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Speaker again, Pelosi sees 'new dawn' for 116th Congress

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.”

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'It was the best Christmas present': Girl Scout tribute Christmas tree provided healing during the holiday season

Messages of love and support collected during a time of recovery will now make their way to a new home.

For the past month the Irvine Park Welcome Center in Chippewa Falls, home to holiday season staple the Christmas Village, has been home to a special Christmas tree. This tree has been adorned with green ornaments and decorations to honor the three local Girl Scouts and one mother from Troop 3055 who were struck and killed by a truck while volunteering alongside a highway a few months ago.

The memorial only grew over the holiday season, as community members were encouraged to write brief messages for the Girl Scouts and its fallen members to adorn the tree with. Over the course of the season dozens of messages were left on the tree’s branches, adding new life to an already vibrant attraction.

Mary Brunstad, volunteer for 25 years at Irvine Park, said the outpouring of support and love shown from the community was overwhelming to witness.

“It was just so heartwarming,” Brunstad said. “It went above and beyond expectations. It was the best Christmas present we could’ve asked for. When I looked at the tree, and all of the messages on it, it was no longer a tree it was a living and breathing tribute. It took on a whole new personality because of the people who were adding their own thoughts. It was more than I could have ever expected.”

Early this week the messages were collected and taken back to the Eau Claire Girl Scout office and Renee Ericson, a Girl Scout membership engagement coordinator, said the messages will have a few uses.

According to Ericson, some of the messages will be photographed to be preserved, while some will be gifted to the families of the fallen Girl Scouts. The organization will decide on what to do with the remaining messages o love and support in a time of heartache.

Brunstad said multiple Girl Scout troops visited the snowy Chippewa Falls Welcome Center to show their support. Many left messages and gathered together to heal, and a troop from Eau Claire held a short ceremony to show their support.

While the tree was a memorial, it didn’t strike a mournful tone.

“It just took a bit of creativity,” Brunstad said. “It was alive with color. It was bright and positive for the little girls — it wasn’t a sad tree. It made it a tree that when people would come in would bring a smile to their face and warm their heart. It would lift them up and hopefully take away some of their sadness.”

Lawmakers try again on first-offense drunken driving

MADISON, Wis. — Two Republican legislators are continuing their quest to crack down on drunken driving, reintroducing bills Thursday that would make a first offense a crime and impose stiffer penalties on repeat offenders.

Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling have been working for nearly a decade to create stiffer drunken driving penalties in Wisconsin, the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation rather than a crime. Drunken driving is rampant in the state — an average of one person was killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash every 2.9 hours on Wisconsin roads in 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation — but the two lawmakers have had little success working against a deeply ingrained drinking culture and a powerful tavern league lobby.

Nevertheless, Ott and Darling began circulating a package of legislation for co-sponsorship Thursday, three days before new legislators are sworn in for the 2019-21 session.

The highest profile proposal is a plan to make all first offenses misdemeanors punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. First offenders who don’t commit another operating-under-the-influence offense for five years could ask a judge to vacate the conviction and amend the record to a civil violation.

“This bill shows that Wisconsin is taking drunk driving seriously, while at the same time offering a second chance to those who do not reoffend within five years,” Ott said in a news release.

Ott and Darling introduced a similar bill in 2012 that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood alcohol content was 0.15 percent or higher. The new measure doesn’t include minimum BACs.

The lawmakers have a new ally this time around: Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who told reporters Wednesday that he wants to criminalize first offense in hopes of deterring drunken driving. Evers made the remarks after a suspected drunken driver struck and killed a firefighter who had stopped to help a driver during a snowstorm in Madison on New Year’s Eve, making headlines in the state’s capital city.

It’s unclear how much influence Evers will have, though, since Republicans control both legislative houses.

Other bills in the package would mandate that anyone convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle be sentenced to at least five years in prison; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they’re tagged with a civil violation; and increase minimum sentences for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months.

The two lawmakers introduced the same bills last session to no avail. Fiscal estimates projected the homicide bill alone would cost the state prison system hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, was noncommittal when asked about the bills’ chances, saying only that Republican senators plan to discuss policy priorities later this month.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to an email. Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Tavern League, didn’t immediately return a voicemail.

Evers names Obama official, 2 lawmakers to Cabinet

MADISON — Gov.-elect Tony Evers on Thursday named a former Obama administration official who worked on implementing the federal health care law to lead the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, a key post in his inner circle.

Evers also named to his Cabinet two Democratic state lawmakers and two people who currently work for him in his job as state superintendent.

Evers picked Andrea Palm as secretary of the Department of Health Services; state Rep. Peter Barca to lead the Department of Revenue; state Sen. Caleb Frostman to head the Department of Workforce Development; assistant state superintendent Dawn Crim as secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services; and his chief of staff Emilie Amundson to head the Department of Children and Families.

Evers, a Democrat, takes over for Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Monday. His Cabinet is nearly complete, with only the secretary for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority left to name. All the picks are subject to confirmation by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the picks.

The choice of Barca drew bipartisan praise. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called Barca a “reasonable Democrat.”

“Governor-elect Evers finally got one right,” Vos said in a statement.

Health care advocates heralded the pick of Palm, whose department will be in the spotlight as Evers tries to deliver on his campaign promises of expanding health care access and affordability.

“Palm brings a wide range of expertise on health care issues and will be a very valuable asset for the Evers administration and for health care policymaking in Wisconsin,” said Jon Peacock, research director at Kids Forward, which advocates for Medicaid expansion.

Palm will lead the state agency with a $12 billion annual budget that oversees Wisconsin’s Badger Care Plus Medicaid program, SeniorCare and a host of other public benefits programs.

Evers campaigned on expanding health care coverage and implementing the Medicaid expansion allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act. Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature did a partial expansion, but never accepted the federal money to cover about 75,000 additional poor people.

Under Wisconsin law, those only earning up to the poverty level, or $12,140 for a single person, qualify for the state’s Badger Care Plus Medicaid program. Expanding it to 138 percent of poverty — $16,753 for a single person and $34,638 for a family of four — would require legislative approval.

Making the move to accept the federal expansion would save the state an estimated $180 million a year. Wisconsin missed out on $1.1 billion since 2014, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Thirty-five states have taken the money, and voters in three others approved the expansion in the November election.

Evers plans to include the $180 million in his budget proposal and increase reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers, hoping to reach a compromise with Republicans who have argued against expansion because of the additional cost it places on doctors who provide their care.

Walker and legislative Republicans in last month’s lame-duck session also changed the law to require legislative approval before Evers can ask the federal government for waivers to make changes to federal health care laws.

Wisconsin’s BadgerCare Plus Medicaid program covers about 773,000 people, about 300,000 of whom are non-disabled, non-elderly adults. The department’s total budget this year is about $12.3 billion, with $4 billion in state general purpose money. More than 80 percent of the agency’s budget, about $10.2 billion, is spent on Medicaid programs.

Palm most recently served as senior counselor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Obama from 2014 until 2017. She also worked as a senior adviser to the White House Domestic Policy Council during implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, she worked five years as a health policy adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Barca, of Kenosha, is a former Democratic minority leader, former congressman and previously worked in then-President Bill Clinton’s administration. His departure from the Assembly will require Evers to call a special election to replace him.

Frostman, of Sturgeon Bay, was elected to the Senate in a special election last year. He lost to Republican Rep. Andre Jacque in November. He previously served as executive director for the Door County Economic Development Corporation.

Crim, before she joined the state education department, worked for 20 years within the University of Wisconsin System. She first came to UW-Madison in 1996 to work as an assistant women’s basketball coach.