February 26, 2018

GOP Congress returns after Parkland, under pressure to move on guns

US NEWS FLA-SCHOOLSHOOTING-OPENHOUSE 7 MI

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When Congress left town after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a gun control movement led by Broward County students hadn’t yet captured the nation’s attention.

But lawmakers are now back in Washington after a 10-day break, and they’re under pressure to do something from media-savvy students who have so far forced the Florida legislature to offer a $500 million school safety package and driven President Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio to change their stance on some gun policies.

But moving forward in a Republican-controlled Congress will be a tall order, and voting on any piece of legislation in the House of Representatives this week will be tougher since Republican leadership canceled votes on Wednesday and Thursday to honor the late Rev. Billy Graham, who will lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda for two days.

Plus, House leaders argue that they’ve already passed legislation related to mental health funding, tweaking the reporting process by federal and state authorities to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and bump stocks.

“The House has acted and leaders believe it’s the Senate’s turn to act,” a senior Republican House aide said.

The measure that tweaks the background check system, which has wide support from Democrats and Republicans, and directs the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review bump stocks was attached to a bill that also allows concealed carry permits obtained in one state to be valid in another state, essentially transforming concealed carry permits into transferable documents like driver’s licenses. Democrats generally oppose expanding concealed carry permits across state lines, so they mostly opposed the bill even though it contained something they liked.

The legislative maneuvering on any bill related to guns decreases the chances of something becoming law, and there isn’t any gun bill up for a vote in the House this week, according to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s calendar.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there aren’t any plans now to fast-track gun-related bills in the upper chamber.

Read more here.

February 14, 2018

‘I said a little prayer’— Florida lawmakers react to Broward school shooting

Bill Nelson

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Democrats representing Broward County and South Florida seethed Wednesday over congressional inaction on firearms, hours after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 people dead. It was the second time in just over a year that Florida’s second-most populous county experienced a major mass shooting.

But while Democrats demanded action, Republicans generally avoided calling for legislative change, at least in the immediate aftermath.

“I said a little prayer, for all of them, then the next thought that popped into my head was, do we have to go through this again?” Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said. “Look how many of these mass shootings have occurred and we say enough is enough and then nothing is done. Here in the Senate we cannot even get Senator [Dianne] Feinstein’s bill that would prohibit people on the terrorist watch list from buying a gun.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat who represents Parkland in Washington, choked up during an interview as he waited for a flight home. He said he spoke at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just a few weeks ago.

“I have a picture of an adorable six year old who was killed at Sandy Hook whose father gave me that picture so I can remember every day why were working so hard to try to reduce gun violence,” Deutch said. “Everyone cares about safe communities. I shouldn’t need a mass shooting in my district to give me legitimacy to talk about why we need to prevent more mass shootings but I guess that’s the sad reality.”

Florida state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who represents northern Broward County in Tallahassee, said “This country and its elected leaders collectively have failed our children.”

Read more here.

February 13, 2018

The FBI is investigating a state-affiliated Chinese institute targeted by Marco Rubio

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The top FBI official said his agency is investigating the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese government-affiliated institution operating at Miami Dade College that has been criticized and canceled at some American universities over concerns about propaganda and censorship. 

"We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes, we've been watching that development for a while," FBI director Chris Wray said during a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on Tuesday. "It's just one of many tools that they take advantage of. We have seen some decrease recently in their own enthusiasm and commitment to that particular program but it is something we're watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps." 

Wray was responding to questions from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who sent a letter last week to Miami Dade College and three other Florida colleges along with Broward County’s Cypress Bay High School urging them to disassociate themselves from the Confucius Institutes. 

"It is my view that they are complicit in these efforts to covertly influence public opinion and to teach half-truths designed to present Chinese history, government or official policy in the most favorable light," Rubio said to Wray. "Do you share concerns about Confucius Institutes as a tool of that whole of society effort and as a way to exploit the sort of naive view among some in the academic circles about what the purpose of the institutes could be?" 

In November, Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón referred to the institute as “a treasure in our community.” The college praised the program as “a relentless driver of positive social change through the expansion of community education and enrichment services in Chinese language and culture.” 

Rubio's comments came during an open hearing with top intelligence officials to discuss world wide threats. Rubio used his line of questioning to ask about Chinese infiltration of the U.S. academic community. 

