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Lincoln East’s Nic Swift (right) is caught in the grasp of Kearney’s Hunter Nagatani in the 113-pound match on Thursday at Kearney High Auditorium.

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Fischer gives Trump a 'B' grade that falls short on trade

Sen. Deb Fischer said Thursday she would give President Donald Trump a "B" for performance as he reaches the halfway point of his four-year term, withholding a higher grade essentially because of his policies on trade.

But Fischer, who was sworn in earlier in the day to launch her second six-year term in the Senate, said she is "excited about agreement on the new NAFTA," the revised trade compact negotiated by the United States, Canada and Mexico that has been tagged with the new name of USMCA. 

"We have differences, obviously, on trade," Fischer said during a telephone interview from Washington.

"And I have not been completely talked into (supporting) a space force yet."

However, Nebraska's senior Republican senator said "I think the president has good accomplishments" to point to after two years in the White House.

Trump's protective trade policies and imposition of new U.S. tariffs have had a negative impact on U.S. agriculture by reducing foreign markets for farm products. 

A recent study by the Nebraska Farm Bureau estimated that retaliatory tariffs triggered by new U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs led to between $700 million and $1 billion in lost farm income in Nebraska this past year.

Fischer gave Trump good marks on his strong support for beefed-up national security and national defense, his "excellent job" in appointing conservative federal judges and for the strong working relationship she has been able to forge with the White House.

"By any measure, our military needs to be built up," she said, although she continues to have doubts about Trump's proposal for creation of a new military space force. 

Fischer is the third-most senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairman of its subcommittee on strategic forces, which has jurisdiction over nuclear and strategic forces.

Modernization of the nuclear deterrent will be "a focus and a priority," she said.

In the new Congress, Fischer will retain her chairmanship of the surface transportation subcommittee of the Commerce Committee along with her seat on the Agriculture Committee.

Fischer said she will be focused on "following through on projects" already in the works, including construction of new VA medical facilities in Omaha and Lincoln, along with new runway construction at Offutt Air Force Base.

"Infrastructure will be a priority" in the new Congress, she said, and she will center on roads and broadband deployment.

Fischer said infrastructure modernization and improvement offers a good opportunity for bipartisan agreement in what now is a divided Congress, although she believes "that may be easier to accomplish in the Senate than in the House."

The Senate remains controlled by a Republican majority, but the House has moved to Democratic control.

"I hope we can continue to work together as we did on the new farm bill," Fischer said.

However, she said, "I don't see a way forward right now. People aren't talking (and) this could go on a while. We need to see friends on the other side start talking."

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds the gavel Thursday at the Capitol in Washington.

Pelosi sees 'new dawn' for 116th Congress

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, Natives 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."

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Wanted: 150 Purple Heart recipients for a free trip to Washington

The last time Kodey Kerkman was on a plane surrounded by soldiers, he was returning from a dangerous deployment in Iraq.

His O’Neill-based 755th Chemical Company had spent nearly a year protecting military convoys trying to get from base to base.

“We were exposed to all of the elements — roadside bombs, small-arms fire,” the former Nebraska National Guardsman from Atkinson said. “We were out there on the roads, outside of the bases.”

And in harm’s way. Midway through his tour, the Humvee he was in was ripped apart when it hit a roadside bomb near Balad. Another soldier from Atkinson, Sgt. Jacob Schmuecker, was killed in the attack. Kerkman was hospitalized with burns but ultimately returned to the road.

A decade later, the Purple Heart he earned that day has become a ticket to Washington. Because the next time Kerkman is on a plane surrounded by soldiers, he’ll be part of the Nebraska Purple Heart Flight, which will carry more than 150 veterans on a free, daylong trip to visit the nation’s war memorials and monuments.

Courtesy photo 

Kodey Kerkman returned from Iraq with a Purple Heart after the Humvee he was in was torn apart by a roadside bomb. The Atkinson native plans to go to Washington in May on the Nebraska Purple Heart Flight.

“I’ve never been there,” Kerkman said. “My hope would be other people from my actual unit would be signing up for this as well. It would be nice to catch up with them.”

The May 24 flight is open to Purple Heart recipients from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to those who earned the Bronze Star with a V for valor, the highest decorated combat vets, in the same wars.

The flight is the latest trip hosted by Bill and Evonne Williams, whose Patriotic Productions nonprofit has taken more than 3,500 Nebraskans — veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam — to Washington. In September, they took 135 on a women-only flight.

Previous flights filled quickly, with the couple often scrambling to raise money to charter additional jets. In 2014, for instance, they took 450 Korean vets to Washington in one day.

The couple already found funding for the Purple Heart plane; Sandhills Publishing donated the roughly $85,000 charter cost. But interest in this trip is starting more slowly than others, with about a dozen applicants so far.

They hope to have all the spots filled by March. “We haven’t pushed it very hard. But we’ve got room,” Bill Williams said. “We want every seat taken, of course.”

The trip will roughly follow past itineraries, with visits to the memorials to World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force and Marine Corps War memorials.

