September 07, 2017

Congress confident it will find money for Irma as FEMA runs low on funds

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@alextdaugherty @andreadrusch

Donald Trump gave Florida some fiscal breathing room as Hurricane Irma approaches the state’s east coast.

The president gave Congress more time to pass a recovery package worth billions if Irma causes major damage when he defied Republicans on Wednesday. Trump cut a deal with Democrats to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and keep the government running as part of a package to provide hurricane-related aid.

FEMA is set to run out of money by Friday, but Congress is expected to quickly send a $15 billion relief bill for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and potential damage from Irma to Trump’s desk. The Senate passed the bill 80-17 on Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., like many Republicans, was not happy that Trump made a deal with Democrats instead of GOP lawmakers. But he acknowledged that the agreement makes it easier to get funding as Florida prepares for a major hurricane. The deal would extend government funding and the debt limit, which was expected to be reached this month, through December 15.

I have “never supported a debt limit increase without fiscal restraint,” Rubio told Fox News radio. “And about the only good news in this whole endeavor is that it does provide funding for FEMA and it does those sorts of things I’ve talked about until December, which hopefully gives us time to go about doing it the right way.”

Members of Congress from South Florida expressed optimism that Congress will provide FEMA with the funding necessary to help Florida recover.

“Congress has always been there for the victims of natural disasters and I have no doubt that we will use the people’s money wisely,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said. “This isn’t the government’s money, it’s the taxpayer’s money and that’s what they expect from their government agencies, to replenish the coffers of state and local officials who have dedicated a lot of funds to helping the community. I have no doubt that Congress will come through for us.”

The relatively quick response from Congress on Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged parts of Texas and Louisiana, as well as potential Hurricane Irma relief is in contrast to the months-long debate over funding for a Superstorm Sandy aid package in 2012 and 2013. When Congress was debating how much money to spend on Sandy, FEMA was relatively flush with cash to provide short-term relief to affected areas in New Jersey and New York.

That isn’t the case with FEMA in 2017.

The agency only has a few hundred million dollars, and it’s spending it fast.

“Earlier today, we had a conference call with FEMA officials, and the latest update is that FEMA has approximately $460 million remaining in its disaster relief fund,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo said at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center in Doral on Thursday. “They are spending at a clip of $200 million a day.”

The $15 billion Congress is considering gives FEMA 75 more days of funding if it spends about $200 million a day. FEMA’s spending could go up depending on how much is needed for Harvey and Irma.

“I want the Senate to be forewarned that this $15 billion package, this is only temporary, it will probably only take us through mid-October at the most,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday.

Members of Congress from Florida and Texas were confident more money will be available if needed.

Read more here.

September 06, 2017

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

Marco Rubio

@alextdaugherty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here. 

September 01, 2017

As Dems play catch-up on Venezuela, immigration attack could fall short

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@alextdaugherty

Democrats see Donald Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance as a political pitfall for Florida Republicans who profess to care about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

But Venezuelan immigration advocates disagree.

A Trump-sponsored system that rewards job skills and English speakers over familial connections could actually benefit Venezuelans, whose relatively high levels of education and English competency could put them ahead of other groups trying to get into the United States, especially other Latin American groups.

“The vast amount of Venezuelans who are coming here have advanced degrees,” said Jorge Guttman, a Miami-based attorney and Vice President of the Venezuelan American National Bar Association.

According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Venezuelan immigrants ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to just 29 percent of Hispanic immigrants overall. About 70 percent of Venezuelan immigrants speak English proficiently, according to Pew.

“If there were to be some sort of merit-based immigration measure imposed I think that Venezuelans for the most part would not be necessarily affected,” Guttman said.

That could neutralize arguments against a merit-based immigration system as a political weapon for Democrats to use against Republicans, who are already emerging as the key advocates in South Florida for Venezuelan-Americans.

Trump has spent months talking tough on Venezuela, arguing that Barack Obama and Democrats did little to help Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition and political violence. As the situation worsens, Venezuelans fed up with Nicolás Maduro’s regime will likely turn to the Untied States for refuge.

“The community that is coming to the U.S. from Venezuela is highly educated and most obtain their green cards through an employment-based opportunity,” said Adriana Kostencki, president of the Venezuelan-American chamber of commerce and an attorney who focuses on immigration law.

In fact, Venezuelans are more educated than the overall U.S. population, where 33 percent of all adults have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher and the U.S. Hispanic population, where 15 percent have bachelor’s degree or higher.

Part of the Trump-sponsored plan, dubbed the Raise Act, would slash the number of green cards available on a yearly basis from more than 1 million to about 500,000. The Venezuelan attorneys and some Republicans, including Marco Rubio, are not in favor of reducing the number of green cards.

But a system that curbs the overall number of immigrants and downplays family ties would have less of an effect on Venezuelans than on other immigrant groups, given the number of Venezuelans living in the U.S., about 225,000, is lower than the number of Mexicans, Cubans or Dominicans currently in the United States.

There are still questions over how the Raise Act will move through Congress. Rubio said the bill won’t pass as written.

“I think the White House knows that you don’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he’s long been an advocate for an immigration system that priorities job and language skills over familial connections, even though his parents came to the United States as low-skilled Cuban immigrants in the 1950s.

Venezuelans in Florida see the recent sanctions on Venezuela by Trump and supported by Rubio as hard evidence that Republicans are going to bat for them. And the community is still wary of elements of the Democratic Party that associated with Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Read more here.