"We have intensive studies going on throughout the intelligence community relative A to Z on what China is doing," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said. 

The Confucius Institutes are also viewed by detractors as a quiet way for the Communist Chinese government to spread its influence across the world through classes over which it holds tight editorial controls that are written into its contracts with host universities. In addition to Miami Dade College, there are also programs at the University of South Florida, the University of West Florida and the University of North Florida. 

The University of West Florida said it would not renew its contract with the Confucius Institutes after Rubio sent his letter last week. 

This post was updated to include the University of West Florida's decision not to renew the Confucius Institutes' contract. 

February 12, 2018

NOAA gets $400 million in disaster funds in latest spending bill

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is getting an infusion of cash to finish Hurricane Irma recovery efforts in Florida. 

Congress agreed to spend $18 million for marine debris cleanup and $200 million to help damaged fisheries in Florida and Texas as part of a massive $300 billion spending plan that was attached to a bill to keep the federal government running until late March. 

The $400 million for NOAA included about $200 million initially approved by the House of Representatives in October, and the $200 million in fisheries disaster assistance was added by the U.S. Senate in the plan that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday. 

The NOAA money will go towards cleaning up debris-clogged canals in the Florida Keys along with $50 million for hurricane and flood forecasting along with flood mitigation. 

"NOAA will now have the resources to unclog waterways and clean beaches," said Addie Haughey, government relations associate director at the Ocean Conservancy. "Fishermen from Key West to Galveston will get relief from NOAA so they can get back out on the water. With Hurricane season four months away, Congress has given NOAA the tools to continue predicting storms and prevent flooding along the coasts." 

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson both praised the spending bill's disaster help for Florida and ultimately voted for it, though Rubio wasn't happy about adding billions to the federal deficit. 

Here's the breakdown of NOAA funds included in the spending bill, according to the Ocean Conservancy: 

Repair, replacement of property & equipment: $42.1 million 

Marine debris: $18 million 

Mapping, charting and geodesy services: $40 million 

Hurricane, flood forecasting and mitigation: $50 million 

Weather computing and satellite ground services: $50 million 

Fisheries disaster assistance: $200 million 

February 09, 2018

How South Florida lawmakers voted on a budget deal without a DACA fix

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The federal government briefly shut down while you were sleeping, as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul held up a massive $300 billion budget bill that keeps the government running until March 23rd because it increased the federal deficit. House Democratic leaders also opposed the bill because Speaker Paul Ryan hasn't committed to an open debate on a solution for 690,000 DACA recipients who could be eligible for deportation as soon as March. 

The bill eventually passed the U.S. Senate at 1:30am by a 71-28 margin and the U.S. House at 5:30am by a 240-186 margin. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Friday morning, reopening the federal government after it shut down at midnight. The massive budget bill included billions in disaster funding for Florida and Puerto Rico along with an increase in defense spending and budget caps. 

Here's how South Florida's members of Congress voted: 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R): Yes

Rubio praised the deal as a bipartisan compromise that gave Florida much-needed disaster relief. “While no one wants to have a hurricane and no one wants to have a natural disaster, I think this is a response that we should be happy about,” Rubio said on Wednesday. He did voice concerns over the deficit despite voting yes. 

"Throughout my time in the Senate, my support for increasing the debt limit has been consistently conditioned on meaningful spending reforms that address our long-term debt," Rubio said in a statement after the vote. "This budget deal does not do that. We must begin to seriously address the long-term drivers of our debt and get our fiscal house back in order. We cannot do that if we continue to govern through short term continuing resolutions that inefficiently spend taxpayer dollars and fail to provide the certainty required for effective planning."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D): Yes

Nelson spoke alongside Rubio on the Senate floor to praise the deal after it was announced. "Senator Rubio and I have been talking about all the things we have done together in trying to get this disaster aid package to finally come to the point at which we can say we are so thankful that we see a path forward,” Nelson said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R): Yes

Curbelo had voted against multiple spending bills because a DACA solution wasn't imminent. But hours before the vote on Thursday Curbelo switched his stance after Ryan said he would "bring a solution to the floor." 

In a statement released Thursday, Curbelo said Ryan "delivered his strongest commitment yet that legislation will be considered on the floor of the House" and that was enough to change his vote. 

