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Vote on rules for public hearings is chance for each party to show solidarity

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats pushed a package of ground rules for their impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump through a sharply divided House on Thursday, the chamber's first formal vote in a fight that could stretch into the 2020 election year.

The tally was 232-196, with all Republicans who voted opposing the resolution. Just two Democratic defectors joined them: freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and 15-term Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, one of his party's most conservative members. Both represent GOP-leaning districts.

Though the vote was technically over the rules that will govern the process, each side used it to accuse the other of having already decided whether Congress should wrench Trump from office.

It also underscored how — for now — lawmakers on each side are comfortable with their approaches to next year's presidential and congressional elections. Democrats have been buoyed by polls showing growing public sentiment for investigating Trump and even removing him from office, while the same surveys have shown GOP voters standing fast by the president.

Thursday's measure defined the procedures lawmakers will follow as they transition from weeks of closed-door interviews with witnesses to public hearings and ultimately to possible votes on whether to recommend Trump's impeachment.

The vote, which occurred on Halloween, drew a familiar Twitter retort from Trump: "The greatest Witch Hunt in American History!"

And White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats of an "unhinged obsession with this illegitimate impeachment proceeding."

During the debate, Democrats spoke of lawmakers' duty to defend the Constitution, while Republicans cast the process as a skewed attempt to railroad a president whom Democrats have detested since before he took office.

"What is at stake in all this is nothing less than our democracy," said Pelosi, D-Calif. Underscoring her point, she addressed the House with a poster of the American flag beside her and began her remarks by reading the opening lines of the preamble to the Constitution.

She also said the procedures would let lawmakers decide whether to impeach Trump "based on the truth. I don't know why the Republicans are afraid of the truth."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., contended that the Democrats are trying to remove Trump simply "because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box."

No. 3 House GOP leader Steve Scalise, R-La., accused them of imposing "Soviet-style rules," speaking in front of a bright red poster depicting St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow.

Independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party earlier this year after saying he was open to considering whether Trump should be impeached, also backed the measure.

The investigation is focused on Trump's efforts to push Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political opponents by withholding military aid and an Oval Office meeting craved by the country's new president.

Democrats said the procedures — which give them the ability to curb the president's lawyers from calling witnesses — are similar to rules used during the impeachment proceedings of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Republicans complained that they were skewed against Trump.

The House is at least weeks away from deciding whether to vote on actually impeaching Trump. If the House does vote for impeachment, the Senate would hold a trial to decide whether to remove the president from office.

Both parties' leaders were rounding up votes as Thursday's roll call approached, with each side eager to come as close to unanimity as possible.

Republicans said a solid GOP "no" vote would signal to the Senate that the Democratic push is a partisan crusade against a president they have never liked.

Democrats were also hoping to demonstrate solidarity from their most liberal elements to their more moderate members. They argued that GOP cohesion against the measure would show that Republicans are blindly defending Trump, whatever facts emerge.

Republicans said they would use the vote to target freshman Democrats and those from districts Trump carried in 2016. They said they would contrast those Democrats' support for the rules with campaign promises to focus on issues voters want Congress to address, not on impeaching Trump.

Pelosi decided to have the vote after weeks of GOP claims that the inquiry was invalid because the chamber had not voted to formally commence the work.

The rules direct House committees "to continue their ongoing investigations" of Trump.

Democrats hope that Thursday's vote will undercut GOP assertions that the process has been invalid. They note that there is no constitutional provision or House rule requiring a formal vote to start the proceedings.

The rules lay out how the House Intelligence Committee — now leading the investigation by deposing diplomats and other officials behind closed doors — would transition to public hearings.

That panel would issue a report and release transcripts of the closed-door interviews it has been conducting.

The Judiciary Committee would then decide whether to recommend that the House impeach Trump.

Republicans could issue subpoenas for witnesses to appear only if the committees holding the hearings approve them — in effect giving Democrats veto power.

Attorneys for Trump could participate in the Judiciary Committee proceedings. But in a bid for leverage, panel Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., would be allowed to deny "specific requests" by Trump representatives if the White House continued refusing to provide documents or witnesses sought by Democratic investigators.

House advances impeachment inquiry into Trump despite stiff opposition from Republicans

WASHINGTON — House Democrats voted Thursday to formalize their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump despite a unified wall of Republican opposition.

“Ultimately, do I think there’s an impeachable offense? The answer is no,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., told The World-Herald moments after the vote. “I think that that’s what it comes down to. I really think it’s the voters’ decision here, and they’re going to have a vote in 13 months.”

