Mueller yields no surprises
In the recent past, few events in Washington have captured the attention of the country as this week’s Capitol Hill hearings featuring former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His July 24 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee featured wall-to-wall media coverage, while the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee was mostly left to analysis by the members and pundits.
Going in, about 40 percent of the Democratic caucus, representing less than a quarter of the House membership, favored impeaching President Donald Trump. Those numbers are unlikely to significantly move one way or the other.
Those members favoring an impeachment resolution had high hopes Mueller would give a strong performance to back up his 488-page report released in May. That is not what they got.
At the same time, the idea of bringing articles of impeachment before the full House is not dead. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, where such articles would be drafted, are not ruling out the possibility.
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch was the first to have his five minutes with Mueller. His questioning focused on Trump’s order to fire Mueller, which Deutch describes as obstruction and was one of 10 instances Mueller listed in his report that could possibly be obstruction of justice.
“Anyone else who blatantly interfered with a criminal investigation would be arrested and indicted on charges of obstruction of justice,” he said.
During his scheduled time, Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz was interested in the origination of the investigation, specifically in what is known as the “Steele dossier.” Mueller said that was not in his “purview.”
“No, it is exactly your purview, Mr. Mueller, ….” Gaetz responded, listing his reasoning.
Like Gaetz, first-term Republican Greg Steube of Sarasota was also interested in the Steele dossier. He asked the former FBI Director how long it took him to reach the conclusion the document was “unverified,” a question Mueller refused to answer.
Like Deutch, first-term Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami also focused on obstruction of justice during her five minutes. Her takeaway message, to which Mueller agreed, was “simply attempting to obstruct justice can be a crime,” rebutting a Republican line that Trump’s orders or threats were not carried out.
The entire hearing is available here.
Orlando Democrat Val Demings was one of the few who committee members who also serves on the Intelligence Committee, where during that hearing she asked Mueller about Trump’s written responses to questions submitted from the Mueller team. She said Muller characterized responses from Trump as engaging in a pattern to “lie to federal investigators.”
When the day was done, Trump held an impromptu news conference blasting Democrats and Mueller. One of his tweets, complete with a link to the news conference, simply stated:
The Democrats had nothing…pic.twitter.com/VUIMndS4lZ
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
Demings, who was the first in the delegation to call for Trump’s impeachment, had the most eye-popping statement at the end. She remains convinced that Trump or his inner circle conspired with Russia.
“Director Mueller’s investigation revealed that President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, National Security Adviser, and personal lawyer committed federal crimes to conspire with Russia, get Trump elected and cover it up,” she said.
Infrastructure improvements proposed
Two members of the Florida delegation believe the U.S. Coast Guard’s infrastructure is in need of attention. This week, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio filed the Coast Guard Shore Infrastructure Improvement Act as a companion bill to one filed by Mucarsel-Powell in June.
The legislation comes after a report from the Government Accountability Office outlines a $2.6 billion backlog on maintenance issues. It also said nearly half of the Guard’s shore infrastructure is beyond its intended time of service.
“This legislation seeks to address the Coast Guard’s maintenance backlog, which includes construction and improvements to facilities damaged by recent hurricanes,” Rubio said in a news release. “We must ensure that this critical infrastructure is up to par to support our servicemen and women who are always ready to protect our nation.”
The measures from Rubio and Mucarsel-Powell would give the Coast Guard one year to establish plans to cut down on the backlog and brief the Congress on those plans. Funding is not part of either bill but instead seeks to improve processes for addressing the problems.
“We must rebuild our Coast Guard in a strategic way — one that accounts for stronger storms that will only worsen with climate change,” said Mucarsel-Powell. “This bill will ensure that the Coast Guard has the processes in place to carry out crucial shore infrastructure repairs.”
School choice bill launched
School choice is a significant component of Republican education strategy and this week a group of GOP Senators took another step in that direction. Sen. Rick Scott and 10 of his colleagues joined to co-sponsor the Student Empowerment Act, sponsored by Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
According to a news release, the bill would “allow all students — including public, private, religious and home-school students — to use tax-exempt distributions from qualified tuition programs (known as 529 plans) to cover eligible educational expenses, including books, tutoring and testing fees.”
“During my time as Governor of Florida, I worked to make Florida a national leader in school choice options for all students, with hundreds of thousands of families taking advantage of these opportunities,” Scott said.
Throughout his eight years, Scott either continued existing school choice programs or signed new ones into law. He was often at odds with the state’s education unions, but now joins like-minded legislators at the national level.
“The Student Empowerment Act builds on our efforts by expanding access to 529 savings accounts so that all Florida families have the opportunity for the best education for their children,” he added.
Rosselló resignation applauded
Bowing to the inevitable, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation from office. In a late-night video, Rosselló said: “I hope this decision serves as a call to citizen reconciliation.”
Recently, the FBI arrested government officials for corruption, which led to another scandal involving text messages that ensnared the Governor. Some of those texts mocked victims of the hurricane, which was too much for the residents of the island commonwealth as well as its biggest supporters within the Florida delegation.
