Congressman Francis Rooney on water issues after hearing in Tallahassee LEDYARD KING/USA TODAY NETWORK- FLORIDA


U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney said Wednesday a policy adopted by colleges and universities to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment by creating safe zones actually undermines the Constitution.

Rooney, R-Fla., said he supports an existing House resolution to protect freedom of speech at colleges and universities, and would go further with a proposal to withhold taxpayers' money from higher education institutions that provide the safe spaces.

Colleges and universities adopted "safe zone" policies to help gay and transgender students feel more comfortable and to protect students from hateful or harassing speech.

Rooney said these spaces actually stifle free speech and undermine the Constitution.

He compared higher education officials who promote safe zones to North Vietnamese soldiers. He made the comparison Wednesday during an hourlong luncheon hosted by the Republican Women of Southwest Florida, at Row Seafood in Naples.

“Why should we be enabling the enemy on our own money," Rooney said. "That’d be like paying the Vietnamese to shoot at Wayne,” a veteran in the room.

"If we pay for colleges to do this, we are paying for institutions to undermine the Constitution. And I think that's a serious problem," said Rooney of Naples.

Rooney's frustration over safe spaces was one on a long list he shared during his speech, including his concerns about bias in the media, Republicans who are more liberal than they appear and the slow pace of Washington.

He referred to the “deep state” often and, later in an interview, said he was referring to what he perceived as an effort by Washington bureaucrats to undermine President Donald Trump and the institutions that are supposed to be enforcing his agenda.

Rooney said he was using his own influence as a longtime GOP fundraiser to promote legislation when he could.

He said he recently called senators he has supported through fundraising to help pass a joint resolution that would block cities and counties from offering government-run individual retirement accounts to small businesses that can't offer traditional 401(k) programs. 

“It would not have passed if I didn’t know a bunch of senators because Kathleen and I have given them money and had them at our house for fundraisers,” Rooney told the crowd.

On other issues, such as Everglades restoration, he said his efforts weren’t all “money-driven.” He said he has tried to build a coalition in Florida by bringing key people to see the unique ecosystem, and by helping to unite environmental groups and federal and state lawmakers behind the same plan.

Rooney didn’t support state Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee until Negron dropped the requirement to buy private land, mostly from sugar farmers. 

When Negron changed his plan, Rooney began talking to anyone who would listen, including Trump, to speed up federal action on building the reservoir.

Rooney, a member of the foreign affairs committee, said he had dinner June 6 with Trump and foreign policy and security experts, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y.

After dinner, Rooney said he pulled Trump aside and discussed speeding up the planning on the reservoir along with construction on the Herbert Hoover Dike. He said he approached it as their mutual challenge since Trump owns Mar-a-Lago, an estate, and Trump International Golf Club in Palm Beach County.

“He said he’d work on it,” Rooney said. “And I think he meant it.”

Rooney has become connected fast in Washington, but some of his biggest allies are still based in Florida. A longtime friend of Gov. Rick Scott, Rooney penned a June 20 op-ed for Real Clear Policy titled “AHCA’s Medicaid Reform Empowers Governors.”

There he argued that governors around the country need to take ownership of the federal-state Medicaid program. In an interview, he said he wanted Medicaid to become a mostly state program. At $26.3 billion, Medicaid eats more than 30 percent of Florida’s $82.4 billion budget, about 60 percent of which is funded by the federal government.

Republicans are proposing to cut over $700 billion dollars from Medicaid over the next decade between the federal House and Senate plans. The repeal-and-replace measure is currently stalled in the Senate.

Rooney said he wasn’t sure how Florida would raise enough money to pay for Medicaid recipients who would be cut from the federal Republican health care plan, but he said he believed many of those patients would be able to buy private insurance from tax credits included in the bills.

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