WASHINGTON — Cheering Democrats returned Nancy Pelosi to the House speaker’s post Thursday as the 116th Congress ushered in a historically diverse freshman class eager to confront President Donald Trump in a new era of divided government.
Pelosi, elected speaker 220-192, took the gavel saying U.S. voters “demanded a new dawn” in the November election that swept the Democrats to a House majority and are looking to “the beauty of our Constitution” to provide checks and balances on power.
Pelosi faced 15 dissenting votes from fellow Democrats, among them Wisconsin 3rd District Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who voted for Georgia Democrat John Lewis. But for a few hours, smiles and backslapping were the order of the day. The new speaker invited scores of lawmakers’ kids to join her on the dais as she was sworn in, calling the House to order “on behalf of all of America’s children.”
Even Trump congratulated her during a rare appearance at the White House briefing room, saying her election by House colleagues was “a tremendous, tremendous achievement.” The president has tangled often with Pelosi and is sure to do so again with Democrats controlling the House, but he said, “I think it’ll be a little bit different than a lot of people are thinking.”
As night fell, the House quickly got to work on the partial government shutdown, which was winding up Day 13 with Trump demanding billions in Mexican border wall funding to bring it to an end. Before midnight on Congress’ first day, Democrats planned to approve legislation to re-open the government — but without the $5.6 billion in wall money, which means it has no chance in the Republican Senate.
The new Congress is like none other. There are more women than ever before, and a new generation of Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans is creating a House more aligned with the population of the United States. However, the Republican side in the House is still made up mostly of white men, and in the Senate Republicans bolstered their ranks in the majority.
In a nod to the moment, Pelosi, the first female speaker who reclaimed the post she lost to the GOP in 2011, broadly pledged to make Congress work for all Americans — addressing kitchen table issues at a time of deep economic churn — even as her party readies to challenge Trump with investigations and subpoena powers that threaten the White House agenda.
Pelosi promised to “restore integrity to government” and outlined an agenda “to lower health costs and prescription drug prices and protect people with pre-existing medical conditions; to increase paychecks by rebuilding America with green and modern infrastructure from sea to shining sea.”
The day unfolded as one of both celebration and impatience. Newly elected lawmakers arrived, often with friends and families in tow, to take the oath of office and pose for ceremonial photos. Then they swiftly turned to the shutdown.
Vice President Mike Pence swore in newly elected senators, but Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had no plans to consider the House bills unless Trump agreed to sign them into law. That ensured the shutdown would continue, clouding the first days of the new session.
McConnell said that Republicans have shown the Senate is “fertile soil for big, bipartisan accomplishments,” but that the question is whether House Democrats will engage in “good governance or political performance art.”
It’s a time of stark national political division that some analysts say is on par with the Civil War era. Battle lines are drawn not just between Democrats and Republicans but within the parties themselves, splintered by their left and right flanks.
Pelosi defied history in returning to the speaker’s office after eight years in the minority, overcoming internal opposition from Democrats demanding a new generation of leaders. She will be the first to regain the gavel since Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1955.
Putting Pelosi’s name forward for nomination, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the incoming Democratic caucus chair, recounted her previous accomplishments — passing the Affordable Care Act, helping the country out of the Great Recession — as preludes to her next ones. He called her leadership “unparalleled in modern American history.”
One Democrat, Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, cast her vote for Pelosi “on the shoulders of women who marched 100 years ago” for women’s suffrage. Newly elected Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, an anti-gun violence advocate, dedicated hers to her slain teenage son, Jordan Davis.
As speaker, Pelosi will face challenges from the party’s robust wing of liberal newcomers, including 29-year-old New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has risen to such prominence she is already known around the Capitol — and on her prolific social media accounts — by the nickname “AOC.” California Rep. Brad Sherman was to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump.
Republicans face their own internal battles as they decide how closely to tie their political fortunes to Trump. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s name was put into nomination for speaker by his party’s caucus chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the daughter of the former vice president. He faced six “no” votes from his now-shrunken GOP minority.
As McCarthy passed the gavel to Pelosi he said voters wonder if Congress is “still capable” of solving problems, and said this period of divided government is “no excuse for gridlock.”
One office remains disputed as the House refused to seat Republican Mark Harris of North Carolina amid an investigation by state election officials of irregularities in absentee ballots from the November election.
Many GOP senators are up for re-election in 2020 in states where voters have mixed views of Trump’s performance in the White House.
Trump, whose own bid for 2020 already is underway, faces potential challenges from the ranks of Senate Democrats under Chuck Schumer.
