April 24, 2018

How one Republican held up the U.S. Senate over Cuba travel policy

Cuba Trump

@alextdaugherty

The U.S. Senate ground to a halt last week, and Cuba was the culprit.

After months in limbo, Donald Trump's pick to lead NASA finally appeared to have enough support for confirmation, and a vote was scheduled. Sen. Marco Rubio, who opposed Rep. Jim Bridenstine's nomination because he wanted a non-politician to run the nation's space program, switched his stance, giving Republicans enough votes to move forward with Bridenstine on a party-line vote.

But Jeff Flake had other ideas.

The Arizona Republican seized the GOP's one-vote advantage over the minority and initially cast a "no" vote on Bridenstine. Vice President Mike Pence was in Florida, unable to hustle to Capitol Hill to break a 49-49 tie. Republican leaders were forced to negotiate with Flake on the Senate floor to get him to change his vote.

Flake's reason for dithering? The longtime critic of U.S. trade and travel restrictions with Cuba wanted to talk to Mike Pompeo, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, about travel restrictions to Cuba, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

"I want to talk to Pompeo on a number of issues, that's all I'll say," Flake said with a smile when asked if he sought to talk to the secretary of state nominee about Cuba travel restrictions in exchange for a "yes" vote on Bridenstine.

Flake, a frequent Trump critic, doesn't have much of an incentive to listen to party leaders who could help his reelection chances:. He's retiring after the 2018 elections.

That means he can continue to push Senate leaders on issues like Cuba, where the fault lines aren't drawn up neatly along party lines.

"My goal has always been the same, of closer ties, more travel, more commerce because I think that moves Cuba closer to democracy, so I'll use any leverage I can to try to bring that about," Flake said. "I'll try to keep the progress and the policies we've made particularly with Cuban entrepreneurs achieving some kind of independence from the government down there that we don't turn them back."

Read more here.

April 20, 2018

Parkland parents say public officials need to be fired soon for failing their children

Guttenberg

@alextdaugherty

Fred Guttenberg, the Parkland parent who confronted Marco Rubio on national television about the senator’s opposition to an assault weapons ban, had a very different conversation with the Florida Republican on Capitol Hill this week.

“Senator, see you tomorrow?” Guttenberg asked.

“I’m around all day, flying out Thursday night,” Rubio replied.

The pair disagree on gun-control policy, but Guttenberg and the Parkland families are united with Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson behind an effort to make the authorities who failed their children accountable.

History suggests they may be successful.

The families of the 17 victims in the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School persuaded the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to sign a gun bill over the objections of the National Rifle Association. They successfully got the slow-moving U.S. Senate to fast-track limited school safety legislation into a must-pass spending bill last month.

And the voices that no lawmaker can ignore are pushing for agencies like the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Broward School Board and FBI to be held responsible, and soon.

“We all think we know, but we need to know with certainty, we need to find out why they made the mistakes and we need to fire people for their mistakes,” Guttenberg said. “Do any of the mistakes cross over to a criminal activity? I don’t know the law, but I do know at a minimum people need to be fired and they need to be fired soon.”

Three Parkland parents are serving on a state commission established by Scott and granted subpoena powers. The commission is set to meet next week. One parent recently met with FBI Director Christopher Wray to discuss how the agency can learn from its mistakes. And the parents are confident something will happen, even if it takes a lot longer than they would want.

Read more here.

April 18, 2018

NASA administrator opposed by Bill Nelson approved in drama-filled vote

Bill Nelson

@alextdaugherty

For months, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has railed against the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., as NASA administrator, and his nomination stalled when Democrats along with Sen. Marco Rubio opposed him. 

On Wednesday, Bridenstine was finally confirmed to lead the nation's space program, but it wasn't without drama.

Rubio's belated support appeared to give Republicans enough votes, but Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake surprisingly voted "no" on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence was out of town, unable to break a 49-49 tie. Two senators were out for health-related reasons. 

The vote remained open for nearly an hour before Flake had a conversation with party leaders and switched his vote, though he was coy about his reasons for doing it. 

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Flake was trying to exert leverage over one of his signature issues: increased trade and interaction with Cuba. Flake wanted to talk Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo about travel restrictions to Cuba, according to Cornyn.   

Nelson has argued that Bridenstine, an elected official, should not be tapped to lead an agency typically led by a scientist. Bridenstine also attacked Rubio on immigration during the 2016 Republican primary. 

April 05, 2018

Rubio blames ‘bureaucracy’ for the wait on federal Irma funding

Congress Gun Violence

via @keywestgwen 

Asked why parts of the Florida Keys remain severely damaged nearly seven months after Hurricane Irma, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had one word: Bureaucracy.

“It’s a pretty straightforward task,” Rubio said, standing in a trailer park in Marathon where a canal is still choked with debris and filth from the storm. “Get the money that we’ve already voted for down here so they can hire people to clean this up.”

