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Senate celebrates budget deal — but shutdown still possible

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders brokered a long-sought budget agreement Wednesday that would shower the Pentagon and domestic programs with an extra $300 billion over the next two years. But both Democratic liberals and GOP tea party forces swung against the plan, raising questions about its chances just a day before the latest government shutdown deadline.

The measure was a win for Republican allies of the Pentagon and for Democrats seeking more for infrastructure projects and combatting opioid abuse. But it represented a bitter defeat for many liberal Democrats who sought to use the party's leverage on the budget to resolve the plight of immigrant "Dreamers" who face deportation after being brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The deal does not address immigration.

Beyond the $300 billion figure, the agreement adds almost $90 billion in overdue disaster aid for hurricane-slammed Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Senate leaders hope to approve the measure today and send it to the House for a confirming vote before the government begins to shut down at midnight today. But hurdles remain to avert the second shutdown in a month.

While Senate Democrats celebrated the moment of rare bipartisanship — Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a "genuine breakthrough" — progressives and activists blasted them for leaving immigrants in legislative limbo. Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, herself a key architect of the budget plan, announced her opposition Wednesday morning and mounted a remarkable daylong speech on the House floor, trying to force GOP leaders in the House to promise a later vote on legislation to protect the younger immigrants.

"Let Congress work its will," Pelosi said, before holding the floor for more than eight hours without a break. "What are you afraid of?"

The White House backed the deal — despite President Donald Trump's outburst a day earlier that he'd welcome a government shutdown if Democrats didn't accept his immigration-limiting proposals.

Trump himself tweeted that the agreement "is so important for our great Military," and he urged both Republicans and Democrats to support it.

But the plan faced criticism from deficit hawks in his own party.

Some tea party Republicans shredded the measure as a budget-buster. Combined with the party's December tax cut bill, the burst in military and other spending would put the GOP-controlled government on track for the first $1 trillion-plus deficits since President Barack Obama's first term. That's when Congress passed massive stimulus legislation to try to stabilize a down-spiraling economy.

"It's too much," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a fiscal hawk.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., however, backed the agreement and was hoping to cobble together a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans to push it through.

Despite the 77-year-old Pelosi's public talkathon, she was not pressuring the party's rank-and-file to oppose the measure, Democrats said. The deal contains far more money demanded by Democrats than had seemed possible only weeks ago, including $90 billion in disaster aid for Florida and Texas. Some other veteran Democrats — some of whom said holding the budget deal hostage to action on Dreamer immigrants had already proven to be a failed strategy — appeared more likely to support the agreement than junior progressives elected in recent years.

The budget agreement would give both the Pentagon and domestic agencies relief from a budget freeze that lawmakers say threatens military readiness and training as well as domestic priorities such as combating opioid abuse and repairing the troubled health care system for veterans.

The core of the agreement would shatter tight "caps" on defense and domestic programs funded by Congress each year. They are a hangover from a failed 2011 budget agreement and have led to military readiness problems and caused hardship at domestic agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the IRS.

The agreement would give the Pentagon an $80 billion increase for the current budget year for core defense programs, a 14 percent increase over current limits and $26 billion more than Trump's budget request. Nondefense programs would receive about $60 billion over current levels. Those figures would be slightly increased for the 2019 budget year beginning Oct. 1.

"For the first time in years, our armed forces will have more of the resources they need to keep America safe," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "It will help us serve the veterans who have bravely served us. And it will ensure funding for important efforts such as disaster relief, infrastructure and building on our work to fight opioid abuse and drug addiction."

The $90 billion in disaster aid would bring the total appropriated in the wake of last year's hurricane season to almost $140 billion.

The agreement would increase the government's borrowing cap to prevent a first-ever default on U.S. obligations that looms in just a few weeks. The debt limit would be suspended through March of 2019.

The House on Tuesday passed legislation to keep the government running through March 23, marrying the stopgap spending measure with a $659 billion Pentagon spending plan, but the Senate plan would rewrite that measure.

GALLAGHER: Upstart Siouxland Christian basks in all-state speech glow

SIOUX CITY | Emily Hageman took the microphone at the start of a chapel service on Tuesday at Siouxland Christian High School in Sioux City. She had great news to share.

Siouxland Christian, which didn't have a large-group speech team two years ago, sent seven entries from the district to the state festival at Le Mars High School in Le Mars, Iowa, on Saturday.

"All seven entries earned Division I (superior) ratings," Hageman said.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Emily Hageman, a Dordt College graduate who teaches band, choir and theater at Siouxland Christian Middle School and High School, wrote, cast and directed "Back Cover," which earned the banner, or Critic's Choice, for being the top one-act play to perform at the Iowa All-State Large Group Speech Festival at Iowa State University on Saturday.

There was more. "Six of those entries will be honored at the All-State Festival," she said, noting that four will perform and two were designated in the non-performing class. State statistics reveal that just 5 percent of those groups performing at the district level (the first round of competition) eventually land on the all-state dais.