August 30, 2017

Democrats around the country urge Trump to expand TPS to Venezuelans

Week That Was In Latin America Photo Gallery

@alextdaugherty 

Nearly two dozen Democrats from 11 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke on Tuesday calling for the expansion of Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans currently in the United States, joining a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties and Venezuelan activists pushing for the Trump administration to take action. 

Florida lawmakers including Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Kathy Castor, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Stephanie Murphy and Debbie Wasserman Schultz signed the letter. 

"Granting TPS in these circumstances is also in line with our national interest," the letter reads. "Venezuelans in the U.S. have not just become a vibrant part of our communities, but have also made important contributions including as lawyers, doctors, and small-business owners. Further, sending these individuals back could spur mass forced migration, destabilizing the region as neighboring Colombia implements its peace accord and as we seek to curb illicit narcotics flows to the United States." 

Donald Trump, who continues to talk tough on immigration, hasn’t indicated that he is open to extending the program to another country.

The TPS program is designed to help individuals affected by “ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, an epidemic or other extraordinary and temporary conditions,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Read the letter here.

August 29, 2017

Marco Rubio calls for temporary protected status for Venezuelans

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@alextdaugherty

Marco Rubio has spent months pushing the White House to expand a temporary program that would allow Venezuelans who have fled Nicolás Maduro’s regime to stay in the United States, according to a previously unpublished letter from Rubio to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

The letter, dated March 20, asks Tillerson and Kelly to “review the existing conditions in Venezuela and consider granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to eligible Venezuelan nationals residing in the United States.”

“In light of the ongoing political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, it is not in the best interests of the United States to deport non-violent Venezuelan nationals back to the country at this time,” the letter reads.

President Donald Trump, who continues to talk tough on immigration, hasn’t indicated that he is open to extending the program to another country.

Rubio’s position puts him in line with an increasing number of Venezuelan activists and Florida politicians from both parties who want to expand the temporary program, which currently applies to foreign nationals from 10 countries already in the United States.

Last week, Democrats Bill Nelson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, voiced their support for the program, which would not be a permanent solution for Venezuelans seeking to stay in the United States.

In recent days, José Javier Rodríguez, a Democratic state senator and congressional candidate, along with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, have also called for expanding the TPS program.

“Temporary Protected Status will allow Venzeuelans fleeing violence to live and work here legally and contribute to our state’s diverse communities until it is safe for them to return home,” Graham said in a statement.

Rubio has positioned himself as an important voice on Venezuela under Trump as the State Department deals with a downsized staff. He set up a meeting between Trump and Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez, and Rubio’s vocal criticism of Maduro and his associates led to the Florida senator getting protection from a security detail.

Rubio and Nelson hinted as far back as 2014 that they would consider the possibility of TPS for Venezuelans, but the issue has drawn increased attention after Maduro held a constituent assembly vote with the power to redraw the nation’s constitution.

Read more here.

Congress has one month to fix flood insurance. Hurricane Harvey makes it harder.

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@alextdaugherty

For months, political foes like Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren united behind a push to overhaul the nation’s flood insurance program by capping annual premium increases and focusing on preventing damage in future floods.

Hurricane Harvey could change all of that.

Congress has spent most of 2017 negotiating the National Flood Insurance Program, which must be renewed by Sept. 30. If the program lapses, thousands of real estate transactions and construction projects in flood-prone areas could be affected. But Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented flooding in the Houston area changes the debate about the future of flood insurance.

Massive storms like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 led to thousands of expensive claims — and the program plunged further into debt as the federal government continued to provide subsidized flood insurance rates well below market costs.

“Hurricane Harvey is the latest example of why we must act swiftly in reauthorizing and reforming our National Flood Insurance Program,” Rubio said in a statement. “I would vote for a short term extension to prevent the program from lapsing, but I would prefer passage of the SAFE NFIP Act, a bipartisan bill I’ve co-sponsored … that would reform our current system.”

Rubio and other coastal-state politicians are pushing to lower flood insurance premium increases to a maximum of 10 percent per year, a move meant to help their coastal constituents. Currently increases are limited to 18 to 25 percent, depending on the property. But experts say meaningful flood insurance reform will involve moving government-subsidized rates set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rates that reflect the actual cost of insurance.

That means higher costs for Floridians living in flood-prone areas.

“It offers rates that are really below risk-based rates,” said Laura Lightbody, the project director for flood preparedness with the Pew Charitable Trusts. Lightbody said it will be a “missed opportunity” if Congress simply extends the flood insurance program and keeps rates the same instead of overhauling it.

Lightbody is hopeful that Congress will act because the House and Senate have already been negotiating the program’s renewal for months and the coverage of Hurricane Harvey will draw national attention to the fiscally troubled program.

Daniel Stander, the managing director of Risk Management Solutions, a worldwide catastrophic risk modeling company, said Hurricane Harvey will likely not result in an immediate increase of flood insurance rates but will compound the program’s $23 billion debt situation. However, the hurricane will likely cause FEMA to reassess the program’s cost-effectiveness.

“There is certainly a desire inside FEMA to modernize how the [flood insurance program] is run,” Stander said. Flood insurance rates are likely to increase but I see that more by movements toward risk-based pricing than by a specific event like Harvey.”

But Florida politicians bristle at the potential for higher rates.

Florida, with more than 1.7 million policies, has 35 percent of the 5 million policies covered by the federal program — three times as many as the second ranked state, Texas, which has 593,000 policies.

Read more here.

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"

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@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: