August 14, 2017

Sen. Al Franken to appear at Miami book fair

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via @ogleconnie

Former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t the only famous political name on this year’s list of Miami Book Fair authors.

The fair, which opens Nov. 12 with journalist Dan Rather, has announced that Sen. Al Franken will close out the fair on Nov. 19 to talk about his book “Giant of the Senate.”

Also appearing are Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager — you know them as the Bush twins, daughters of former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush — to discuss their joint memoir “Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life.”

The fair takes place at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus in downtown Miami. But Biden, who will talk about his book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” will appear Nov. 18 in partnership with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

More here.

August 10, 2017

Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio: All options on table for North Korea

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@learyreports

Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio sounded deep concern over the situation with North Korea and say all options should be on the table, including a U.S. military strike.

“North Korea poses a serious threat to the U.S. and all options should be on the table to protect the American people,” Nelson said in a statement. “We either do nothing, go to war or negotiate a stand down, and so far we’ve seen no sign that they’re willing to negotiate.”

Rubio said the nation is moving toward a big decision whether to live with a North Korea with the capability of striking the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. “I think it’s an unacceptable risk and our options are limited,” he told reporters in Jacksonville on Wednesday.

“They all come with significant risks. But I think the unacceptable outcome would be to allow them to possess these weapons and the ability to strike us.”

Rubio said he was not advocating for a strike but, “as bad as that would be, it would be worse to live in a world held hostage by this man’s ability to strike the United States with a weapon.”

He defended President Donald Trump against criticism of using overly aggressive rhetoric.

“I don’t think the rhetoric is the problem,” Rubio said. “I think the problem is there is a lunatic in North Korea with nuclear weapons and the ability to put them on a missile that can reach the United States … And he was working on those nuclear weapons before Donald Trump was president. Trump is not the cause of a North Korea crisis.”

A reporter, however, questioned if Trump is inflaming things.

“I don’t have any concern about inflaming anything,” replied Rubio. “All the inflaming here is coming from this crazy guy in North Korea. Even if Donald Trump was the most diplomatic person in the world, he would be still be building a weapon and he would still be developing his missiles.”

August 03, 2017

Rubio still considering Trump-sponsored immigration plan introduced in February

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@alextdaugherty 

n 2013, Marco Rubio and three other Republican senators worked with Democrats to draft a bipartisan immigration bill.

Rubio’s 2013 bill, which proposed an expanded visa program for low-skilled workers, failed after the House decided not to vote on it.

On Wednesday, Rubio said he was still considering a different immigration proposal, backed by the White House, that cuts the number of green cards for low-skilled and non-English speaking immigrants. The 15-page plan was first introduced in the Senate in February, and the White House announced its support Wednesday.

Of the four Republican senators who drafted the 2013 bill, Rubio is the only one who hasn’t voiced disagreement.

“I’m glad to see the president is open to a step-by-step approach to improving our immigration laws, and I stand ready to work with my colleagues in Congress on common sense proposals to achieve real progress for Americans on this issue,” Rubio said in a statement. “I continue to support reform that prioritizes welcoming people to our country based on their skills, not just on whether they have a family member already living here.”
 
Rubio’s comments were in contrast to his three GOP colleagues who worked on the immigration bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump’s proposal “incentivizes more illegal immigration” by limiting the number of visas for low-skilled jobs in tourism and agriculture that would otherwise go unfilled.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said: “We need to make sure we are responsive to the needs of our economy and I’m concerned that drastic cuts to the number of immigrants fails to meet that goal.”

The other GOP senator who worked on the 2013 bill, John McCain of Arizona, is receiving treatment for cancer. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in February, McCain told reporters he was “not interested” in the bill.

Rubio, whose parents came to the United States from Cuba and worked in low-skill jobs for a period of time, declined to comment on the immigration policy beyond his statement.

His office said Rubio has always prioritized English-speaking immigrants, citing his work on the 2013 bill that would require green card holders to achieve English proficiency.

