A1 A1
New North American trade agreement advances, will be a 'big boost to the economy'

WASHINGTON — A new North American trade deal is nearing the finish line after its approval Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee.

Farmers and ranchers have been waiting impatiently for more than a year to see Congress finalize the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which represents one potential bright spot amid ongoing tariff battles that have depressed commodity prices and hammered their bottom lines.

“It’s going to be a big boost to the economy,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday after the panel voted 25-3 in favor of the deal.

Grassley, who is chairman of the committee, cited International Trade Commission estimates that it could result in growth that would produce 176,000 new jobs.

The deal is expected to easily clear the full Senate, but the timing remains unclear. Grassley suggested that it could be wrapped up as soon as next week but added that it also could be delayed by an impeachment trial.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has thus far been holding the articles of impeachment approved by the House. As soon as she sends them, the resulting trial will take priority over all other matters.

Sign up for World-Herald news alerts

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Tuesday’s vote came despite a few bipartisan objections. One Democrat voted against the deal, saying it doesn’t do enough to tackle climate change.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., also opposed it. He said sticking with the existing North American Free Trade Agreement would be better.

Toomey conceded the need to update an agreement written last century, one that devotes an entire section to the handling of cassette players in automobiles.

But aside from the modernizing, he said, many of the other changes are aimed at reducing the United States’ trade deficit with Mexico in ways that would raise prices for American consumers buying cars made in Mexico.

“It’s the first time we’re ever going to go backwards on a trade agreement,” Toomey said.

He also objected to the process that produced the deal, saying the Finance Committee had no opportunity to effect actual changes.

Take predictions of impending economic booms with a major grain of salt, he added, because the vast majority of the agreement is identical to NAFTA and introduces a sunset provision that will chill future investment.

“We’ve taken a free trade agreement that needed modernization — and there is modernization — but then we’ve slapped on all of these provisions designed to restrict trade and investment,” Toomey said. “We’ll get no economic growth out of this and we, the Senate and the Senate Finance Committee, are allowing ourselves to be marginalized.”

Tuesday’s session represented the Finance Committee debut of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who recently joined the panel.

Sasse welcomed the opportunity to cast his first vote on the committee in favor of USMCA and talked up the importance to Nebraska agriculture.

He cited the state’s $7 billion in 2018 agricultural exports, a figure that put it behind just five other states that all have larger populations.

“Nebraska is ready to keep feeding the world, and we need open trade markets to do so,” Sasse said.

But he also agreed with Toomey’s criticisms.

Sasse told The World-Herald after the hearing that Toomey is correct in saying the bulk of the deal is identical to NAFTA and that not all the changes are positive.

But he said agricultural markets have internalized the potential risk of NAFTA going away altogether and it’s crucial for that sector to have the stability that will come from finalizing the deal.

“There’s so many problems in the ag economy right now, and a lot of them are driven by the instability of lack of certainty and permanence in future trade relationships,” Sasse said.

He suggested that agriculture is more of a clear winner from the deal than some other sectors of the economy.

“If you look at it from a Great Lakes, industrial, auto-producing state’s perspective, it’s much less on-net beneficial for those of us who are free traders, but for ag the benefit continues to redound to people who produce more than we can consume,” Sasse said.

Nebraska and Iowa’s members of Congress

Photos: Nebraska and Iowa's members of Congress

McConnell says he has votes to start trial, put off witness decision

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he has the votes to start President Donald Trump's impeachment trial as soon as Speaker Nancy Pelosi releases the documents, winning support from GOP senators to postpone a decision on calling witnesses.

McConnell could launch the third impeachment trial in the nation's history this week if Pelosi sends the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Pelosi gave little indication of her next move. She cut short an impeachment discussion with her leadership team at the Capitol when an aide handed her a note about the crisis unfolding in the Middle East.

McConnell said the question of new witnesses and documents will be addressed later "and not before the trial begins."

The contours of a Senate trial have been in dispute. Pelosi is delaying transmission of the articles as Democrats press to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton and other new witnesses. McConnell has resisted.

The GOP leader told senators at their closed-door lunch Tuesday that he has support for his plan, which is modeled after President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial 20 years ago. It would start the trial first and postpone votes on witnesses until later in the process.

"He has 51 (votes), for sure," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top ally of the president. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, 53-47.

Democrats are ramping up pressure on Republicans not to go along with McConnell's proposal to postpone voting on new testimony. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a "trap" and a "cover-up."

