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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. 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. Democrats approved 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 before. There are more women than ever, 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. 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 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 Republicans have shown the Senate is "fertile soil for big, bipartisan accomplishments," but 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."


Kelly Wenzel / KELLY WENZEL, COURIER STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER 

Julia Shook, 6, plays with a giant Lite Brite in the "Art That Moves" exhibit at the Phelps Youth Pavilion on Thursday afternoon. Shook played the afternoon away with her siblings and cousins as they visit family in Iowa for the holidays.


Local
Amanda Weichers: Cedar Falls mom passionate about inclusion

Eighteenth in a series on this year’s 20 Under 40 winners.

CEDAR FALLS — If you bring up the subject of inclusion to Amanda Weichers, be prepared for a passionate discussion.

Since her son, Beau, 10, was diagnosed at 17 months old with epilepsy and partial agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition where part of the brain is missing, Weichers has made it her mission to raise awareness about brain disorders and help those affected.

When Weichers and her husband, Andy, received their son’s diagnosis, they were devastated.

“I knew something was different,” Weichers said. “Something didn’t seem right. The doctors gave us the answer but couldn’t tell us what to expect. You go through the grieving process.

“But I refused to let this get the best of me. I can’t sit here and lay in bed and cry. Something good can come of this.”

That’s when Weichers decided to start a nonprofit, Beau’s Beautiful Blessings.

“I worked for a law firm at the time and talked with an attorney. They helped with the paperwork. We started off with annual bowling fundraisers, and we would raise $10,000 to $12,000.

“It is a small nonprofit. It’s not a full-time job, it’s all volunteer. We help children with brain injuries, abnormalities and epilepsy get things insurance does not cover. We’ve done adaptive strollers, adaptive seating. ... We’ve assisted with the funerals of three Waterloo children whose deaths had some relation to a brain condition.”

Weichers, who graduated from Hudson High School and now lives in Cedar Falls, and her husband own Weicks Media.

“We do digital marketing, website and social media management,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our clients are in the outdoor industry. We have lodges, outfitters, that kind of thing.”

In addition to the business and the nonprofit, Weichers took on another challenge about three and a half years ago.

Your Place to Play, a $1 million inclusive park, will be built at the current site of Greenhill Park at Algonquin and Ashworth drives in Cedar Falls.

The park is the brainchild of Weichers and Sarah Corkery, a 20 Under 40 alum who also has a special needs child — and one of many who nominated Weichers for 20 Under 40 honors. The pair recently reached their fundraising goal that will make the park a reality.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Weichers said. “It’s amazing that a group of moms could pull this off.”

Weichers said there were some key “milestone moments” during the fundraising process, including a $20,000 Guernsey Foundation grant and being chosen to receive $12,000 from 100+ Women Who Care Cedar Valley.

But perhaps the donation that touched Weichers the most came from Beau’s classmates at Hansen Elementary School.

“The kids wanted to help with Beau’s park — that’s what they call it,” she said.

One of Beau’s classmates had bought a handmade bracelet for a dollar to support a cause. She then suggested making and selling bracelets to raise money for the park. The students even prepared a Power Point presentation to pitch the idea to the Weichers.

“It was just incredible,” Weichers said. “They come in early, stay in for recess, sell bracelets before school. In three months they raised several thousand dollars.

“They would have garage sales. A group of classmates who were having birthday parties would say they didn’t want gifts, they wanted donations for the park.

“All together, they raised more than $12,000. They are still his biggest advocates.”

Weichers said she’s be lying if she didn’t consider giving up at times in the process.

“I would get a denial and I’d be devastated,” she said. “I asked myself many times if I could keep doing this. It’s hard. We don’t have a dedicated staff, and we are trying to build our business. It’s been a lot of nights and weekends.

“But then I think of those kids. They were my motivation to keep going and fight harder for every dollar.”

A groundbreaking for the new park was held Sept. 29.

“I am just so grateful the community has rallied behind this project and trusted me and believed in me. This park is going to have a bigger impact than people realize.

“I would tell people, ‘If you want something, just go out and get it. You can’t wait for someone else to do it.”

“I would tell people, ‘If you want something, just go out and get it. You can’t wait for someone else to do it.”

COURIER STAFF PHOTO 

Amanda Weichers founded the nonprofit Beau's Beautiful Blessings to help children with brain conditions. Photo taken at Hartman Reserve Nature Center in Cedar Falls.


Govt-and-politics
Public to aid Cedar Falls search for library director

CEDAR FALLS — Cedar Falls is trying something new in its search for a new library director.

All three candidates for the Cedar Falls’ Public Library director position will deliver presentations and answer questions at a public forum from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Cedar Falls Community Center, 528 Main St.

The candidates are Renita Barksdale, library director at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library in Elizabethton, Tenn.; Michele Patrick, library director at Indianola City Public Library in Indianola; and Kelly Stern, youth services librarian at the Cedar Falls Public Library.

Erin Thompson, technology librarian, is acting as a liaison between the search committee and library personnel.

“We’re trying something different this time,” Thompson said.

Usually each a library director candidate would individually provide a presentation while meeting with the public on different days.

“That’s kind of a hindrance to staff and the public, who want to see all of the candidates because they might not be able to come back every time,” Thompson said. “So we’ve decided to do it all at once; that way we can see how all the candidates interact with each other.”

The candidates can be expected to answer questions ranging from ‘What’s your favorite book?’ to ‘What are thoughts on changing library policy?’ Thompson said. “The nice part of opening it to the public is that they have the opportunity to convey any concerns and get three potentially wildly different answers.”

Previous directors have had limited tenures, and the hope is this director will stay on for five to 10 years.

The director is in charge of budget planning for the library, handling personnel, engaging the community and the community center next door.

“We need someone with a wide skill set and who can balance all of those duties,” Thompson said.

The public will be able to ask the candidates questions, and fill out a feedback form to rank the candidates and provide additional comments.

Ideally the new director will take up her duties in March.

In the meantime Amy Stuenkel, the public services librarian, and Stern, one of the director candidates, are acting as co-interim directors.

Jay Robinson, the former director, left the position in September after taking over in December 2017.

The doors to the forum will open at 3:45 p.m. with biographies of each candidate provided.

“We have no idea what to expect because this is the first time we’ve done something like this,” Thompson said.

Other libraries around Iowa have held forums like this in the past.

“There’s a lot going on and the new director, whoever they might be, will definitely have a lot to keep themselves busy,” Thompson said.