To view the video, click on the image below:
In a statement, Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto said the Governor’s departure stemmed from “the insurmountable debt crisis to the incompetence in handling the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, to now evidence of massive corruption. On top of that, the disgraceful chat scandal caused many, myself included, to lose faith in the Rossello administration.”
Soto’s district is home to thousands of Puerto Rican transplants, including many who fled to Florida following Hurricane Maria.
Scott, who had earlier called on Rosselló to resign, issued a statement saying, “Today, Puerto Rico has the opportunity to move forward with new leadership. My hope and my prayer is that the new leaders focus on improving the lives of Puerto Rican families and rebuilding trust by creating jobs, improving education and enhancing security.”
Rubio also issued a statement saying, “Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation is an opportunity for Puerto Rico to emerge from this nightmare. Now, we must turn the page and recommit to working on behalf of Puerto Ricans to ensure the people on the island do not suffer the consequences of the unacceptable actions by corrupt politicians.”
Rosselló leaves office Aug. 2.
House passes spending bill
In one of their final acts before beginning a six-week recess, the House passed the $1.37 trillion spending and debt-ceiling bill worked out between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Several Republicans flinched at the price tag, but others pointed to the increased defense spending, while Democrats tout an increase in nondefense spending. The final vote was 284-149, with 132 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one independent voting against it.
“Although not perfect — no compromise is — the Bipartisan Budget Act is a win for the middle class,” said St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist.
Panama City Republican Neal Dunn had local reasons to support the bill.
“This deal cements the rebuild of Tyndall Air Force Base as well as aid programs providing relief to the Panhandle which are still very necessary,” he said.
The deal raises the debt limit and the spending caps until 2021, well after the 2020 elections. The price was too high for Clermont Republican Daniel Webster to support.
“I cannot support a budget that massively expands spending and puts another nail in the coffin of the Budget Control Act of 2011, he said in a statement.
Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Mario Diaz-Balart and John Rutherford joined Dunn in voting for the bill. All delegation Democrats voted in favor
It now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass early next week.
Waltz: Iran sanctions working
The hyperventilating coverage leading up to the Mueller hearings took nearly all attention away from other important issues. The ongoing saga of Iran and their hijacking of a British tanker as well as pledges to execute up to 17 spies gained little attention.
St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz sees a bright side in Iran’s erratic behavior. He says this means the tough sanctions placed on the rogue regime by the U.S. are working.
This [spy allegation] is another play out of their age-old playbook of ramping up tensions when they’re desperate,” Waltz told Fox News’ Harris Faulkner.
“And right now, because the maximum pressure campaign and the economic sanctions are working, you’re going to continue to see [Iran] lash out, whether it’s against oil tankers or accusing some of their citizens and scientists of being spies — because they need to divert their economic populace, which is rioting and hurting under these sanctions.”
Waltz, a decorated former Army Green Beret, is pleased the U.S. is standing up to the Iranian regime.
“They’re like a bully — you have to punch them in the mouth or they’re going to keep trying to bully kids and take their lunch money.”
TPS fails, then passes
A bill that would grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans fleeing the dire conditions in their country was voted down after sponsors successfully forced an expedited floor vote. The strategy intended to get the bill, sponsored by Soto and Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, passed before Congress leaves Friday for a six-week recess.
That meant a two-thirds majority, or 283 votes among voting members, was required to pass the measure. The final tally of 268-154 fell short, with only 37 Republicans voting for the bill and 154 voting against it.
After the vote, Diaz-Balart expressed his disappointment at the failure to pass TPS and what it means for Venezuelans.
“Our ultimate goal must be freedom for the Venezuelan people,” he said. “Until then, it is crucial that we allow Venezuelan nationals to remain safely in the United States. It would be unconscionable to force them to return to the perilous oppression, crime and destitution of Venezuela today.”
Soto was equally disappointed but did not give up on passing the bill before Congress leaves.
“Despite the House’s inability to garner a supermajority today, we urge House Leadership to bring this bill to a full vote under a structure rule this week,” he said in a statement. “With the tyrannical Maduro regime murdering its citizens and destroying Venezuela, it is our moral responsibility to help these brave Venezuelans seeking a safe haven in the United States.”
His advice and optimism were well-placed. The measure came back under different rules requiring only a majority and passed 272-158.
It gained the support of 39 Republicans, something for which Coral Gables Democrat Donna Shalala gave much credit to Diaz-Balart.
“We walked over across the aisle and educated more people,” Shalala said. “And I have to give credit to Mario Diaz-Balart because he talked to his colleagues.”
Webster urges USMCA vote
Last week, the Florida Business Daily cited a handful of bipartisan delegation members yet to take a stand on the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement. One of those was Webster, who begged to differ.
Webster’s office pointed out that he issued a statement when it was first proposed, commented on social media and commented in several public communications with constituents.
The most recent came last week in a constituent newsletter.
“While the USMCA text does not currently provide the relief and trade remedies we sought for our seasonal producers, I am committed to working with my colleagues, (Trade) Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer and others to ensure these producers are able to access trade remedies that are available to other U.S. producers,” Webster said.
