WASHINGTON — Midlands lawmakers kicked off a new Congress on Thursday amid a partial government shutdown that has no apparent end in sight.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., took the oath of office for her second term on a Bible her grandmother gave her in 1955. And she got choked up when she talked about sharing the emotional moment with family and friends.
“You’re overwhelmed by the history, by the opportunities you have to be able to do good things,” Fischer said.
She said she’s looking to further projects back in Nebraska, from improving VA facilities in Omaha and Lincoln and the runway at Offutt Air Force Base, to bolstering the nation’s infrastructure and modernizing its nuclear forces.
But the first order of business is turning all the lights back on. Portions of the federal government have been shut down since before Christmas because of a battle over President Donald Trump’s push to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It seems as though everybody is in their own silo, and until that changes, I’m not optimistic about government reopening,” Fischer said.
The House passed legislation Thursday night to reopen the government without the wall funding. All GOP House members from Nebraska and Iowa opposed the Democrats’ proposal, while Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, supported it.
But don’t expect to see that legislation on the Senate floor anytime soon.
James Wegmann, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement that the Senate should not be taking up the House legislation and noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t bring up anything the president isn’t going to sign.
Axne joined most of her fellow Democrats in making Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaker once again. All House Republicans from Nebraska and Iowa backed House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
The first day of Congress is typically a festive affair featuring lots of families, including kids running around.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., for example, could be seen holding his young — and squirmy — son on the House floor.
But the intensely partisan showdown over the border wall cast a surreal shadow over the day. Smith later said he would vote against the Democrats’ spending bills with the lack of border wall funding because border security is important.
All members of the Nebraska delegation said they have asked that their pay be withheld during the shutdown, but at least a couple of other Midlands lawmakers have chosen not to do so.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said that he hadn’t given any thought to having his pay withheld and that such a step is mostly for show, anyway.
“Does that mean they’re not working, because I am,” King said in reference to members who donate their pay during shutdowns. “I am working and I’m keeping my word, and if I had my way this government would be open and we’d have the wall built by now.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also is opting not to have his pay withheld.
Grassley spokesman Michael Zona noted that it’s only a partial government shutdown, so many agencies and departments are fully funded and operational.
“In the meantime, Sen. Grassley’s office is also working to determine how Iowans employed by the federal government are affected and what contingency plans are in place to minimize the burden,” Zona said.
Grassley was sworn in Thursday as the new Senate president pro tempore.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said that he wants the government fully reopened and that no one wins in a shutdown.
The Lincoln lawmaker also released a statement that sought to emphasize the more hopeful elements of the day. He cited a quote from JFK that ‘to govern is to choose.’
“Our challenge will be to choose wisely,” Fortenberry said. “With a new Congress comes new options to build consensus, find real solutions and re-create the imaginative possibilities of our great country.”
Axne, joining a Congress that includes the most women in history, excited to get to work
WASHINGTON — Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, arrived at her new Capitol Hill office on Thursday morning excited to get to work in spite of the bare walls and lack of a coffee machine.
“It’s an honor to be able to serve the people that I grew up with,” Axne told The World-Herald.
Axne defeated incumbent Republican Rep. David Young last year in the state’s 3rd District, a key swing seat victory that helped deliver the House back into Democratic hands.
When she took the oath of office Thursday afternoon, Axne joined the 116th Congress, which has record levels of diversity, including the most women ever.
The first order of business is fully reopening the government, which has been partially shut down due to the fight over border wall funding.
Axne said that dispute should have been resolved by the previous Congress. She supports funding to increase border security but not a border wall.
She said she never believes in shutting down government, which results in federal employees not getting paychecks and affects Americans looking to visit national parks.
“It hurts our economy, it hurts our workers, it hurts families,” Axne said. “And so we need to get up and get our business running again.”
Toward that end, she said, she supported Democratic legislation passed Thursday night by the House that would reopen the government while temporarily putting off the question of border wall funding.
“Put government back to work but keep the door open to work on the border and national security issues,” Axne said. “I think it’s a win-win.”
Axne said that President Donald Trump’s unpredictability translates into some hectic days but that she has experience working with a wide range of people.
“Women are multitaskers,” she said. “We’re problem-solvers.”
Axne participated in weeks of orientation after the election to prepare to serve, along with other incoming members. She described that as a good opportunity to connect with her new colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
For example, she discussed working on expanding rural broadband with a newly elected Republican congressman from South Dakota.
She’s been assembling a staff, which includes top campaign aides: Joe Diver will serve as her chief of staff, and Madeleine Russak will be her deputy chief of staff and communications director.
Axne is moving into her new role at a time when 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls will be crisscrossing Iowa. Elizabeth Warren, for example, will be in Council Bluffs on Friday.
But Axne said she won’t be at the Massachusetts senator’s event. She said it’s great that so many people want to run but that she’s not endorsing anyone yet.
“We’ll see what they have to say,” she said.