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." 

 

September 07, 2017

Rubio would have grudgingly voted for a $15 billion hurricane relief bill, but he was in Miami preparing for Irma

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The U.S. Senate passed a $15 billion Hurricane Harvey disaster relief bill on Thursday, but Marco Rubio wasn't there. 

He was in Miami preparing for Hurricane Irma and meeting with local officials. 

Hours after the bill passed on Thursday, Rubio issued a statement explaining that he would have voted in favor of the package even though he had "significant reservations." 

“Today, I am in West Miami, which is now under a watch for Hurricane Irma and currently projected to take a direct hit from this Category 5 storm," Rubio said in a statement. "Tropical Storm conditions are expected in South Florida less than 48 hours after the time of today’s vote, and I am using this crucial time to safely secure my home, my mother’s home and otherwise prepare my family to face the brunt and the aftermath of a potentially catastrophic storm. If I had been able to participate in today’s Senate vote in Washington, I would have voted to approve the supplemental package before the Senate. But my vote would come despite significant reservations about some of the other items attached to this legislation."

Rubio's vote wasn't critical, the measure passed with an overwhelming 80-17 vote. A number of conservative Republicans, most from non-coastal states, voted against it. 

The Harvey relief bill, which helps to fund FEMA as it runs out of money, was tied to an increase in the nation's debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program after Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday. 

Rubio opposed the deal. 

"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. "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. Additionally, I am frustrated Congress has once again temporarily reauthorized the outdated National Flood Insurance Program without enacting a long-term solution that provides much-needed improvements for the people of Florida and places this vital program on a sustainable path for the future." 

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson voted in favor of the proposal. Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn also voted in favor, even though Cruz has been a vocal critic of raising the nation's debt ceiling in the past, as Texas faces a massive recovery effort from Hurricane Harvey. 

"Given that Texas continues to recover from the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey and that the state of Florida is facing the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, I have no choice but to support this measure," Rubio said. "Nevertheless, I consider the manner in which this measure was structured, linking emergency disaster relief for victims in need of immediate assistance with other controversial measures we still have time to debate through regular order, to be among the most politically cynical efforts I have ever witnessed."

 

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

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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.

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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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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

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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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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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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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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.