“On the day we announced the principles that would shape the immigration bill, we made it clear that English proficiency would now be required for permanent residency for the first time in American history,” Rubio said in 2013.

Rubio did not play a role in drafting the new proposal, his office said.

The White House said the plan, dubbed the Raise Act, will prioritize immigrants who speak English, have special skills and can support themselves financially. The Raise Act will prioritize high-wage immigrants because the White House argues that low-skilled legal immigrants currently drive down wages for all Americans.

Two of Rubio’s South Florida colleagues, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, said they do not support the new legal immigration proposal.

“I’m against the RAISE Act because it dramatically cuts the number of folks who can enter our great nation by legal means,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “There are many individuals living in other lands who dream of becoming patriotic, law-abiding Americans but will be prevented from realizing that dream because they do not yet speak English or they lack special skills.”

Read more here.

August 02, 2017

Ted Cruz calls Nicolás Maduro a "bus driver turned authoritarian thug in a track suit"

US NEWS ELN-WINNERS-LOSERS 1 FT

@alextdaugherty 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to oppose Venezuela's constituent assembly that will have the power to rewrite the nation's constitution in favor of President Nicolás Maduro

He didn't mince words. 

"Venezuela is not the private preserve of a bus driver turned authoritarian thug in a track suit," Cruz said, mocking Maduro's rise to power. "Instead, Venezuela is a proud and free nation with a glorious past and an even greater future." 

In a 10-minute-long speech, Cruz, a Cuban-American Republican, blasted the constituent assembly and called on the White House to ramp up pressure on Venezuela in addition to sanctions announced by the Treasury Department earlier this week. 

"I support the Treasury Department's sanctions against senior Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, placing him in the ignominious company of Kim Jong Un and Robert Mugabe," Cruz said, referring to the leaders of North Korea and Zimbabwe. "We must keep the pressure on and continue to isolate and delegitimize Maduro's regime." 

Cruz likened the overnight arrests of opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma to his family's experience in Cuba. 
 
"Members of my own family lived through this sort of oppression in Cuba, where a lawless government can raid your home without warning, arbitrarily detain your relatives and neighbors and ensure that you hardly, if ever, see them again," Cruz said. 
 
Watch video of Cruz's speech below: 

State Department won’t call Venezuelan election ‘illegitimate’ while White House takes harder stance

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@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

The top State Department official in charge of Latin America declined Wednesday — even when pressed — to call a Venezuelan election “illegitimate,” as evidence mounted that the vote for a new legislative body with nearly unfettered power was fraudulent.

Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, characterized Sunday’s election as “flawed” and said the U.S. will not recognize the new constituent assembly once it is seated as early as Wednesday.

“The election Sunday was a flawed attempt to undermine democratic institutions in Venezuela,” Palmieri said at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing. “We support the democratically elected National Assembly in its efforts to promote an enduring, peaceful solution to the crises in Venezuela.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was chairing the hearing, wasn’t satisfied.

“So, just to be clear, is it the position of the administration that the vote that occurred on Sunday is illegitimate?” Rubio asked.

Palmieri repeated himself. Again Rubio asked. Again Palmieri deflected, though each time he inched closer to Rubio’s position.

“I know the process was flawed,” Rubio said, taking Palmieri to task. “The outcome is this new constituent assembly. There cannot be a legitimate National Assembly and a legitimate constituent assembly. If the National Assembly is the only legitimate entity, the constituent assembly by definition is illegitimate.”

“I take your point,” Palmieri conceded. “Yes, sir.”

The State Department’s resistance to use “illegitimate” came after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley deployed the word Sunday. The White House, National Security Council and Treasury Department also adopted far harsher language against Venezuela in recent days, branding President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator” and referring to his government as a “dictatorship” that could be hit with escalating U.S. sanctions.