People applauded.

“Don’t clap yet, we’ve got to get the money,” Rubio said. “We just voted for the money; the hard part is getting the federal government to release it. We’ll keep banging on the door. There’s nothing else they can use the money for — it’s appropriated for this.”

Rubio added, “Next time we get back here, these things will be cleaned up.”

Rubio also attended a one-hour roundtable discussion at the Marathon Government Center where he spoke with mostly elected leaders about struggles in the Keys over affordable housing.

“We’ve had a housing crisis in this community for decades,” said County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, of Key West. “The storm exacerbated it and revealed the real depth of the problem.”

One solution, she said, is to purchase property and deed-restrict it for affordable and workforce housing.

“We don’t have the depth of resources to be able to do that,” Carruthers said.

Read more here.

March 23, 2018

Miami Republican lawmaker confirmed as U.S. ambassador to OAS

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@alextdaugherty

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States by the U.S. Senate on Thursday. 

The White House announced Trujillo’s appointment in October, just two months after President Donald Trump named him one of four U.S. representatives to the United Nations General Assembly. That job made Trujillo, an early Trump campaign supporter who attended the president’s inauguration, one of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s four deputies.

Trujillo was ultimately approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though he did face questioning from Democrats over a 2015 bill in the Florida Legislature that would have made it a felony for an undocumented immigrant who was previously deported, or facing a deportation order, to be in the state. 

"As someone with a strong understanding of U.S.-Latin American relations, Carlos Trujillo is an outstanding choice to serve as U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. "Carlos has served his constituents diligently in the Florida House of Representatives over the last eight years, and I know he will do the same while representing the American people at the OAS."

Rubio, an ally of Trujillo's also serves as chairman of the Latin America subcommittee in the U.S. Senate. 

March 22, 2018

Two bills supported by Parkland families included in massive spending package

931455402 (1)

@alextdaugherty

The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on a massive $1.3 trillion spending package on Thursday and Friday, and the spending bill includes two bills that were a priority for the families of victims of the nation's deadliest high school shooting in Parkland. 

The STOP School Violence Act and Fix NICS Act are both in the package. Both bills received widespread support from both parties though a few Republicans were opposed to the Fix NICS Act, which aims to improve the background check system for guns by penalizing federal agencies that fail to report records, and increases federal funding for reporting domestic violence records.

"Today, we’re moving a little closer to turning the voices of the students marching across the country into action. While we still have so much work to do, I am happy to see some movement on bipartisan legislation I’ve worked on with Senator Rubio to help address gun violence in our country, including the Fix NICS Act and the STOP School Violence Act, which funds programs to help keep our schools safe," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement. 

The spending bill also stipulates that the Centers for Disease Controls can conduct research on gun violence, a measure pushed by Orlando Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy after the Parkland shooting. A number of Republicans, including Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have backed the idea. Previously, the CDC was not allowed to spend money to research gun violence due to an amendment passed in 1996. 

"We are very happy that by the end of this week there should be close to a billion dollars over the next ten years available so that states can set up these systems to identify potential shooters and stop them before they kill anybody," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. 

March 21, 2018

Rubio launches anti-Maduro Facebook page for Venezuelans

Marco Rubio 3

@alextdaugherty

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio launched a new Facebook page on Wednesday to communicate directly with Venezuelans and Venezuelan dissidents living abroad, his office announced. 

"The Facebook page will serve as a platform for Rubio’s office to share information about U.S. efforts against the Maduro regime and Rubio’s ongoing efforts to support the Venezuelan people’s cause of freedom and democracy," his office said in a press release. 

The outreach effort is the latest example of Rubio's status as a face for opposition to Nicolás Maduro's government. Rubio delivered a speech on independent Venezuelan TV last year, brought Venezuelan human rights Lilian Tintori to the White House and is pushing for additional sanctions on Caracas, including a ban on oil imports, until it implements democratic reforms. 

South Florida Republicans have made Venezuela a key foreign policy issue in recent years, arguing that Cuba props up the Venezuelan government with aid as its people starve.   

"For a lot of people in Venezuela, Facebook is the way they get news from outside, especially with the increased ownership of media and control of media by the Maduro regime," Rubio said in a statement. "So the purpose of this Facebook page is to be able to communicate directly to the people of Venezuela so that they know what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in their own country and what our efforts are here – they are not to target or hurt them."

March 20, 2018

Parkland families push for progress in Washington before the March for Our Lives

931455402

@alextdaugherty

The families of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are among the most powerful lobbyists in Washington right now.

Lawmakers from both parties are willing to rearrange their schedules for an in-person meeting with a group of people who have already successfully shepherded a gun bill through the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that was opposed by the National Rifle Association.

But the Florida Legislature is a part-time body, bound by time constraints to pass bills within a few weeks. Congress is under no such pressure, so many bills that have strong support from both parties can still languish for years.