"Whoever heard of a trial without witnesses and documents?" the New York Democrat said. He asked Trump what he has to hide. "Witnesses and documents: fair trial. No witnesses and documents: cover-up."

Just four GOP senators would be needed to deny McConnell his majority, but he appears to have locked up the votes. GOP leaders were conducting a whip count Tuesday to gauge support. Several GOP senators have indicated that they want to hear from Bolton and other witnesses, but they are nevertheless standing with McConnell's plan for starting the trial.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday that the Clinton process "provided a pathway" to start the trial and consider witnesses "down the road." He said he supports it.

"I'm comfortable with that process," Romney said. "And at this stage, I'd like to hear from John Bolton and other witnesses with the right information, but that process will accommodate that."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has also said she supports McConnell's approach. Others say they are not sure they even need to hear from Bolton or other witnesses, blaming the House for not forcing them to testify. Trump had instructed White House officials not to comply with the House investigation.

"It's not that I don't want to hear from him," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "I want to hear from him when the House is willing to do their work and have the same agreement with (Bolton) on their side of the Hill."

Trump faces charges that he abused the power of the presidency by pressuring Ukraine's new leader to investigate Democrats, using as leverage $400 million in military assistance that is critical for the ally as it counters Russia at its border.

The funding for Ukraine was eventually released but only after Congress intervened.

Trump, while meeting in the Oval Office with the prime minister of Greece, railed against the impeachment proceedings as "a totally partisan hoax witch hunt.''

Trump insisted that "there was absolutely nothing done wrong" in his interactions with Ukraine.

Republicans are expected to swiftly acquit Trump of the charges, but Democrats say fresh evidence, including Bolton's willingness to testify, only increases pressure for new witnesses and documents.

According to House testimony, Bolton compared the administration's actions toward Ukraine to a "drug deal" that he wanted no part of, a shadow diplomacy being concocted by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. Bolton left the administration in September.

Democrats also want documents about the withheld aid to Ukraine that the White House refused to turn over to House investigators, defying congressional subpoenas.

With a 53-seat majority, McConnell has only loose control over the impeachment proceedings, where decisions on witnesses or documents can be made with a 51-vote majority.

Pressure for witnesses is likely to mount on GOP senators up for reelection from swing states in 2020, including Iowa's Joni Ernst.

Iran strikes back at US with missile attacks targeting 2 bases in Iraq

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran struck back at the United States early on Wednesday for killing its most powerful military commander, firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases that house American troops in what the Iranian supreme leader said was a “slap” against America's military presence in the region.

The retaliatory move is another dangerous escalation that could draw the region deeper into turmoil, despite insistence by Washington and Tehran that neither side wants war. U.S. and Iraqi officials said there were no casualties among their forces.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made clear that Iran's ballistic missile strikes were in revenge for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls to avenge his slaying and drew crowds of Iranians, said to number in the millions, to the streets to mourn him.

“Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said in a speech after the missile strikes. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end."

Despite the heightened rhetoric, there were some indications that there would not be more immediate retaliation on either side.

'All is well!' President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the missile attacks, adding, 'So far, so good' regarding casualties.

Moments earlier, Iran's foreign minister tweeted that Tehran had taken “& concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” adding that Tehran did “not seek escalation" but would defend itself against further aggression.

Tensions have been rising steadily in the Middle East after Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

The killing of Soleimani and the strikes on the Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops marked the first time in recent years that Washington and Tehran have attacked each other directly rather than through proxies in the region.

It raised the chances of open conflict erupting between the two rivals, who have been at odds since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis.

Adding to the chaos, a Ukrainian airplane with 176 people crashed after takeoff just outside Tehran on Wednesday morning, killing all on board, Iranian state TV and Ukrainian officials said.

The Boeing 737-800 had taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport, bound for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and mechanical issues were suspected. The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations. Ukraine's foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, said there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board — the Ukrainian nationals included two passengers and the nine crew. The rest were Swedish, Afghan, German and British nationals.

The U.S. Federation Aviation Administration had earlier warned of a "potential for miscalculation or mis-identification" for civilian aircraft in the Persian Gulf amid in an emergency flight restriction. The agency has barred U.S. pilots and carriers from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace.

Wednesday's missile strikes came as the U.S. continues to reinforce its own positions in the region and warns of an unspecified threat to shipping from Iran in Mideast waterways, which are crucial routes for global energy supplies. U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe have also issued security alerts for Americans.

U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf that host thousands of American troops are also concerned of an outbreak of direct conflict and retaliation from Iran. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have called for de-escalation.