Critics have argued going hard after Maduro’s government is counterproductive because it gives him an anti-U.S. cause to rally supporters.

“Impose all the sanctions you want!” Maduro said in a televised speech Monday. “The Venezuelan people have decided to be free, and I’ve decided to be the president of a free people.”

In an interview published late Tuesday by Spanish news agency EFE and cited by Rubio, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America Michael Fitzpatrick said the U.S. wants “dialogue” with Maduro’s government.

“We respect the official government of Venezuela and of President Maduro at this time,” Fitzpatrick said.

In contrast, President Donald Trump has vowed “strong and swift” economic sanctions against Venezuela that have yet to materialize.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who took a few days off last week as the U.S. sanctioned 13 members of Maduro’s government, said Tuesday the administration is still considering “what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future — and wants to leave of his own accord — or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”

Read more here.

July 24, 2017

As chaos envelops Venezuela, Caracas spends millions on lobbyists in Washington

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@alextdaugherty

Venezuela’s currency is essentially worthless. Its people are starving. Rampant inflation has rendered the bolívar less useful than toilet paper.

And since Donald Trump’s election, the Venezuelan government has spent at least $1.3 million on Washington lobbyists through its subsidiary Citgo, a Houston-based oil company.

Three Washington-based firms currently represent Venezuela in Washington, pushing Capitol Hill, the White House and Cabinet agencies on issues like “fuel refining” and the “potential impact of U.S. energy policies on CITGO’s operation impacting U.S. consumers,” according to Senate lobbying records.

Caracas sees its investment in lobbyists as a way to fight possible sweeping sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil. Pushed by lawmakers like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the White House said last week “all options are on the table” and promised “strong and swift economic actions” ahead of a vote on July 30 that could alter the country’s constitution in favor of President Nicolás Maduro.

“The costs for representation is a drop in the bucket when compared to the potential economic loss” of oil sanctions, said C.J. Gimenez, the son of Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez and a lobbyist who left Avenue Strategies, a firm started by Donald Trump’s former campaign aides, after the firm decided to pick up Citgo as a client. 

U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil market could have major financial implications for the Maduro regime and for average Venezuelans. Although Venezuelan crude makes up a small fraction — about eight percent in 2016 — of all U.S. oil imports, the U.S. buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil, and oil revenues account for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, according to OPEC.

Gimenez said Venezuela’s greatest asset is its oil and that Maduro “uses it to fund his continued existence.”

In order to shore up the Maduro regime’s future in the face of intense pressure, Washington-based lobbying shops, Avenue Strategies, Cornerstone Government Affairs and VantageKnight. All are well connected in the nation’s capital, spending millions on behalf of corporate titans like Google and Citigroup and staffed with former congressional aides who know Capitol Hill.

VantageKnight, a firm started by Democratic strategist and lawyer Manuel Ortiz, spent $540,000 on behalf of Citgo to lobby on the “potential impact of U.S. energy & foreign policy restrictions on CITGO Petroleum Corporation's operations and valuation of assets” and “sanctions related issues” in 2017.

Neither Citgo nor Ortiz responded to requests for comment. An operator at a Houston office for Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which owns Citgo, hung up when contacted by a reporter.

Citgo is feeling the heat in Washington, where lawmakers have questioned PDVSAs’ pledge of 49.9 percent of its shares in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan from the Russian government-owned oil giant Rosneft. That could leave Moscow with indirect control over Citgo’s U.S. energy assets, including three oil refineries, nine pipelines and dozens of petroleum platforms.

Read more here.

July 21, 2017

At key moment, Cuban-American lawmakers adopt Venezuela cause as their own

Venezuela Political Crisis

@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

For months, Cuban-American lawmakers have deployed familiar rhetoric to warn Washington colleagues of a democracy under threat in Latin America, where people are deprived of food and the ballot box, and where economic collapse could empower Russia uncomfortably close to home.

