WASHINGTON — A splintered Senate swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 34-day partial government shutdown on Thursday, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies and the damage it's inflicting around the country.
In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to his office to explore potential next steps for solving the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.
At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he'd support "a reasonable agreement." He suggested he'd also want a "prorated down payment" for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn't describe the term. He said he has "other alternatives" for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall's construction using other programs in the federal budget.
"At least we're talking about it. That's better than it was before," McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose relationship with Trump seems to sour daily, told reporters a "big" down payment would not be "a reasonable agreement." Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said, "I don't know if he knows what he's talking about."
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear "that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise."
Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.
Underscoring the strains, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., angrily said on the Senate floor that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had forced a 2013 shutdown during which "people were killed" in Colorado from flooding and shuttered federal agencies couldn't help local emergency workers. Moments earlier, Cruz accused Democrats of blocking a separate, doomed bill to pay Coast Guard personnel during this shutdown to score political points, adding later, "Just because you hate somebody doesn't mean you should shut the government down."
Thursday's votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said their message to Pence was, "Find a way forward."
The Democratic proposal got two more votes Thursday than the GOP plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who's clashed periodically with the president.
The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he's demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he'd long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.
Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.
Flustered lawmakers said Thursday's roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.
Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.
Pelosi accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of a "'Let them eat cake' kind of attitude" after he said on television that he didn't understand why unpaid civil servants were resorting to homeless shelters for food. Even as Pelosi offered to meet the president "anytime," Trump stood firm, tweeting, "Without a Wall it all doesn't work.... We will not Cave!"
As the Senate debated the two dueling proposals, McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party's lawmakers "make political points and nothing else" because Trump wouldn't sign it. He called Pelosi's opposition "unreasonable" and said, "Senate Democrats are not obligated to go down with her ship."
In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out today. The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures.
SPENCER, Iowa -- When Craig Ihnen started his job as executive director of the Iowa High School Speech Association, he'd been at his desk an hour when the phone rang, at 9 a.m., July 1, 1994. Larry Untiet, a teacher and director of the speech/drama program at Spencer High School, called to wish Ihnen, who had commanded the drama department for years at Le Mars High School, all the best.
"I was a bit unsure about the new job, maybe a little reluctant," Ihnen remembers. "But Larry was so supportive and reassuring. He called me at 9 o'clock that first morning to tell me he was thinking about me."
The other shoe, for Untiet, an incurable ham, would fall seconds later.
"And then Larry told me he was calling me on his mobile phone because he was on the golf course," Untiet said.
Untiet then laughed his infectious roar and zoomed off to the next tee. He called Ihnen later that day, saying he continued to think of his former teaching colleague. This time, his call came from a boat as he fished the waters of Okoboji.
And, again, he laughed.
Untiet, a legendary speech coach and speech/drama leader in Iowa, submitted his resignation from his coaching position at Spencer High School this week, setting the stage for his exit after 44 wonderful years in Spencer. The large-group speech program he pilots, after all, is the only one in Iowa to have featured all-state qualifiers in every year of the All-State Festival, a period covering 43 years.
"Since 1976, when it began, we've had 234 different groups go to All-State," Untiet said.
That means a Spencer senior who earned all-state accolades in 1976 would be 61 years old now. And, perhaps, like the director, retired and approaching retirement.
Untiet gathered his speech charges in the fabulous 2-year-old performing arts auditorium at Spencer High School on Monday and delivered the news of his retirement. He said it was among the most difficult tasks he's faced in his long career. There were tears of sorry and happiness on both sides.
"I've always taught as a way to make a real difference in the life of a child," he said. "My favorite part of this has been all of the kids we've saved, the kid who maybe has little going on and then they paint or help build a set and suddenly they're part of a group and have something to strive for."
Untiet calls "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Miracle Worker" his favorites. "Oklahoma," his first musical, ended up being his last as well when staged in the fall at Spencer. Although he'll still have the spring play to direct this year (his 88th spring/fall production, he's undecided on what it might be), plus a state-level large-group speech festival Spencer High School will host on Feb. 2, one of a estimated 20 or so state large-group events Untiet has presided over at Spencer.
"We took 17 groups to the district contest at Sheldon last Saturday and 13 of them advanced to state," he said.
Next week's event will also have Untiet working with Katie Kardell, vocal music director at Spencer High, and dozens of staffers and volunteers in making sure the meet plays out for an estimated 2,000 Iowa high school students and up to 4,000 or 5,000 spectators who enter and depart throughout the day.
And while it involves all sorts of last-minute details and efforts to hire 48 judges, the task won't be as complicated as the state festival held here two years ago. The 2017 event, after all, represented the inaugural event for the new $11-million performance arts center.
"That was our first event," said Untiet, who hand a hand in the conceptual design of the marvelous new structure and school addition. "I can still recall how impressed people were."