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R): No 

Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring in 2018, was the only Republican in Congress to join Democrats and vote against the budget bill because it didn't include a DACA solution. 

“I will vote NO, as I have pledged to do so in the past," Ros-Lehtinen said in an email on Thursday. 

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R): Yes

Diaz-Balart, an ally of leadership, has consistently voted in favor of short-term spending bills in recent months. 

"This bipartisan legislation continues government operations and funds programs that are critical to Americans across the nation. It also invests in our military during a time where we must provide our troops with the proper resources to defend our country, help our allies, and stand up to our adversaries," Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "I represent parts of Florida that are still rebuilding from Hurricane Irma, and the $89.3 billion supplemental will go a long way in helping these communities recover from storm damage."

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D): No

Wilson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus that opposed the deal and one of the more liberal members of Congress, voted no. 

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D): No 

Wasserman Schultz was a firm no hours before the vote as some Democrats wavered on whether or not to follow leader Nancy Pelosi and vote no or vote to keep the government open without a DACA solution. 

Rep. Ted Deutch (D): Yes

In a statement, Deutch said he voted for the budget bill to keep the government open "finally beyond just weeks." The bill keeps the government running until March 23rd. 

"Tonight, I voted for a compromise budget deal because it will allow us to keep the government running, finally beyond just weeks," Deutch said. "This bill helps the millions of Americans in Florida and Puerto Rico, Texas, California and the Virgin Islands whose lives were turned upside down by natural disasters. It provides a potential lifeline to families struggling with opioid addiction."

He also added that Congress must focus on passing the DREAM Act to help DACA recipients. President Donald Trump has indicated he does not support the DREAM Act. 

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D): No

Hastings is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus that opposed the deal and is one of the more liberal members of Congress. 

February 08, 2018

Why Florida’s orange growers will get more money than Puerto Rico’s broken power grid

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@alextdaugherty

Congress is poised to pass its first disaster relief plan since October on Thursday as part of a massive government spending deal, but the funds doled out to Puerto Rico fall far short of what Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked for in November, and more money may not be on the horizon.

Rosselló asked for $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild and remake Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage and triggered an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland.

He got about $17 billion.

Included in the $17 billion total is $2 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid, about $15 billion less than Rosselló requested, and $4.8 billion for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid fund that was set to run out of money in a matter of weeks.

The $2 billion for Puerto Rico’s electric grid, which affects about 3.5 million people, is less than what Congress secured for Florida’s citrus industry after Hurricane Irma destroyed most of last year’s crop, resulting in a loss of about $760 million and higher orange juice prices.

Florida’s citrus industry, which employs about 45,000 people, received $300 million more than Puerto Rico’s power grid.

“Let’s put it this way, we cannot miss the fact that obviously we lack representation in Congress,” Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration executive director Carlos Mercader said. “We don’t have two senators, we don’t have four or five congressmen to be like Florida. Florida is one of the biggest delegations in Congress, and the storm in Florida happened before the storm in Puerto Rico and they were working for [citrus funding] to be included even before this last supplemental, and they got it here.”

Mercader said Thursday’s disaster funding agreement “was a very good step towards recovery” and said it was a massive improvement over the last disaster funding bill passed in October, which didn’t include any specific funds for Puerto Rico.

“We know this is a process and we’re glad that Congress included Puerto Rico,” Mercader said. “We’re glad that Democrats and Republicans were able to agree on this. Now we’re hopeful we can continue to work with them on the steps that need to be taken.”

But a Democratic aide said it was unclear if a Republican-controlled Congress will have the appetite for another massive disaster deal in 2018.

“With GOP in control, I think a lot of people around here would be surprised if we see another one this year,” the aide said. “Whether we see one next year will depend on who controls Congress.”

Read more here.

February 07, 2018

TPS solution for Haitians not a priority in high-stakes immigration debate

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The U.S. Senate isn’t seriously considering a path to permanent residency or citizenship for more than 300,000 Temporary Protected Status recipients as part of an immigration deal to keep 689,000 Dreamers from being deported.

Two senators involved in ongoing immigration talks, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, said there aren’t active serious discussions about the fate of TPS holders from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

“The bipartisan group is trying to get some consensus of what can pass that will protect the DACA Dreamers,” Nelson said. “What I expect is within two weeks we are going to get a DACA solution. I would hope it includes TPS, but if it messes up getting votes in order to pass the Dreamers, I think that would not be considered then and would be held for more comprehensive immigration.”