The House tally was 232-196 in favor of a resolution directing several House committees to continue ongoing investigations into Trump over his pushing Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The resolution sets out the rules governing the inquiry process, from participation by the president’s team to the rights of GOP members to call witnesses and issue subpoenas.

Nebraska’s all-Republican trio of House members sided with the president and voted against the resolution, as did Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

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In contrast to many of his Republican colleagues, Bacon has been willing to say that Trump should not have brought up Biden during his conversations with Ukraine’s leader.

But the Omaha-area congressman has also consistently said he doesn’t believe that Trump’s actions warrant impeachment.

Don Bacon

“I think some of the things that were done were not wise,” Bacon said this week. “I think some of the statements made lacked judgment. That’s different than it being illegal.”

Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb issued a statement blasting Nebraska House members as “cowards” for their votes.

“President Trump must be held accountable for the clear abuse of power,” she said. “Republicans are hiding behind talking points while Democrats want an open investigation. In 2020, Nebraskans can send a clean slate of representatives who will respect our Constitution. The Democratic Party in Nebraska stands with the people.”

Thursday’s vote was clearly a touchy one for swing-district Democrats.

After voting in favor of the resolution, Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, released a statement that noted that the vote was not a vote to actually impeach the president.

Cindy Axne

“I’ve heard from Iowans across my district, and people on all sides want to get to the bottom of what happened in an open, transparent process that follows the law,” she said. “That’s what I voted for today — a path forward for fair hearings that are open to the public and will give the American people the facts they deserve.”

Axne said that while the investigation proceeds, she will continue to work on her priority of “getting people better health care and better-paying jobs while making the federal government more accountable.”

Still, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann slammed the “yes” votes from Axne and other Iowa Democrats in the House.

“Iowans were tricked in 2018 with false promises that Democrats would work with the president, so voters will respond by treating them to defeat at the ballot box next November,” he said.

Republicans had sharply criticized House Democrats for conducting their investigations without a formal vote. When the vote was called on Thursday, they lined up in support of the president.


Jeff Fortenberry

“I’m deeply concerned that this entire impeachment inquiry is tainted by the politics of division and hate,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said in a statement. “Now, after secret hearings, I’m being asked to vote to give this a veneer of civility and order. It’s not right. What is so difficult about all of this is the projection of a predetermined outcome.”

Fortenberry’s statement did not go into the substance of the allegations against Trump. Neither did one from Rep. Adrian Smith, another Nebraska Republican.

“This haphazard process has been skewed to fit Speaker Pelosi’s narrative from the beginning and it only hurts our great nation,” Smith said.

King referred to the “sham impeachment process” in his commentary.

“President Trump is correct to describe this as a witch hunt, and the President’s phrase takes on added significance with the actions of the Democrats in the House today,” he wrote.

Democrats responded to continued GOP complaints that the process is unfair by saying the resolution is consistent with past impeachment proceedings and in some areas goes even further to grant privileges to the other side.

Jim McGovern

“I don’t think there is any process that we can propose that Republicans — who prefer to circle the wagons around this president and prevent us from getting to the truth — would accept,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the Rules Committee.

If the House ultimately does impeach the president, it will be up to the Senate to hear the case and decide whether to remove him from office.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said earlier in the week that the House is moving toward a more transparent process but that he will look to see how it actually proceeds with the inquiry.

As for the substance of the allegations against the president, Grassley said senators have a responsibility to see themselves as jurors.

“I’m going to be a good-faith juror and listen to all the facts,” he said.

OWH front pages through the years​

Farm bankruptcies climb in Nebraska and Iowa in wake of catastrophic weather, trade conflicts

WASHINGTON — Farm bankruptcies are on the rise in Nebraska and Iowa in the wake of this year’s catastrophic weather events and rocky trade environment.

A new report by the American Farm Bureau Federation shows a 24% increase in Chapter 12 bankruptcies nationwide over the previous year.

“While filings remain well below the historical highs experienced in the 1980s, the trend is a concern,” the report says. “The support provided to farmers in 2018 and 2019 is expected to alleviate some of the financial stress, however, not all farmers will benefit from trade assistance, farm bill programs, crop insurance or disaster aid. As a result, it could take some time for the financial relief to manifest in the farm bankruptcy trends.”

The report covers the 12-month period ending Sept. 30 and compares it with the one before.

Several Midwestern states have been particularly hard-hit. There were 37 farm bankruptcies in Nebraska and 24 in Iowa. That’s a year-over-year increase of six in Nebraska and 10 in Iowa.