The halls of the Capitol were bustling with arrivals, children in the arms of many new lawmakers. Visitor galleries included crooner Tony Bennett and rock legend Mickey Hart, both guests of Pelosi. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman, sat with Republican leaders.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., opened the House prayer asking at “a time fraught with tribalism at home and turbulence abroad” that lawmakers “become the architects of a kindlier nation.”
Overnight, Democratic Rep-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted a picture with her family at the airport. The House rules were being changed to allow Omar, who is Muslim, to wear a head scarf on the chamber floor. She wrote, “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.”
The first systematic study of well water in southwest Wisconsin found bacterial and chemical contamination at rates as bad as — and possibly worse than — areas targeted by new state water protection rules.
Some 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells tested in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceed federal health standards for bacteria that can come from animal or human waste, or for a toxic fertilizer residue.
“I was surprised that it was as high as it is,” said Lynda Schweikert, administrator of Grant County’s conservation, sanitation and zoning department. “Now I’m just interested to see what is causing the contamination.”
A second round of testing involving more wells is planned for the spring, followed by a close evaluation of pathogens in the water to determine if they are the type that probably originated in dairy or swine manure, or from faulty septic systems.
Well tests conducted in November looked for E. coli and coliform, bacteria that signal the possible presence of other bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea. Symptoms can be mild to severe to life-threatening.
Testing was also done for nitrate, which causes potentially deadly methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome. A growing body of research links the malady to health risks in adults, including thyroid disease, diabetes and cancer. Nitrate in drinking water usually comes from fertilizer.
About one-quarter of Wisconsin’s population drinks water drawn from over 800,000 private wells.
The state Department of Natural Resources recommends annual well testing. Schweikert said several residents who participated in the study told her it had been a long time since they had done testing.
The three counties agreed to pay for the initial stage of the study.
Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 approved stricter standards for disposal of manure in 15 eastern Wisconsin counties that have vulnerable groundwater. Conservation groups argued similar conditions exist in southwest Wisconsin, but that region isn’t covered by the new standards.
Walker’s DNR declined to participate in the three-county study, said Scott Laeser, water program director for the nonprofit Clean Wisconsin, which helped coordinate funding. A DNR spokesman declined to comment.
Pollutants on the surface of the land are carried deep into soil by rain and snowmelt. Throughout much of the state, drinking water is drawn from aquifers that are protected from pollutants by underground layers of rock.
But the bedrock is fractured and porous in a broad curving swath that runs under much of the eastern, southern and western sides of the state.
In the east, Kewaunee and Door counties have long had problems with contaminated drinking water. After years of pressure from residents and the federal government, Walker approved the new manure standards.
The regulations aren’t yet being enforced because required technical standards weren’t included in the rule approved in 2018 by the Natural Resources Board and Gov. Scott Walker after two years of work by the DNR.
The technical standards — which are to be written by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection — will spell out how farmers will measure the distance from the land’s surface to the bedrock layer covering the aquifer. That distance is a factor in the rule’s limits on the amount of manure that can be spread on the ground.
It’s unlikely the technical standards will be written and approved in less than 18 to 24 months, said Lacey Cochart, director of DATCP’s bureau of land and water.
State geologist Ken Bradbury said enough was known about conditions in the southwest part of the state to justify applying the manure regulations there too.
One of the objectives of the ongoing study of Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties is to answer arguments that insufficient research and monitoring have been done, said Bradbury, who is helping lead the study.
Thus far, the initial results confirm what has been found in previous examinations of test results, Bradbury said.
In Kewaunee County, about one-third of tested wells were contaminated.
When variations in geology were taken into account test results indicated there was a 26 percent to 28 percent rate of contamination across Kewaunee County, said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service who led an in-depth study of conditions there.
Borchardt is also a leader of the ongoing study in the three southwest counties. He called the new study’s initial findings “eye-opening.”
Farmers are wary of being unfairly blamed for pollution, but many have expressed support for the study, said Katie Abbott, Iowa County’s conservationist.
“No one wants people getting sick from their drinking water,” Abbott said.
It’s possible that faulty septic systems are causing some portion of the contamination, or that wells need to be upgraded.
Before the study is completed in 2020, researchers plan to investigate a variety of factors that could contribute to contamination, Bradbury said.
For example, in the southwest part of the state at least some of the soil is composed of clay, which can slow the downward flow of pollutants. The clay areas need to be better mapped to understand the extent to which they may protect drinking water, Bradbury said.