“This is a dysfunctional narco-state that is in a death spiral in terms of its ability to function,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“We are talking about a nearly failed state in our own hemisphere,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“We will have a swift and firm response from our own administration,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But the tough talk isn’t about Cuba. It’s about Venezuela.

The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade.

“Just like it has been too long for the Cuban people, most people are coming to the understanding that this is part of the same movement, the same cancer that has been sickening the Cuban people and the Venezuelan people for decades now,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a Capitol Hill speech to Venezuelan activists and lawmakers Wednesday.

Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats agree President Nicolás Maduro must be stopped. Their united front could amplify their clout: As with Cuba, one of their own — Rubio — has proven to be the White House’s go-to legislator on Latin America.

Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart back banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic measure once considered unthinkable against the No. 3 oil supplier to the U.S. But also in favor is a local Democrat, Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans.

The message: On Cuba, Rubio and company faced significant opposition, both on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s administration. On Venezuela, they don’t.

“There’s not a single senator that I’ve seen, and no House member that I’ve heard from, who still supports this regime,” Rubio told the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute in bilingual remarks Wednesday. “Once there were people who sometimes backed [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, or said things about Chávez in the past. But that doesn’t exist anymore. No one here supports Maduro.”

Even Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who worked with the late Chávez, frequently traveled to Venezuela during Chávez’s presidency and is the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral, supports sanctions.

“We are compelled to take a stand on what’s right,” Meeks said. “Sanctions that are being considered are the right things to do.”

Behind the bipartisan push is a deeply held belief that Maduro is just another Fidel — and a sense that if Cuban Americans and their allies don’t defend Venezuela in Washington, no one will.

“We need to let the Venezuelan people know that they are not alone in this fight, that we stand together with them, that we will not rest until Venezuela is free from oppression and is once again a nation of democracy and the rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

The position is certainly heart-felt, but politics aren’t entirely out of the picture: Venezuelans fleeing Chávez and now Maduro could emerge as a significant voting bloc in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.

Read more here.

 

June 27, 2017

The Trump whisperer: Marco Rubio has the president’s ear on Latin America

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@alextdaugherty 

Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.

So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.

It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.

“They’ve asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Rubio said. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

There’s plenty of space.

Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.

And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.

Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”

Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.

Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”

Read more here. 

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. 

Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren agree on one issue—federal flood insurance must change

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@alextdaugherty 

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren rarely see eye-to-eye on major policy issues but both agree the National Flood Insurance Program must be fixed. 

The program, run by FEMA, must be reauthorized by September 30 as part of the 2018 budget. Rubio and Warren, along with Sens. Bob Menendez, John Kennedy, Chris Van Hollen and Thad Cochran penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday outlining their plan to make federal flood insurance fiscally sound. 

"Powerful floods devastate communities across America every year," the op-ed reads. "After these catastrophic natural disasters, too many Americans find themselves facing a man-made calamity: a National Flood Insurance Program that overcharges and underdelivers for policyholders and for taxpayers. As members of the Senate Banking and Appropriations committees, which oversee flood insurance and provide federal disaster response, we plan to offer bipartisan landmark legislation to tackle systemic problems with flood insurance and to reframe our entire disaster paradigm." 

The proposal comes as the federal flood insurance program is billions of dollars in debt and still dealing with the financial impacts of major hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, where homeowners said federal engineers were encouraged to lie about storm damage to limit federal insurance payouts.

Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo also introduced legislation relating to flood insurance earlier this year. His bill would allow non-primary residences and businesses to be eligible for the same flood insurance rates as primary residences.

“This bill is critical to South Florida, especially for residents of the Florida Keys that are in desperate need of affordable housing options," Curbelo said in a statement. "The Flood Insurance Fairness Act would ensure all Americans have access to affordable flood insurance by guaranteeing that all non-primary residences and business properties receive the same rates provided to primary homes under the National Flood Insurance Program.” 

Read the rest of the op-ed here.