“We don’t move as fast as Florida legislatures do,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said. “This Congress, with 500-something members, represents a vast and diverse country and as a result there are people in different parts of the country that have different views on these issues.”

The families of the Parkland victims have varying beliefs about access to firearms. Some, like Fred Guttenberg, want to ban all assault-style weapons. Others, like Ryan Petty, are concerned that a debate about banning assault weapons will shift the conversation into a partisan fight where nothing gets accomplished.

But the victims’ families are united behind three bills in Washington, and they’re pushing to get two of them passed before the March for Our Lives on Saturday. The families are discussing legislation through Slack, an instant messaging application that allows users to break different topics into channels of discussion.

“We’re probably one-upping the kids on that,” Petty said of the parents’ use of technology. “We put a proposal in one of the channels and then discuss it. I’ve been the liaison this past week, so as I was speaking with [Sen. Orrin] Hatch, Rubio, [Sen. Mitch] McConnell’s office, I posted the messages into our group.”

Petty said the parents come together and read the various bills and proposals in Slack, then one of them will write a statement either in favor or against the proposal before a final vote. The families don’t come out in favor or against something unless there’s a consensus.

But he acknowledges lobbying for legislation in Washington is “absolutely tougher” than trying to pass bills in Tallahassee. 

Read more here.

March 13, 2018

A conservative Parkland student helps set the agenda in Washington

US-NEWS-SCHOOLSAFETY-BILL-4-ABA

@alextdaugherty

Kyle Kashuv was in a bind.

The 16-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, who opposes gun control, had just finished a press conference with Sen. Marco Rubio and the family of a Parkland shooting victim on Capitol Hill, and his next engagement was coming up.

One problem: He needed someone to adjust his tie, which was left in a knot so he could slip the loop around his head.

“Can you help me with this?” Kashuv asked a reporter and a Senate aide as he fiddled with his phone. “We’ve got to call an Uber to the White House.”

Kashuv, the high school junior who vaulted to national prominence as a conservative counterweight to the vocal Parkland students who favor tighter gun-control legislation, is back in Washington for second week of high-profile meetings, and he’s setting the agenda in the nation’s capital.

Senators from both parties are rearranging their schedules to speak with him, television channels are clamoring to get him on air and he even brokered a Skype conversationbetween Rubio and YouTube video blogger Jake Paul. He has already met with President Donald Trump once, and plans to be at the White House before and during the March for Our Lives on March 24th.

“In the media [Trump] is portrayed as ignorant and unknowing and cold, but in real life he’s very smart and very quick and he’s very caring,” Kashuv said. “When I met with the president, first it shocked me that I met with the president but... he was just so nice. I think it’s amazing that in the busiest day of his entire administration with the steel tariffs and North Korea, he found the time, took everyone out of his office, and we sat there and talked for a while and that’s something that very rarely occurs.”

Kashuv and his 19-year-old right-hand man, Michael Gruen, who coordinated Kashuv’s meetings on Capitol Hill and the White House with help from former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, aren’t in Washington solely for the photo-ops. They want Rubio and others in Congress to pass a bill that provides funds for school safety and coordination between school districts and law enforcement.

Read more here.

March 08, 2018

Rubio questions Colombia ambassador nominee over Benghazi role

Marco Rubio 3

@alextdaugherty @francoordonez 

Sen. Marco Rubio questioned Joseph Macmanus, a career foreign service officer who could become the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, over his ties to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initial response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. 

Macmanus was working as Clinton's executive assistant in September 2012, and was part of Clinton's inner circle as the details of the attack began to unfold. The attack killed ambassador John Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Multiple Republican senators, including Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, have said they plan to delay or sink Macmanus' nomination over his ties to Clinton and the Benghazi attack

"When did you know the attacks were terrorism and not related to anti-American protests and when did you first inform the Secretary of State of that fact?" Rubio asked Macmanus. 

"I used the term terrorist attack because that's what I judged it to be," Macmanus replied. "It was not a legal determination it was not based on an amass of evidence or analysis, it was the term that I used to describe what I saw taking place." 

Macmanus also said he never purposely misled the American people about the nature of the attack. 

Rubio also questioned Macmanus about trying to stop Colombian cocaine production, and Venezuela's role in drug trafficking. 

"The border between Colombia and Venezuela is rife for mischief and illegality," Macmanus said. 

And Rubio also asked Macmanus about the ongoing refugee crisis and the Venezuela-Colombia border. 

"As you see more and more people coming across the border...do you anticipate at some point, if not already, that the U.S. will need to step up and provide Colombia assistance along with the international community to deal with pressures being created by these large number of refugees flowing into Colombia from Venezuela?" Rubio asked. 

"I think Colombia understands deeply the depth of this particular problem and crisis," Macmanus said.