“The shallow bedrock and thin soils in southwest Wisconsin make this a vulnerable setting from the standpoint of groundwater contamination,” Bradbury said. “Now that we’re beginning to get some solid data sets we can begin to compare the results to physical parameters such as bedrock depth, soil type, and well construction in order to determine the most important factors controlling well vulnerability.”
The La Crosse Center renovation and expansion project took a step forward Thursday as a city committee unanimously approved the west concept, sending it on to the Common Council next week.
The Finance and Personnel Committee voted in favor of the concept, which puts the majority of the expansion on the west side of the existing city-owned arena, during its regular meeting. It also approved closing the international business park tax increment district early and gave the developer of the Naval Reserve site some more time to break ground after the project was delayed by administrative processes.
Council member David Marshall liked the size and value of the west concept, referring to a preliminary economic impact study provided by ISG which showed the La Crosse Center would have an about $8.7 million increase in annual impact if the west concept moves forward. ISG’s projections show an estimated net operating income of about $250,000, around $50,000 less than the center averages now.
“It’s a better value,” Marshall said. “It’s a little bit bigger and it uses some very smart space.”
The La Crosse Center Board on Monday recommended the concept, saying it takes advantage of the river view, creates a larger, more versatile ballroom — which will seat up to 720 people — and improve connectivity around the building by adding an additional atrium and pre-function space on the Second Street side and including an option for a connecting hallway on the Front Street side.
Taking expanding into Riverside Park off the table should assuage the public’s concerns, he added.
“That’s no longer something we have to worry about, but taking advantage of the street, which is just used for cars and cars are going to be underneath it, so that’s not going to interfere with anything, is actually a smart use of space,” Marshall said.
His fellow council member Doug Happel agreed, but said he was keeping his eye on the $42 million budget.
“It gives you a nice use of the river, if you will, without going into Riverside Park,” Happel said. “I think it will enhance the entire La Crosse Center.”
However, he emphasized that the La Crosse Center Board should keep the $42 million limit in mind as it considers what the architects call “bolt-ons,” or additional options to build onto the base concept, which will be worked out through the design phase.
“It’s $42 million, not $42 million and one,” Happel said.
While the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s proposal for a transitional housing facility on Farnam Street dominated the discussion at Wednesday’s La Crosse Plan Commission and Judiciary and Administrative Committee meetings, the two groups also tackled parking near two of the city’s college campuses and several redevelopment projects.
According to estimates provided by ISG architects, the base build cost for the west concept will run between $30.6 and $34.4 million, depending on materials, plus $8 million in maintenance.
The decisions on materials, along with decisions on bolt-ons, will be made during the design phase, ISG architect Will Kratt told the committee.
Not only will they discuss things like how large North Hall should be once it’s torn down and replaced, but also they’ll discuss materials on a room-by-room basis and which bolt-ons should be added now, which the the builders should leave space for in future additions, and which are not priorities.
“We don’t want anyone to think these decisions are purely yes or no. They’re not binary and it’s not a zero-sum game,” Kratt said.
There will also be wiggle room in the maintenance budget, which included $2 million for North Hall improvements. With North Hall coming down and being replaced, that frees up those dollars for either different maintenance projects or for adding on the additional features.
Chris Navratil, the vice president of Shamrock Productions — which has put on a trade show in the North Hall each year for 41 years — took advantage of the public hearing to air her concerns about the city tearing down that portion of the building.
Navratil stressed that the North Hall was a revenue-generator for the center and more versatile than an atrium or other space, adding that she was also concerned about her company’s contract to rent out the hall in 2020 and 2021.
While she understood the city was rebuilding the exhibition hall, she was concerned that the city would cut down the size.
“The option to build North Hall back in full is still on the table and will continue to be on the table,” Kratt said.
Marshall encouraged the La Crosse Center Board to keep her concerns in mind.
The committee unanimously approved closing the International Business Park TID three years early after it generated just under $20 million in tax increment due to new development.
The closure will give the city, La Crosse County and Western Technical College a small increase in allowable levies for the 2020 tax year. The TID was created in 1999 and is set to terminate in 2022; however, the city’s planning department recommended closing it now to free up additional TID capacity.
The committee approved a tweak to its development agreement with Spies Construction, the developer set to turn the former Naval Reserve site into 10 single-family homes.
The change gives the developer until April 1 when the ground is thawed to start construction, pushing it back from Nov. 1, 2018, after it was delayed by waiting for the state to approve the final plat.
The first home is expected to be finished in early fall 2019.
La Crosse Common Council seats for Districts 1 to 6 are up for election this spring, and two district will see contested races.