“The situation is not currently a war situation,” UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al-Mazrouei told reporters Wednesday, stressing that Iran is a neighbor and the last thing the country wants is more tension in the region.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its regional allies against retaliating over the missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.

“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” the Guard said. It also threatened Israel.

After the strikes, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator posted a picture of the Islamic Republic's flag on Twitter, appearing to mimic Trump who posted an American flag following the killing of Soleimani and others Friday.

Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. The U.S. also acknowledged another missile attack targeting a base in Irbil in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region,” said Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the U.S. defense secretary.

The Iranians fired a total of 15 missiles, two U.S. officials said. Ten hit Ain al-Asad and one the base in Irbil. Four failed, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about a military operation.

Two Iraqi security officials said at least one of the missiles appeared to have struck a plane at the Ain al-Asad base, igniting a fire. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attacks, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they had no permission to talk to journalists.

About 70 Norwegian troops also were on the air base but, again, no injuries were reported, Brynjar Stordal, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Armed Forces told The Associated Press.

Trump visited the Ain al-Asad air base, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad, in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence also has visited the base.

As Iran reels from Soleimani's death and the loss of life on the plane crash, it is also contending with aftermath of a deadly stampede that broke out Tuesday at Soleimani's funeral killed 56 people and injured more than 200, Iranian news reports said. Shortly after Wednesday's missile attack, Soleimani's shroud-wrapped remains were lowered into the ground as mourners wailed at the grave site in his hometown of Kerman.

There was no information about what set off the crush in the packed streets, and online videos showed only its aftermath: people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing, emergency crews performing CPR on the fallen, and onlookers wailing and crying out to God.

Hossein Salami, who commands the Revolutionary Guard, earlier addressed a crowd of supporters in Kernan and vowed to avenge Soleimani.

“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about," Salami said.

Soleimani was laid to rest between the graves of two former Guard comrades killed in Iran's 1980s war with Iraq. They died in Operation Dawn 8, in which Soleimani also took part. It was a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the war that killed 1 million.

The funeral procession in major cities over three days is an unprecedented honor for Soleimani, seen by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force in the face of U.S. pressure.

The U.S. blames him for killing U.S. troops in Iraq. The Trump administration alleges he'd been plotting new attacks just before he was killed.

Many Sunni Muslims in the region, however, view him as a destabilizing figure who commanded dangerous and deadly Shiite proxy militias. Soleimani led forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country's civil war.

Soleimani's slaying prompted Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers while in Iraq, pro-Iranian factions in parliament have pushed to oust American troops from Iraqi soil.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor and Zeke Miller in Washington, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed.

Read the latest from the Mideast's escalating crisis

Huskers sock it to Hawkeyes; Villanova rally leaves Jays blue

Haanif Cheatham, above, and underdog Nebraska took the fight to Iowa on Tuesday night, beating the Hawkeyes 76-70 in Lincoln. In Omaha, Creighton looked poised to earn the national spotlight in building a double-digit lead on No. 16 Villanova. But the Wildcats rallied to snap the Jays' 15-game home win streak. Coverage in Sports

Why is it so hard to track down who is behind all these drone sightings in Nebraska?

Aviation and law enforcement officials, and lots of regular folks, are still trying to untangle the mystery of packs of aircraft spotted flying in formation at night over rural parts of eastern Colorado and western and central Nebraska.

But one drone expert cautioned that not all drone sightings should be lumped together. Drones are becoming increasingly common, for all sorts of uses.

Reports and videos of twinkly lights in the sky have been blowing up on social media — they’re in Lincoln now! They’re flying over Omaha!

But those are most likely separate from the sightings of what appear to be large drones with 6-foot wingspans flying in grid-like patterns, said Matt Waite, the founder of the Drone Journalism Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Are drones invading Omaha? They already have,” Waite said.

Sign up for World-Herald news alerts

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

“Literally thousands of people in Nebraska got drones for Christmas,” he said, and most probably aren’t familiar with Federal Aviation Administration rules that limit night flights. “Your neighbor busting out his drone and flying it around at night is not the same thing as what’s being talked about in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado.”

There, groups of large drones have been spotted buzzing around at night since mid-December, vexing and perplexing residents and county sheriffs who can’t figure out who’s operating the drones or the purpose behind the flights.

On Sunday night, there were sightings in the central Nebraska counties of Hall, Buffalo and Adams, as well as south of Madrid, in Perkins County, about 27 miles from the Colorado border.

