetz said. "That was Washington using a crisis to feed its addiction to spending."