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The report cites U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that farms will bring in $88 billion in 2019 — that’s 29% below the record high set in 2013. And a lot of that money is coming to farmers via Uncle Sam.

“Nearly 40% of that income — some $33 billion in total — is related to trade assistance, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities and has yet to be fully received by farmers and ranchers,” according to the report.

Farm debt is projected to reach a record-high $416 billion in 2019, and farmers are taking longer to service their debt.

The highest number of farm bankruptcies was in Wisconsin, which saw 48. Nebraska tied for second with Georgia and Kansas.

Rising bankruptcy filings reflect a number of challenges currently weighing on the agriculture industry.

President Donald Trump’s tariff battles with China have contributed to decreased demand for soybeans and other crops, for example.

Nebraska and Iowa producers also say they’ve struggled with the administration’s generous granting of waivers to federal ethanol requirements, which has helped push down grain prices.

And Mother Nature has a hand in the situation, with Nebraska and Iowa experiencing massive flooding earlier this year that affected many producers.


Water from the Elkhorn River floods a farm in March. Bad weather is one of many challenges facing agriculture this year.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said Wednesday that it would be helpful if the House moved forward on the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and that he hopes a new trade deal with China can be finalized soon.

Farm state Republicans have generally suggested that their constituents continue to back Trump’s trade agenda despite the disruptions. Fortenberry said Trump’s “America First” sentiment is deeply felt in farm country.

“I’ve been frankly extraordinarily impressed by our farmers,” he said. “They know this reckoning with China had to take place. They want the best possible deal for America. And at the same time this has been painful.”

Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said in a statement that it’s concerning any time a farm or ranch goes under and that it’s no secret that agriculture faces challenges.

“The flooding and blizzards that impacted so many in our state have not helped the situation,” he said. “That’s why Nebraska Farm Bureau continues to push for trade deals, like USMCA, that can bring some certainty and opportunities to agriculture markets. Even when these deals go into effect, it could take some time to reap the full benefits, which is why we need to lock deals in place as soon as possible.”

Photos: Nebraska's March flooding hits hard in farm country

Long-awaited cystic fibrosis drug could turn deadly disease into a manageable condition

A new cystic fibrosis therapy dramatically improved patients' lung function and showed clear signs of targeting the genetic root of the disease, instead of just alleviating symptoms - a breakthrough so long-sought that many doctors and patients are moved to tears when talking about it.

The data, to be unveiled Thursday at a national conference in Tennessee and simultaneously published in two leading medical journals, was so persuasive that the Food and Drug Administration last week approved the three drug combination, called Trikafta - five months ahead of the agency's deadline. The drug could benefit 90% of patients with the disease, a major advance over previous drugs that worked in a tiny fraction of the people with the disease or had more modest effects.

"I'm overjoyed," said Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who was part of one of the teams that discovered the gene defect that causes cystic fibrosis in 1989. "Thirty years along, with many bumps along the road and so many people waiting and hoping that something like this would happen - and here we are."

The drug is the product of decades of steady, incremental scientific work that began with research in academic laboratories and was pushed forward and funded by patient advocates through an unusual "venture philanthropy" model now being emulated by other patient groups. The leap forward was preceded by many steps - Trikafta is the fourth therapy developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based company that has built a lucrative franchise around the disease.

Cystic fibrosis affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States. Thick mucus builds up in the body's organs, damaging people's lungs and digestive systems. Patients wear vibrating vests to break up the mucus and spend hours each day coughing to keep their lungs clear. They assiduously protect themselves from respiratory illnesses that can send them to the hospital. They often take antibiotics, enzymes and vitamins, to stay healthy. The life expectancy of patients has been increasing, and patients born today live on average 44 years.

Doctors who began their careers at a time when there were few adults with cystic fibrosis because patients died in their teens are now cautiously anticipating that the disease will be transformed into a chronic condition, akin to diabetes, that can be managed with a drug regimen - particularly if Trikafta is eventually approved for use in younger children and babies, before any lung damage has occurred. (It is initially approved for patients 12 and older.) Patients who were unsure about whether they should bother attending college because they had always known they would die young are now being told they should think about planning for retirement.

Brian O'Sullivan, a pediatric pulmonologist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, who was not involved in either trial and has no financial ties to Vertex, said, "I'm in my 60s now, and I never thought I would see this day. It's pretty amazing."

Sarah Carollo, 28, a special needs teacher in Lee's Summitt, Missouri, started Trikafta through a clinical trial in late 2018. Carollo feared she was heading into yet another hospitalization and might have to step away from the classroom where she teaches children with nonverbal autism. She couldn't walk down a hallway without stopping to rest and catch her breath.

