September 27, 2017

Bob Menendez says White House blocked a planned trip to Puerto Rico with Marco Rubio

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A New Jersey Democrat is not happy that the Trump administration is reportedly barring lawmaker travel to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. 

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that at least 10 lawmakers were hoping to go to Puerto Rico aboard military aircraft over the weekend on a trip organized by Sen. Bob Menendez, but they were stopped by the White House and Pentagon. The administration officials said lawmaker travel at this time would impede relief efforts, according to the Post. 

After the Post piece was published, Menendez said on Twitter that he was planning to travel with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of only a handful of lawmakers who have visited Puerto Rico since the storm hit. 

"Over a dozen members of Congress say they’d join Marco Rubio & I to head to Puerto Rico to assess disaster response," Menendez tweeted. "Restricting us doesn’t serve millions in NJ & across U.S. waiting to get a hold of their families. These are Americans who need our help. We will not back down!" 

After visiting Puerto Rico and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Monday, Rubio met with Vice President Mike Pence and other top FEMA officials on Tuesday to relay his concerns about the humanitarian situation throughout the territory.  

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” Rubio said. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, and he said that was the earliest possible day he could visit without hampering relief efforts. The Post reported that lawmakers have been barred from traveling on military planes to Puerto Rico since Monday evening. 

Menendez's office confirmed that the New Jersey senator was working with Republicans to organize a trip. 

"I can confirm that Senator Menendez is the lead member organizing a bipartisan CODEL to Puerto Rico with several members," Menendez spokesman Juan Pachon said in an email. "Our office is now trying to figure out alternatives to make this happen as the situation on the island is extremely dire." 

Rubio acknowledged the logistical constraints of travel to the island in a Facebook video on Wednesday. 

“I tried to get there Friday last week and it wasn’t possible for a lot of reasons," Rubio said. "I want people to understand, when you think about some of these trips, you have an airport, and the airport can only take X number of flights a day, and so if I get on an airplane and fly in there, that’s one less flight that can land with food or medicine or personnel, and so we didn’t want to be in the way.”

Planes can only land once every 15 minutes in San Juan according to Rubio, and the lack of flights is an obstacle for getting aid into the territory. Rubio's office sent four staffers to the island on Wednesday to assist with recovery efforts.

Menendez and Rubio are the leading members of the Senate subcommittee that oversees Western Hemisphere affairs. Menendez is currently on trial for corruption in New Jersey. 

One lawmaker, Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, plans to travel to Puerto Rico this weekend. But he is traveling on a commercial flight and not a military plane, according to the Post. 

"I hope to return to Puerto Rico here in the next couple days if possible with some of my colleagues to begin what we can do to kind of break down barriers and help deliver aid,” Rubio said. 

September 26, 2017

Lawmakers warn Trump: Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands could become Katrina-like disaster

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The Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could become a Hurricane Katrina-like political disaster if he does not respond to the storms’ aftermath more decisively, congressional lawmakers from both parties warned Tuesday.

“I'm concerned about human suffering and potential loss of life if aid doesn't reach the places it needs to reach quickly enough,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spent Monday in San Juan with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “I hope that we don't see Katrina-like images.”

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., one of five Puerto Ricans in Congress, warned Trump that “If you don’t take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.”

 

President George W. Bush’s response to Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, was criticized as initially weak and insensitive.

Bush did a flyover in Air Force One to survey the damage rather than land, a move that he described in 2010 as a “huge mistake.”
When Bush did visit the area, he praised the much-maligned performance of then-FEMA Secretary Michael Brown.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said as water and provisions were in short supply for New Orleans survivors of the storm.

Tuesday, lawmakers delivered the dire message to the White House following a Monday night tweet by Trump in which he spoke about the devastation in Puerto Rico but also mentioned the island’s debt crisis.

“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” the president wrote.

Read more here.

Democrats beg Trump to appoint a general in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

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Donald Trump’s tweets usually invoke silence, sarcasm or support from lawmakers, but something very different happened on Tuesday.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a New York Democrat and one of the longest-serving Puerto Ricans in Congress, nearly broke down in tears as she responded to Trump’s tweet that Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” and burdened with debt after Hurricane Maria.

 

 

 

After 11 seconds of silence, during which Velázquez was consoled by Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, she tore into the president’s first series of tweets on Puerto Rico that came after Trump spent days blasting the National Football League.