Monday was a big afternoon for high school speech programs across Iowa. Late that day, thousands of thespians were glued to their laptops and phones, awaiting word from the Iowa High School Speech Association, which posted all-state nominees on its website, per tradition.

And nowhere was the news greeted with such fanfare as it was at Siouxland Christian, where a school record was set with each scroll of the computer mouse that afternoon.

One-Act Play: All-State. Ensemble Acting: All-State. Group Improvisation: All-State. Short Film: All-State.

Other Northwest Iowa schools had more, but not many. Coach Wendy Bryce's East High program, for example, qualified eight all-state groups, including three in musical theater alone. And, Spencer High School, for the 43rd year in a row, will have All-State thespians, the only speech program in Iowa to enjoy such a remarkable streak, all of it done under the guide of Larry Untiet. Spencer had seven performance award winners at the state festival.

A list of Northwest Iowa groups accompanies this column.

At Siouxland Christian, Hageman was practically pinching herself, as if dazed in a dream. "This is an amazing experience," she said.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Daniel Ketchelos works on a computer in a lounge area at the new Siouxland Christian School in Sioux City on Tuesday. Ketchelos, a junior, wrote, shot, directed and edited a short film that earned all-state laurels in large-group speech.

Siouxland Christian junior Daniel Ketchelos typified the experience at the small school. Ketchelos said the prospect of creating a short film for the speech category by that name dawned on him during September. He fashioned a list of topics and winnowed it by October before consulting with his coach. He chose a theme based on isolationism and how one deals with losing someone close.

"The one idea I centered on involved a character named Olivia, who loses her boyfriend in a car accident," he said.

Ketchelos, 17, wrote a short film, "Left Alone." He then assigned the script to eight actors and actresses, peers at his school. He reached out to friend Elijah Stocking who could handle a boom mic while Ketchelos filmed scenes he directed.

"We shot it all on December 19, a day we were on break from school," he said. "We shot from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and shot it all at Pierce Street Coffee Works and in Grandview Park."

Ketchelos, whose dream job would involve directing film, put it all together using equipment rented from the East Coast. The total bill: $369.72.

"I shot it all with my camera and then edited it with Adobe Premier on my laptop," he added.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Daniel Ketchelos

And while Ketchelos wrote his short film, Hageman wrote the school's All-State efforts in one act play and ensemble acting. Hageman also wrote a second ensemble acting entry that was deemed All-State in the non-performing classification.

The all-state berths represent uncharted territory for Siouxland Christian, a non-denominational Christian school whose enrollment in grades 9-12 numbers 75. Hageman said she still can't believe her program, still in its relative infancy, is being mentioned with the likes of East, Spencer, MOC-Floyd Valley and Le Mars Community High School.

"My heart was pounding super hard when I looked to see the All-State list," Ketchelos said. "When I saw it (his short film listed), it blew my mind!"

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Speech instructor/coach Emily Hageman and Daniel Ketchelos, a junior, are shown in a lounge area on the second level of Siouxland Christian School in Sioux City on Tuesday.

"Even to get one entry to perform at all-state would have meant everything to me and these kids," Hageman said.

To have four? With another pair getting All-State bids as well? The coach shook her head and said, "This is the most rewarding thing that's ever happened to me."

Cone Park attendance surpassed 10K in first 6 weeks

SIOUX CITY | More than 10,000 people stopped by Cone Park to take a trip down its 700-foot tubing hill during the park's first six weeks in operation.

The city's Parks and Recreation Department tallied 10,147 users at the brand-new, all-seasons park through Jan. 29, an average of more than 280 people per day.

It's a number that has staff excited about how the park is catching on.   


"We're very pleasantly surprised," Parks and Recreation director Matt Salvatore said. "The biggest reflection on attendance is the weather. The nicer it is, the more people are coming to use the park." 

Those attendance numbers came during 36 days of operation, including the soft opening for donors Dec. 19 and 20. The park, which is typically open seven days a week, has closed six times over the past month and a half due to holidays and inclement weather. 

Recreation supervisor Eric Griffith said attendance over the schools' winter breaks and on weekends have surpassed expectations, even during a colder than average January. 

"The last three to four Saturdays we've been sold out almost every single session," he said. 

Also popular have been the late-night "Cosmic Tubing" events, when LED lights illuminate the hill. Griffith said he has been surprised to see steady crowds at the park even on days with single-digit temperatures. 

The park's refrigerated ice skating rink opened Saturday, which is expected to draw more people to the park.

With winter entering its later stages, Salvatore said the weather will determine how long the park's winter features remain open. The tubing hill will likely close first, he said. The hill currently has a good base of snow, but the park's snow-making machines require temperatures under 28 degrees. He estimated it would be late February or early March. The ice skating rink could remain open longer, he said, as well as open earlier in late fall. 

Once the park's winter elements close, the skating rink will transition into a free splash pad. Park visitors will also be able to enjoy a two-mile trail loop and rent the park's day lodge for wedding receptions, birthday parties and other events.

Hours at the park, which sits at 3800 Line Drive near Lewis and Clark Park and the IBP Ice Center, run 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. 

Photos: Cone Park