Flake said a proposal did exist at one point to take some visas from the diversity lottery and apply them to TPS recipients. But the idea, part of an immigration proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was rejected by President Donald Trump.

TPS has been discussed at recent Senate immigration meetings, according to Flake, but the topic isn’t under serious consideration as Senate Democrats and Republicans try to negotiate an immigration proposal that will receive 60 votes in the upper chamber, along with the approval of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Trump.

“It’s been discussed but nothing firm,” Flake said, adding there’s “no serious discussion” about TPS.

The Senate stance on TPS comes after Trump reportedly blasted TPS recipients in a White House meeting, saying, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out,” and “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” — in reference to immigrants living and working legally in the United States under TPS and to making changes to the diversity lottery system.

Read more here.

February 06, 2018

Bill Nelson says SpaceX launch is the next step on getting humans to Mars

SpaceX New Rocket Launch (2)

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Sen. Bill Nelson, the only member of Congress who has been to space, was giddy after SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched a red Tesla Roadster towards Mars on Tuesday. 

He had his entire staff watch the launch on TV and then walked to the Senate floor to inform his colleagues. 

"The largest rocket since the moon program, the Saturn V, launched from the Kennedy Space Center today," Nelson said. "The test launch of the Falcon Heavy is a spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida’s Space Coast and of the U.S. commercial launch sector, which is succeeding in a big way. That’s good news for the civil space program. It's good news for national security. It's good news for employment in the U.S. and it's great news for jobs and the economy." 

Nelson hurdled into space 32 years ago from the same launch pad in Cape Canaveral that SpaceX used on Tuesday. 

"The icing on the top of the cake was the two boosters coming and simultaneously landing a hundred yards apart on two landing pads on Cape Canaveral air force station," Nelson said. 

Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over the nation's space program. He said Tuesday's launch is a big step for future exploration of Mars. 

"By all means when we launch in a year in a half, Americans on American rockets, that will rivet the attention of the entire country and that will help enormously as people start to focus that we're serious about this, taking humans all the way to Mars and returning them safely," Nelson said, referencing the NASA plan to get humans on Mars by the 2030s.  

NASA still doesn't have a permanent director after Nelson and other Democrats, along with a few Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, voiced concerns over Trump's pick to run the agency, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Bridenstine's Senate confirmation is currently in limbo, though Trump did renominate Bridenstine after his nomination expired at the end of last year.   

How Puerto Rico failed to influence its biggest advocates in Washington

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@alextdaugherty 

Puerto Rico’s needs in Washington are urgent.

The U.S. territory’s federal Medicaid funding will run out this month. Congress hasn’t passed a disaster relief bill since October. And as Hurricane Maria fades out of the daily news cycle, pushing lawmakers to act through lobbying is one arena where the Puerto Rican government can exert influence.

But Puerto Rico’s government-appointed lobbyists in Washington failed to change the island’s corporate tax status after asking at the last second; the governor urged Congress in November to authorize $94.3 billion in disaster relief — a massive sum that a Republican-controlled House and Senate isn’t likely to approve — and Puerto Rican leaders recently began a statehood blitz on Capitol Hill that even supporters in Washington say has no hope of success.

The nearly year-long negotiations on the massive tax bill in Congress are a window into the Puerto Rican government’s inability to influence the levers of power in Washington, and Hurricane Maria along with the island’s lack of voting representation in Congress aren’t solely to blame.

After failing to get legislative victories, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló attacked Republicans who agree with him on Puerto Rican statehood, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Rosselló vowed to use the expanding Puerto Rican diaspora in states like Florida as political leverage in the 2018 elections.

But while Rosselló has started spending time in Florida, his office in Washington has yet to successfully influence major pieces of legislation.

The Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, PRFFA, a Washington-based group of Puerto Rican government officials tasked with representing Rosselló’s interests on Capitol Hill and the White House, constantly shifted legislative priorities throughout negotiations on the tax overhaul, which made it difficult for members of Congress to understand the island’s needs, according to multiple congressional offices.