The York County Sheriff’s Office and the York Police Department received numerous calls about drones Monday night.

Omaha police said Tuesday morning that they hadn’t received any overnight drone reports. A Lincoln police spokeswoman said someone called and reported having video of a drone, but she doubted that it was related to the ones seen out west.

“I think we’re obviously getting some bleed-over from other stuff,” said Officer Erin Spilker. “They see a drone and call it in.”

There’s plenty of speculation but few answers about what the drones are doing. Conducting covert military operations? Land mapping? (You can probably rule out Iran, Waite said — the sightings started before U.S. forces killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.)

The FAA said in a statement that it has contacted drone companies, drone test sites and companies authorized to operate drones. “We have not determined the source of the reported drone flights,” the FAA said.

Nebraska’s congressional representatives, including Rep. Adrian Smith and Sen. Deb Fischer, said constituents are worried about their privacy and property rights.

“Nebraskans are rightly concerned about the recent drone activity,” Fischer said in a statement Tuesday. “This morning, I spoke with FAA Administrator (Steve) Dickson directly who informed me that, as of now, there are still no answers about who is using these drones. … An investigation is underway and the best thing Nebraskans can do right now is continue to report any drone sightings to law enforcement.”

Officials are clear on one thing: Would-be sharpshooters should not try to shoot them down from the sky. (Try it and you could run afoul of federal law that makes it a felony to destroy or damage aircraft, and there’s a risk of hitting someone with stray gunfire.)

So why is it so hard to track down who’s behind the recent drone sightings?

There are FAA rules that govern drones. People who purchase a drone that weighs more than half a pound and less than 55 pounds are supposed to register it with the FAA for a nominal fee, by submitting their name, email and home address. Commercial drone pilots also must obtain a license to fly.

Drone technology has boomed in recent years, for recreational, commercial and military purposes.

Hobbyists can pick up $50 drones from Target to swoop around their backyard, while retail giants like Amazon want to develop drone delivery services that can drop off packages of toilet paper or dish soap by air.

Farmers can use drones to survey their fields, emergency responders use them for search-and-rescue missions and drones are used to gather military intelligence or conduct airstrikes, said Victor Huang, an assistant professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute.

Nearly 1.5 million drones and 160,000 drone pilots have been registered with the FAA, but plenty of amateurs or enthusiasts don’t necessarily know or follow the requirements, Waite said.

Hobbyists flying a drone around a park don’t need a license, but once drone usage crosses into the commercial realm — aerial photography, for example — pilots are supposed to pass a test and obtain a license.

Last month, the FAA proposed a rule that would require most drones that fly in the United States to have remote tracking technology to quickly identify owners and operators. Proponents point to the need to track down rule-breakers who are flying drones too closely to commercial airline flights, for example. But it will probably be years before any new guidelines are implemented.

Other FAA regulations — which don’t apply to military operations — generally prohibit drones from flying within five miles of an airport, flying at night, flying at an altitude above 400 feet or flying beyond a pilot’s line of sight, according to Huang.

Operators can apply for a waiver to fly drones at night — that’s not unusual, Waite said — but waivers to fly drones remotely, out of a pilot’s sight line, are much harder to obtain.

That’s what it appears the drones in Colorado and Nebraska are doing, so they may be operating without permission.

“Beyond-line-of-sight waivers are exceedingly rare, and if anyone had one or had gotten another one, we would know. It would be news,” Waite said.

The drones described by witnesses are large and seemingly expensive, Waite said. Between the control center and the aircraft, the operations could easily cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

Monday, the Phillips County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office asked the public to be on the lookout for a “command vehicle” from which the drones might be operated.

“We are looking for a closed box trailer with antennas or a large van that does not belong in the area,” a Facebook post said.

If it’s not the military or a military contractor, Waite’s best guess is an oil or gas company trying to map out new terrain — that could explain why the drones are flying in grid patterns. And night flights without sunlight would be preferable if they’re using infrared technology for imaging.

So why won’t anyone fess up?

“They’re probably doing it illegally,” Waite said. “The value of discovering gas in that area outweighs the cost of whatever FAA violation would be coming their way.”

The night flights and remote piloting do suggest an operator who may be bending the rules, Huang said, though he pointed out that military aircraft operate under different regulations.

“Since the first observation or first sighting report … nobody’s really stood up to claim responsibility,” he said. “We just have no clue what’s going on here.”

The Omaha World-Herald’s best images of 2019

Photos: The Omaha World-Herald's best images of 2019