"As a person living with CF, my parents had been passing it on to me this fear - we always had this constant fear of when the decline was going to happen, because we knew it was going to happen," Carollo said.

A few days after she began taking the pill, her doctors tested her lung function and were so stunned at the improvement that they had to check whether they were really looking at the results from the right patient. Two weeks ago, Carollo ran a 5K race with another patient, Laurana Blackburn, who was also taking the drug through the clinical trial.

"We felt like we had to honor what we had been given and show the capacity of what we had now," Carollo said.

Cystic fibrosis has become a model for how to study, advocate for and develop drugs for other genetic diseases. The discovery of the gene in 1989 was a major scientific feat that helped persuade scientists and politicians to move forward with the $3 billion human genome project, Collins recalled. But that wasn't just important to scientists.

On August 25, 1989, an 8-year-old girl named Jenny wrote in her diary, "To Day is the most Best day ever in my Life They found a Jean for Cistik fibrosis." Jenny McGlincy, now 38, was on vacation with her husband and daughter in Mexico when word began to circulate that the drug had been approved. She read the news on her phone and began crying.

McGlincy feels fortunate that she hasn't been as sick as other people with cystic fibrosis, but is eagerly awaiting the doctor's appointment in a week and a half where she will find out the next steps to get access to the medication.

"We've finally reached the time an improvement is possible," McGlincy said. "To think of my lung function improving or my digestion increasing, or even adding a few years to my life that I could spend with my daughter. . . . Now that it's available, I'm [feeling] a little like, 'is this really happening?'"

The therapy is a combination of three drugs that wouldn't have been possible if scientists working in academic laboratories hadn't unraveled the basic biology of the disease. Finding the gene was a "needle in a haystack" type problem, Collins said, and led scientists to a malfunctioning protein that normally keeps the right balance of salt and water in the lungs. There are more than 1,700 gene mutations that can cause the protein to malfunction, but in the most common mutation, the protein is misfolded and can't reach the right spot in the cell - and even if it does reach the cell, it doesn't work properly. The new combination therapy includes one drug that corrects the misfolded protein and two that activate the correctly folded protein when it reaches the right spot in the cell.

In the largest trial, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, 403 patients who had at least one copy of the most common gene mutation underlying cystic fibrosis received either Trikafta or a placebo. There were improvements in objective tests of lung function, decreases in lung problems and hospitalizations and an increase in people's quality of life.

Many physicians see the most transformative potential impact of the drug in the hope that it will be eventually approved for younger children, as Vertex's other drugs have been over time. The drug can help older patients, but can't erase years of lung damage; if it works and is safe in younger children, it could prevent damage in the first place.

"With treatments like this we can actually anticipate that if a young child were started on this therapy they could actually expect to have a normal life expectancy," said Deepika Polineni, a pulmonologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center involved in the trial who has received consulting fees from Vertex. "This is a breakthrough therapy for people with cystic fibrosis."

Patients continued their maintenance therapy, such as coughing and using a vibrating vest, during the therapy - and future trials will test whether patients can reduce their dependence on the intervention. Future research will also be needed to help the remaining 10% of patients, who have disease driven by different mutations.

Meghan McGarry, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco, recently completed a study that examined Puerto Rican and Dominican patients and found that their diseases were driven by rare mutations. Her concern is that the new drugs, as exciting as they are, will deepen health inequities, since minority patients already have greater mortality than white patients with cystic fibrosis.

"It's really heartbreaking for the patients who don't qualify. I think it's really hard to celebrate with a portion of your patients and have other patients where you know they don't have that. We had a mom who said, 'Those drugs aren't for our people,'" McGarry said. She noted that when some of Vertex's early drugs came out and helped a small population of patients, it gave others in the community hope because it foreshadowed the development of better drugs that would work for more people.

"Now, when the majority of patients already have it," she said, they ask, "When it's my child's turn? And is that going to come?"

It also remains to be seen if patients have an easy time gaining access to the drug, which will cost $311,000 a year. While that is a tremendous amount, orphan drugs for small patient populations typically carry very large price tags and physicians are optimistic that insurers will cover the drug.

For now, the cystic fibrosis community will be celebrating. Collins said that after he discovered the gene behind the illness in 1989, he wrote a song called "Dare to Dream" about the hope for a treatment. He plans to sing it at the meeting.

When he wrote the song, "we had the gene, but it wasn't clear how it would get us to this kind of outcome," Collins said. "We're going to do that again on Friday morning, with 3,000 people and I'm probably going to cry."