“I feel offended and insulted to see a type of tweet from the president blaming the people of Puerto Rico for a natural disaster and then the public debt,” Velázquez said. “We are better than that and I expect more from our president. Right now this is a matter of life and death.”

Democrats on Tuesday had a clear message for the Trump administration nearly one week after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands: Appoint a general and send in the troops.

“We’re looking for a more robust response,” said Democratic Caucus chairman Rep. Joe Crowley. “We need a general to be put in place. We know that (former Homeland Security) secretary (John) Kelly knows these islands like no one else. He understands the structure of them, he knows how to get equipment into them. But we need to see that overwhelming response.”

Crowley and other Democrats aren’t pleased with the White House’s response to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands so far, citing logistical snafus like a medical ship intended for Puerto Rico that is still docked in Norfolk, Virginia.

“Unfortunately, what we‘ve seen from the White House over the weekend has been a diversion, a distraction to nonsensical issues,” Crowley said.

Clarke cautioned that Hurricanes Maria and Irma could be Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, a reference to the 2005 storm that killed hundreds in Louisiana after the federal government botched relief efforts.

“I recognize and recall with horror what happened with Hurricane Katrina,” Clarke said. “This is Katrina times six and we have got to really make sure the U.S. government uses everything at its disposal to move into that region and begin to employ life-saving measures.”

The need for military intervention in the U.S. territories is particularly important according to Clarke because there were six major islands that were devastated by the two hurricanes, meaning an insufficient federal response will lead to six Katrina-like situations.

“That means that each island has been decimated,” Clarke said. “People speak of Puerto Rico and they speak of the main island but there are two other islands. Likewise, with the Virgin Islands you have St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.”

Read more here.

September 25, 2017

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

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@alextdaugherty 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Read more here.

September 20, 2017

Rubio appears likely to support last-ditch Obamacare repeal effort

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Read more here.

Rubio, Nelson urge Trump administration to help Puerto Rico

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2017

Puerto Rico will need billions in federal help after Hurricane Maria

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@alextdaugherty 

Puerto Rico’s power grid is a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

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

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

And airlines are agreeing.

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

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

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

September 18, 2017

Bill Nelson criticizes Rick Scott over nursing home deaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 12, 2017

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

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Many members of Florida’s congressional delegation couldn’t be in Washington for votes on Tuesday, as the state began a massive cleanup after Hurricane Irma. But that hasn’t stopped them from pressing colleagues who were spared Irma’s wrath to join in their quest for federal help.

Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only member from Florida in office when Hurricane Andrew made landfall 25 years ago, is urging Washington to treat her state as it did Texas just a week ago.

Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a press conference. “We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we're going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma.”

But efforts to spend billions on hurricane relief will likely meet resistance from conservative Republicans who bristle at any new spending that doesn’t include corresponding cuts elsewhere. For them, Florida’s storm damage is a secondary concern to the long-term consequences of increasing the federal deficit.

“The unsustainable national debt remains the greatest existential threat to our nation that is routinely ignored in Washington,” said Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling in a statement. “Emergency funding should not come to the House without an opportunity to propose offsets, a number of which can easily be found in President Trump’s budget.”

Last week, Hensarling, along with 106 Republicans in the House and Senate, voted against a $15.25 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill that was coupled with an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and a measure to keep the government funded for a short period, signaling that a faction of conservatives will likely vote against billions in Irma relief if they deem the money isn’t directly related to storm recovery.

“The extremists in the Republican conference who somehow think we should be offsetting the cost of an emergency don’t understand the concept of an emergency,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “ It was the largest storm to hit the state in modern times. We are going to need significant relief and recovery.”

But despite the opposition, Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, including Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are united in getting attention, and funding, for Florida.

“I spoke to Speaker Ryan last night and we were talking about how we have to get FEMA funded,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s no question that we’re going to need an emergency supplemental. He’s already put people on notice.”

Wasserman Schultz said it’s impossible to even ballpark how much money Florida will need from the federal government. The cleanup is just beginning, and the immediate priorities are restoring power and getting fuel into the state. Those efforts don’t require additional funding from Congress.

Nelson and Rubio have teamed up for a variety of press conferences and events before and after the storm, notably a flyover of the Florida Keys with Coast Guard personnel on Monday to view the damage and recovery efforts.

Read more here.