South Florida Democrats haven’t owned the Venezuela issue like Republicans for the past few years, but Miami’s congressional delegation is introducing bills in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Donna Shalala has a bill that would ban the U.S. government from selling items like riot-control gear to Nicolás Maduro’s security forces. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has a bill that would require the State Department to monitor and provide Congress with steps to curb Russian military influence in Venezuela. And Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has a bill that would compel the Trump administration to provide a long-term humanitarian aid strategy in Venezuela and allocate $150 million for the effort.
But Mucarsel-Powell, whose seat is being targeted by Republicans as a 2020 pickup opportunity, is the only one who hasn’t received GOP support for her bill.
Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart signed onto Shalala and Wasserman Schultz’s bills the day they were introduced. He also introduced a bill, with Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, to extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans living in the U.S. But he hasn’t signed onto Mucarsel-Powell’s bill despite signing onto an almost identical piece of legislation in the last Congress.
“It mirrors the same bill that [Rep. Eliot Engel] filed last year, except it has the humanitarian aid funding,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Our office worked closely with USAID and the State Department to get to that figure. I have met with Mario Diaz-Balart to discuss the bill. I’m hoping that if he really does think that Venezuela really does need the aid, he should support that bill as well.”
Diaz-Balart’s office didn’t immediately respond when asked why he didn’t sign onto Mucarsel-Powell’s bill, which was introduced before Shalala’s and Wasserman Schultz’s bills. Mucarsel-Powell has signed onto Diaz-Balart’s TPS bill.
The effort by South Florida Democrats to raise awareness on Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis comes as some members of their own party are making waves by blasting the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader and the ongoing influence of Republicans like Diaz-Balart and Marco Rubio on the issue. And President Donald Trump is aware of how ousting Maduro could help him politically in Florida, a state he needs to win in 2020 if he wants a second term. Trump is heading to Miami on Monday to talk about Venezuela at Florida International University, an institution in Mucarsel-Powell’s district where she worked before entering Congress.
“It will continue to be good politics and this is an issue that Republicans have always been stronger on,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American political consultant and registered Democrat who has talked to Mucarsel-Powell’s office about Venezuela.
Poleo said Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Colombians in South Florida are all supportive of efforts to oust Maduro from power, and Republicans will get the credit if Maduro leaves. She said the problem for local Democrats are the liberals in their party, like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who called the U.S. decision to recognize Guaidó a “U.S.-backed coup” and attacked newly appointed Venezuela special representative Elliott Abrams over his role in promoting El Salvador’s government while parts of its army conducted mass killings in the 1980s.
South Florida Democrats “just have to be louder because they get drowned out by their own party,” Poleo said.
Republicans, in contrast, are uniformly behind the decision to back Guaidó.
Mucarsel-Powell said she has concerns about Abrams, one of George W. Bush’s foreign policy advisers in the buildup to the Iraq War and a noted neoconservative who has favored foreign intervention in the past, though she said she’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
“Donna and both Debbies are just stuck in it because it’s their party,” Poleo said. “If they speak out forcefully, there’s other consequences. What they’re doing now, having their own press conferences, their own announcements and their own bills, is really the only thing they can, because Republicans are not going to play their game.”
Mucarsel-Powell’s district is rated as “lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report, the most competitive seat in Miami for the 2020 election. She beat Republican Carlos Curbelo in one of the most expensive House races in the country last year.
Mucarsel-Powell said she’s in favor of every option to oust Maduro short of military force.
“I really hope, and I mean this, they’re not making this into a political issue to score points in Florida,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “We have Venezuelans right now that are dying of hunger and disease. That’s why I’m dealing with all the Venezuelan leadership. I will sign onto bipartisan bills. I will work with the administration. The line that I draw is military intervention; that’s the one side of this policy that I do not support. I have been saying that from the very beginning.”