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."
More than 2,500 earthquakes occurred in and around Wyoming over the last year, but most of them went unnoticed by Wyomingites, according to a report on geological hazards released Thursday by the Wyoming State Geological Survey.
Earthquakes occur when built-up pressure becomes too great for the rock to bear. The rock fractures, largely along faults, or weak areas in the rock. The rupture then reverberates out, sometimes across long distances.
“An earthquake is basically rock breaking in the earth,” said Seth Wittke, manager of the geological hazards division of the WSGS. “It’s just crustal dynamics, where you have strain and stress and all kinds of different forces … Once enough stress builds up in the rock, then it breaks.”
Though 2,500 earthquakes may sound extreme, it is not atypical for Wyoming, which experiences less seismic activities than some states to the west, Wittke said.
Of the 2,558 earthquakes that occurred between November 2017 and October 2018, many were not strong enough to be felt by people on the surface, according to the report.
“A rule of thumb that I go by is if it’s under 2.5, it’s not typically felt by people,” Wittke said.
Nine earthquakes last year were measured at a magnitude of five or greater and dozens exceeded 2.5, including a 4.4 magnitude earthquake in Soda Springs, Idaho, in January. The aftershocks were felt across Star Valley, according to the WSGS report. People also reported feeling the effects of an earthquake north of Wheatland and in both Washakie and Hot Springs counties in the Big Horn Basin.
The source of some of these earthquakes may be in faults that are considered “modern” by geologists’ standards, according to the report. Those are ruptures that have occurred within the last 1.6 million years. There are more than 30 modern faults in the state. Most of these are on the western edge of Wyoming
Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park in the northwest, populated by grizzlies, park employees and tourists, is the epicenter of much of Wyoming’s earthquake activity. It’s also the area where nearby residents were most likely to feel the effects of energy convulsing the ground over the last year. This is in part due to the Yellowstone Caldera and the movement of fluids both underground and on the surface.
The Wyoming Geological Survey has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation and academia to study the modern faults in Jackson Hole and the Washakie Mountains, according to the report.
There were three notable landslides in Wyoming between November 2017 and October of 2018, noted in the report. The Porcupine Creek landside destroyed part of the Greys River Road in Lincoln County in April, affecting tourism in Alpine, followed by a smaller landslide that stranded campers in the area. In June, a slide destroyed two properties in Park County, near Crandall, according to the report.
The geological hazards data is available in a GIS map on the WSGS website. The WSGS also released summary reports on the fossil fuel industries and critical minerals.
“There are many important geologic issues in Wyoming, and these summaries of 2018 provide residents, elected officials, and state government with a snapshot of energy and mineral resources in Wyoming, as well as the geologic hazards that exist,” said Erin Campbell, state geologist and director of the WSGS, in a statement.
Authorities are looking to force fast-food restaurants in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado to forfeit hundreds of thousands of dollars, which federal prosecutors say are drug trafficking proceeds.
Among the restaurants named in federal court documents is Rodolfo’s Mexican Grill in Cheyenne. In his response to the government’s filings, Hilario Montejano-Aleman, the restaurant’s owner, states his bank accounts have not been used in drug money laundering.
Montejano-Aleman also operates Viva El Taco, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. One of his bank accounts associated with the Colorado restaurant was also frozen and he likewise denied that account’s use in drug money laundering.
“Hilario Montejano-Aleman was engaged in a legal business enterprise that did not involve money laundering activities,” his lawyer, Dion Custis, wrote in a Dec. 4 response to prosecutors’ filings.
In November, prosecutors filed forfeiture paperwork under seal in federal court, naming 13 defendants. Because the prosecutors’ complaint is sealed, specific allegations are not directly visible to the general public, including the Star-Tribune.
Among businesses implicated in the case are a Greeley, Colorado, restaurant, and at least five more Colorado Springs restaurants.
Public court records do not indicate why the complaint was filed under seal.
However, online court records indicate the filing is for a drug-related property seizure, and defense responses to the prosecutors’ action shed some light on the nature of allegations made by the government.
Although the total amount of money seized is not made clear by the documents, 17 bank accounts were frozen. According to the documents, at least two of those accounts were safe deposit boxes, containing $428,896 and $376,230 cash.
Over the course of December, attorneys for five of the claimants filed responses to the government’s allegations. Those responses, which were filed separately by Cheyenne attorneys Custis and Tom Fleener, indicate that prosecutors allege their clients used fast-food restaurants to engage in the laundering of drug money. All five responses deny the allegations.
Custis and Fleener both declined to comment for this story.
Stephanie Sprecher, the federal prosecutor heading the case, referred comment to a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman. He did not immediately return a Thursday afternoon request for comment.