They will be again. And, very likely, they'll be impressed with groups Spencer High has performing at the state contest. If the outgoing director has any say, his performers will do their best to extend one of Iowa's longest -- and most impressive -- all-state streaks.
DES MOINES -- Sen. Joni Ernst says in an interview that she was raped by a boyfriend while she was a student at Iowa State University but didn't report the assault.
In an interview with Bloomberg posted online Wednesday night, Ernst disclosed the attack. She also clarified her discussions with President Donald Trump about becoming his running mate.
Ernst, a first-term Republican from Iowa, this week has spoken about her troubled marriage and other aspects of her life after media disclosures based on court documents from her recently settled divorce from Gail Ernst, 65. They were married 26 years and have one adult daughter.
Ernst, 48, told Bloomberg she decided to disclose the rape after the court filings were publicized, including her allegations that her husband assaulted her.
Ernst said she was in a relationship with a man who was "physically and sexually abusive." She said he raped her at his home and threatened to kill himself if she ended the relationship. She called a campus sexual assault counseling center hotline and ended the relationship but didn't report the attack to police.
During her 2014 Senate campaign, Ernst noted she volunteered at the counseling center but didn't acknowledge the assault.
"I was embarrassed," she said. "I didn't know how to explain it. I was so humiliated. And I'm a private person, when it comes to those things."
Ernst declined to name the man who attacked her, noting she'd described the assault to her former husband but not divulged the man's identity.
In court affidavits filed during the divorce hearings , Ernst stated that Trump interviewed her in 2016 to be his vice president. Ernst wrote, "I turned Candidate Trump down, knowing it wasn't the right thing for me or my family."
In the Bloomberg interview, Ernst clarified that Trump didn't offer her the job and that after thinking about it, she phoned then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort to withdraw from consideration.
Trump eventually chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is now vice president.
SIOUX CITY -- Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor jumped into the race for Iowa's 4th District Thursday, as the number of Republicans looking to unseat Rep. Steve King continued to swell.
Just three hours after Taylor announced his candidacy, King's 2018 primary opponent, Cyndi Hanson of Sioux City, said she is considering a rematch in 2020.
Taylor, who is also a former state legislator from Sioux City, is the second prominent Republican elected official to challenge King, who ignited a national firestorm of controversy this month after he was quoted in a New York Times story saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"
State Sen. Randy Feenstra, a Hull Republican and assistant Senate majority leader, has raised more than $100,000 in campaign contributions since he entered the GOP primary on Jan. 9, when he suggested King was an "embarrassment" to the district.
In a subtle reference to King, Taylor, 40, said Thursday "instead of focusing on past controversy," he intends to "make this campaign about how I can best represent and serve our people well at the national level.”
"Iowans in the 4th District have an opportunity to choose a leader during this next election cycle with a conservative track record of results at the state and county level," Taylor said.
Two other Republicans also are eyeing the 4th District seat -- former Irwin Mayor Bret Richards and Story County Board of Supervisors member Rick Sanders, of Ames.
King, who has generated controversy over the years with his outspoken comments on immigration and race, is considered vulnerable for re-election despite the 4th District having 70,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats.
In November, King edged J.D. Scholten, a Democrat from Sioux City, by just 3 percent. Feenstra has pointed to the slim margin in the state's most Republican district as a reason for a fresh face as the GOP nominee.
In the June primary 2018, King defeated Hanson, 75 percent to 25 percent. Hanson said Thursday the support she received has prompted her to consider another campaign in 2020.
Hanson said King isn't "getting the job done," because he no longer serves on any House committees. House GOP leaders took away all of King's committee assignments for the next two years in the wake of the outrage sparked by his New York Times comments. The next day, the full House approved a resolution designed to rebuke King for the remarks.
"I would desire an opportunity for Iowans to elect a conservative who is willing to engage in a conversation and listen, understand the needs and wishes of Iowans and take action to produce results that advance the district. Iowa's 4th needs a representative who can shift the focus to issues such as fiscal responsibility, smaller government with greater accountability and be a strong advocate for agriculture," said Hanson, an administrator for the College Center in South Sioux City, an academic center operated jointly by Northeast Community College and Wayne State College.
Taylor cited his conservative record on the issues of abortion, gun rights and tax relief during his two-year term in the Iowa House, where he represented a district that took in portions of Sioux City's west and north sides.
“We face real challenges as a nation and Iowans need a conservative, thoughtful voice. I hope to be a representative who will fight for their interests and lead on the issues that matter to them most,” Taylor said.
After losing his re-election bid to the state House in 2012, Taylor won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2014 and was re-elected last fall. Because his four-year term runs through 2022, he can pursue the congressional seat without giving up his county post.
Taylor, a former board chairman, said he's proud that the county's property tax levy has been reduced in all four years that fiscal year budgets have been set. He said his priorities include reducing the national debt, securing U.S. border and supporting small businesses and the agriculture industry in Iowa.
Taylor is also a chaplain in the Iowa National Guard’s 734th Regional Support Group and an energy specialist for the Sioux City School District.