The Purple Heart vets will also see the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the Pentagon. And the couple made more changes. Also aboard the flight will be Gold Star children, who lost a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They’ll visit the memorials with the vets, but then they’ll see the Remembering Our Fallen Tribute Towers at the Lincoln Memorial. The traveling photo exhibit — another project of Bill and Evonne Williams — has toured the country since summer 2017, honoring more than 5,000 U.S. military members killed in the war on terror.

“That’s going to be a powerful scene,” Bill Williams said. “The Nebraska entourage walking among those towers, the kids looking for Dad’s pictures.”

The couple also reworked the homecoming celebration. In the past, crowds would gather at the airport to cheer the returning vets. This time, the Nebraskans will ride trolleys from the Omaha airport and start a mini-parade through the Old Market, led by a marching band.

They hope the streets are lined with people. And on a Friday night before the Memorial Day weekend, the crowds should be there, Bill Williams said.

The trip will end at the Durham Museum, the former Union Station. A fitting end to the long day, he said.

“It has history of vets coming home through the train station. And we wanted them to walk through that.”

Peak smartphone era could be done

NEW YORK — Behind Apple's disconcerting news of weak iPhone sales lies a more sobering truth: The tech industry has hit Peak Smartphone, a tipping point when everyone who can afford one already owns one and no breakthroughs are compelling them to upgrade as frequently as they once did.

Some manufacturers have boosted prices to keep up profit. But Apple's shortfall highlights the limits of that strategy. The company said demand for iPhones is waning and revenue for the last quarter of 2018 will fall well below projections, a decrease traced mainly to China.

Apple's shares dropped 10 percent Thursday on the news — its worst loss since 2013. The company shed $74.6 billion in market value, amid a broader sell-off among technology companies, which suffered their worst loss in seven years.

Apple's news is a "wakeup call for the industry," said analyst Dan Ives of research firm Wedbush Securities.

And it's not just Apple. Demand has been lackluster across the board, Ives said. Samsung, long the leading seller of smartphones, has been hit even harder, as its phone shipments dropped 8 percent during the 12 months ending in September.

"The smartphone industry is going through significant headwinds, "Ives said. "Smartphone makers used to be like teenagers, and the industry was on fire. Now it feels like they're more like senior citizens in terms of maturity."

Tech innovations in phones grew in leaps and bounds earlier in the 2010s, with dramatic improvements in screen size, screen resolution, battery life, cameras and processor speed every year.

But the industry is a victim of its own success. Innovation began to slow down around 2014, once Apple boosted the screen size with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models. While phones kept improving, new features tended to be incremental, such as a new flash technique to already excellent phone cameras. It's the stuff consumers won't typically notice — or want to shell out for.

"Since the iPhone 6 you've seen it has been tough to innovate to continue to raise the bar," Ives said.

Apple customers now upgrade every 33 months on average, longer than the 24 or 25 months three years ago, he said.

Apple's diminished growth projections, fueled by plummeting sales in China, have reinforced fears the world's second-largest economy is losing steam. Its $1,000 iPhone is a tough sell to Chinese consumers unnerved by an economic slump and the trade war with the U.S. They also have a slew of cheaper smartphones from homegrown competitors such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo to choose from.

The fact that even Apple's iPhone juggernaut is suffering cements a larger trend for all major smartphone makers. After a steady rise for a decade, worldwide smartphone shipments fell 3 percent to 1.42 billion in 2018, the first annual drop, according to International Data Corp., which tracks such movements. IDC estimates that shipments will rebound 3 percent in 2019 to 1.46 billion, but that still falls short of 2017 levels.

It doesn't help that top phones come with four-digit price tags — $1,100 for the iPhone XS Max and $1,000 for Samsung'a Galaxy Note 9. The top-end Max model sells for $1,450 in the U.S.

"They're getting more and more expensive while offering fewer and fewer new, innovative features that I'll actually use," said Zachary Pardes, a tech-savvy 31-year-old in Fairfield, Connecticut. "I'll upgrade when the battery stops working. When I'm forced to buy a new phone, I'll buy a new phone."

Vivian Yang, a manager at a Beijing technology company, also balked at the price. "Nobody needs such a phone," she said.

IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said the cycle might bottom out and start growing again in 2021 or 2022, when people's current phones start reaching the end of their useful life. "People will still replace their phones. It's going to happen eventually," he said.

But there's no "silver bullet" that will spur growth to levels seen in the past when the industry was less mature.

Foldable smartphones, with screens that unfold like a wallet to increase display size, are one thing that could spur excitement, but they're expensive and not due out until at least the end of the year.

Another thing that might spur growth: 5G, the next-generation that telecom companies are currently in the process of building, expected to be faster and more reliable than the current 4G network. The first 5G compatible phones are due out this year.

"There's more pressure on 5G as the next-wave smartphone," since sales are so lackluster, said Ives. "There will be a battle royale for 5G phones."

But 5G will take years for broad, nationwide deployment, so the new 5G smartphones coming out this year are not likely to make much of a splash immediately either.

Analysts say smartphone makers need to push into under-saturated areas like Africa and elsewhere, and also sell more services like cloud storage, streaming music and phone software. But the glory days of untrammeled growth appear to be over.

"It's going to be a slow slog," Llamas said. "By no means is this the end of the smartphone market. But this is an indication that the smartphone market can be a victim of its own success."