PRFFA executive director Carlos Mercader, a Rosselló appointee, said the group’s position on taxes “was conveyed throughout the process and it has never varied, to this day.”

“PRFAA never shifted the goalposts,” Mercader said in an email. “On the contrary, it addressed different provisions as they were put forward by Congress.”

Weeks before the tax bill became law, Rosselló’s lobbyists began to argue that the bill treated companies in Puerto Rico as foreign entities under the revamped tax code, putting them at a competitive disadvantage compared to their mainland counterparts. But the push came too late and wasn’t a feasible request, according to Republican and Democratic lawmaker offices who work extensively on Puerto Rican issues.

When the corporate tax change failed, Rosselló went on the offensive, publicly criticizing Republicans like Rubio for turning their backs on Puerto Rico in its time of need, three months after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s entire electrical grid.

Rubio said Rosselló’s office raised objections about corporate taxes in Puerto Rico just over a week before the bill passed the U.S. Senate, adding that “the bulk of their engagement was always with the disaster relief, and rightfully so.”

But, Rubio added, “it remains to be seen” whether the corporate tax changes will have the negative affects on Puerto Rico that Rosselló claims.

Rosselló isn’t happy that the tax bill imposes a 12.5 percent tax on “intangible assets” of U.S. companies abroad and a minimum of a 10 percent tax on companies’ profits abroad. The measure in the tax bill is designed to stop American companies from avoiding taxes by shifting profits overseas. But it would also apply to Puerto Rico because the island is treated as both a foreign and domestic entity under the U.S. tax code.

“We will analyze those who turned their back on Puerto Rico, who passed a bill that goes against the spirit of the law,” Rosselló said in December.

Read more here.

January 30, 2018

Nelson and Rubio urge the U.S. Senate not to forget about disaster aid

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The U.S. Senate is operating on borrowed time, with less 10 days remaining until another potential government shutdown as a debate over immigration policy consumes Washington. 

But Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio reminded their colleagues on Tuesday that the U.S. Senate hasn't passed a disaster relief bill in over three months, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said additional relief bills would come to help Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"There will be additional rounds, and we are all fully committed to meeting the needs that have arisen as a result of these devastating hurricanes," McConnell said in October. 

In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor, Nelson and Rubio delivered a laundry list of arguments in favor of a new disaster relief bill that helps victims of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey along with wildfires in California. 

"I hope our colleagues in the Senate will understand the urgency of this matter," Nelson said. "We can't keep pushing this off down into the future. The need to act is now." 

Nelson said Florida received only $600 million of the $7.4 billion doled out in September for long-term disaster relief through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

"What percentage is that of $7.4 billion? It's well less than 10 percent. It defies comprehension," Nelson said. 

Nelson also listed a number of other issues that must be resolved through a disaster aid package, including Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, help for Florida's citrus industry and additional funding for Florida schools dealing with a glut of new students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

The Federal Emergency Management Administration is also set to end food and water aid in Puerto Rico this week as grocery stores reopen, a decision Nelson blasted. 

"I am absolutely shocked that FEMA has announced that on Wednesday, it will stop distributing food and water to Puerto Rico," Nelson said. "Cutting this aid to the people of Puerto Rico, almost a third of them who still do not have electricity, it's unconscionable, and it's a travesty." 

Rubio echoed many of the arguments made by Nelson. 

"Long after the cameras leave and long after the stories aren't being written real people and real lives are disrupted, sometimes permanently," Rubio said, pointing to floating debris in the Florida Keys and its negative impacts on tourism and business.  

"I am disappointed," Rubio said. "If you had told me that we would have gotten to the last week of January and still hadn't taken up disaster relief, I would have been surprised because we had a chance to actually address this at the end of last year. The House sent over a bill that didn't go far enough, the Senate had ideas about how to make it better and then for reasons involving leverage and using it as a tool to get people to vote for...short-term spending at the end its kind of been held up." 

Rubio also highlighted Puerto Rico's needs in a disaster aid package, adding that he would like to see the U.S. territory's Medicaid program addressed, a temporary payroll tax deduction and a temporary expansion of the child tax credit in Puerto Rico. 

It's unclear when a disaster relief bill will be addressed by the U.S. Senate. A proposal could be attached to the upcoming short-term spending bill or it could be brought up on its own.

"Do not forget about disaster relief...we have to get this done," Rubio said.