“Despite this outstanding seasonality issue, the USMCA does contain many significant wins for American ranchers, businesses and workers,” he continued. “This agreement is a big win for America’s economy. I urge Speaker Pelosi and her leadership to stop playing politics and bring USMCA up for a vote.”
Florida Business Daily is an advocate for passage of the USMCA.
Online scammers targeted
Travelers can encounter a wide range of delays or glitches either before or after they reach their destinations. A current practice where scammers posing as online hotel booking agents has drawn the attention of Congress.
West Palm Beach Democrat Lois Frankel and Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis have joined with Vermont Democrat Peter Welch to file the Stop Online Booking Scams Act of 2019. The legislation makes it unlawful for a third-party online hotel reservation seller who is not affiliated with the hotel to advertise, promote, or sell a reservation if they state or imply that they are the actual owner or operator of the hotel.
“Florida is a top tourism destination, and families booking a dream vacation here shouldn’t worry that an online scam will turn it into a nightmare,” said Frankel in a joint release. “Our bill cracks down on booking fraud, so folks aren’t ripped off by bad actors,”
The legislation also categorizes an unfair or deceptive act under the Federal Trade Commission Act as a failure to comply. Further, it gives state attorneys general the authority to bring a civil action against companies who violate this provision.
“Our bipartisan legislation will help to protect the consumer and small-business owners from bad actors by offering greater transparency,” Bilirakis said.
The bill has the support of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Frankel and Welch previously submitted the bill during the last Congress.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are sponsoring a companion bill in that chamber.
Hanging up on robocalls
Among those co-sponsors was Crist, who earlier had his Spam Calls Task Force Act rolled into the larger bill sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone. Crist feels that anyone with a phone is a winner.
“Spam calls are not just an annoyance, they represent a threat to privacy, security and peace of mind,” he said in a news release. I thank Chairman Pallone for including my Spam Calls Taskforce legislation in the larger Stopping Bad Robocalls bill, and for his leadership on the issue.”
The bill requires phone companies to offer screening technology to customers at no cost that would identify and block spam robocalls. It would also double, to four years, the time period that parties can be prosecuted for illegal robocalls.
Among the 13 delegation co-sponsor was Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan, who said robocalls increased by 46 percent last year, amounting to nearly 48 billion placed.
“These are more than just a minor inconvenience — phone scams can defraud innocent Americans out of their life savings — especially vulnerable seniors,” Buchanan said in a news release. “I applaud House passage of this important bill and call on the Senate to quickly follow suit and send this bill to the President’s desk for his signature.
Detention center access sought
The Homestead youth detention center has seen numerous Democrats seek to witness the conditions and treatment of those housed inside. Some were denied entry beginning one year ago this week when former Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston were not allowed in.
Others, including former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, were also kept out before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established ground rules that required a two-week notice from lawmakers that they planned to visit. Under those rules, no further incidents cropped up, but Wasserman-Schultz believes access should be granted without any prior notice.
Earlier this week, she filed a bill prohibiting members of Congress from being denied access to any migrant facility operated by the federal government or private contractors. The legislation also calls for immediate access, even if unannounced.
Wasserman Schultz said the two-week requirement “obliterates any real oversight.” She argues the two-week notice allows the facility to put on the best appearance and “don’t give us any opportunities to see what is happening in real-time, (masking) a true picture of what is going on in there.”
She has been among those demanding the Homestead facility be closed.
With the candidates’ second-quarter fundraising reports filed and analyzed, the party committees had a few extra days to report their numbers to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The advantage of the Republican National Committee (RNC) over the Democratic National Committee (DNC), $34 million more cash on hand, was reported earlier, but the other four committees made some news.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) raised $12.5 million for the quarter while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) reported $9 million. The committees show a nearly identical cash on hand figure with $25.6 million for the Republicans and $25.4 million for the Democrats with no debt for either.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) reports $5.7 million with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reporting $5.5 million for the quarter. The NRSC had $12.6 million cash on hand with $4.5 million in debts and the DSCC had $14.8 million cash on hand, but debts totaled $15.9 million.
Among those also reporting finances were lobbying firms. The Washington office of Ballard Partners reported $4.7 million in lobbying fees covering 82 clients.
On this day
July 27, 2002 — The House overwhelmingly passed legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security, representing the most significant government reorganization in 50 years. The new department, created in response to the 9/11 report, would be the third-largest federal agency behind only the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill goes to the Senate after the 295-132 vote. Among the Florida delegation, 20 of the 23 members voted in favor with only Democrats Alcee Hastings, Corrine Brown and Carrie Meek voting against it
July 26, 2007 — A group of conservative Republican Senators filed a bill that would guarantee health care for every American citizen. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mel Martinez of Orlando, treads on a Democratic issue and would provide up to $5,400 in annual rebates to families
“It’s time for a major debate on health care insurance,” Martinez said. “Not enough people have access to affordable health care and Congress has not done enough about this crisis.
Advocates for the uninsured said the plan risks coverage for those with chronic conditions and threatens the employer-based health care system.