News Brief: Voting Rights, Budget Agreement, Assassination Investigation
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How far will Democrats go to support what they call a fundamental priority?
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
President Biden yesterday denounced new voting restrictions as 21st-century Jim Crow laws. That refers to the era when poll taxes, tests or simply violence prevented most Black people from voting. The new ballot security laws by Republican legislators don't explicitly target race, but they do add new penalties and restrictions. They pander to Republicans who believe what Joe Biden has called Donald Trump's big lie, that former President Trump didn't lose last year's election. In an interview, Vice President Kamala Harris told NPR she has no doubt of the purpose.
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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I do believe that in many of these states, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so that they won't vote. And this is then about attempts to take the power from the people. And we all need to stand and say, we will not allow this to happen on our watch.
INSKEEP: The vice president spoke with NPR's Asma Khalid, who's on the line. Good morning.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK. The vice president says we won't allow this to happen. But do Democrats have any power to stop Republicans who are doing what they're doing in key states?
KHALID: Well, Steve, that's actually exactly where I began our interview. Democrats do have their own legislation before Congress which would set some federal standards for state elections, but they don't have the votes for those bills. Legislation has been stuck for months, and progressives have been urging the administration to do more. The vice president told me that in lieu of congressional action, she feels like there's still a lot they can do at the ground level, like coalition building.
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HARRIS: It includes resources and attention being given to registering people to vote, to educating people about what's at stake and what is actually happening in terms of the threats to their rights. It's about turning out voters.
KHALID: You know, and she said it's also about voter education and voter protection. Throughout our interview, it really sounded like the Biden administration is banking on voter turnout as the primary solution to counter GOP laws in states that are restricting voting.
INSKEEP: Which is a straightforward answer - just motivate people to overcome the barriers that have been put up, to refuse to be deterred, to show up at the more limited hours that are given them or whatever else. But is that also an acknowledgement that the new federal protections that Democrats want are just really unlikely to pass?
KHALID: Well, to pass that, they'd have to change Senate filibuster rules. Republicans blocked this sweeping election overhaul bill over the summer earlier, and that's renewed calls for Democrats to ditch the filibuster, though I should say, Steve, you know, some key Democrats do remain opposed.
KHALID: I asked her about something that Congressman Jim Clyburn has proposed, which would carve out exceptions for constitutional issues like voting. Here's what the vice president said.
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HARRIS: I believe that, of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights. And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities. Now, the members of the Senate are going to have to address this, and we're going to continue to work to find a path forward, no matter how difficult. And obviously, it's going to require all the Democrats to - in the Senate - to agree with that approach.
KHALID: You know, I pressed her on this, and she acknowledged she's discussed the issue with senators, but she would not go into details.
INSKEEP: Can I just ask - President Biden has cast his own presidency as an effort, really, to save America after the Trump presidency. Does the administration sense that presidency is on the line here in the next couple of elections?
KHALID: Well, the administration does equate the presidency, I would say, itself of Joe Biden with democracy itself. So, you know, the president speaks about democracy being on the line here. There is this interesting juxtaposition where the administration is saying that what is happening is essentially election subversion in some of these states. Yet they're trying to boost voter turnout in those very elections.
INSKEEP: Asma, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.
KHALID: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid.
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INSKEEP: Senate Democrats say they have reached an agreement on a budget blueprint.
PFEIFFER: This would normally not be big news. After all, it's part of the mechanics of Congress, approving an overall spending plan for spending $3.5 trillion. But there's a lot of power in how that money is spent. And most important, unlike other bills, the Senate can pass it with Democratic votes alone. Here's Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last night.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: Every major program that President Biden has asked us for is funded in a robust way.
INSKEEP: What is known about this late-breaking deal - with NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Three-point-five trillion. Why that?
DAVIS: That's a little bit of money, right?
DAVIS: Well, it's far less than progressives like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wanted. They were hoping to get closer to 6 trillion, but it's probably the maximum of what they could agree to and keep moderate Democrats on board. One of those moderates, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who also sits on the Budget Committee, says it will be fully paid for. We obviously don't know the exact details of how Democrats plan to pay for it, but they have been saying for months that they plan to roll back some portion of the Trump tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it.
INSKEEP: Which is something that Republicans have not wanted to do at all. But can Democrats also roll back taxes in this provision with only Democratic votes?
DAVIS: Well, that's going to be a key question here, right? You know, they are doing this in a way that will exclude Republicans from the process, although Republicans have been very clear from the beginning that they don't have much interest or share these goals. So it's going to require essentially 100% Democratic unity to keep all 50 senators on board for this plan. It's part of the reason why the president's headed up there today, to sort of rally support behind it.
INSKEEP: OK. To the extent that it's known, what is in this measure in terms of policy?
DAVIS: Well, the only specific that Schumer announced last night is an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, vision and health benefits. That unto itself is a pretty big deal. That's a big ask. Schumer said it was specifically included to keep Bernie Sanders on board. This has been a top priority for him. We do know broadly what they want to do. This plan has been outlined by President Biden in his American Families Plan. They want it to include things like universal pre-K education, free community college and subsidized child care. Democrats are also looking at including policies to combat climate change in there and even maybe overhaul the immigration system. Senators like Sanders have been very clear that they see this bill basically as an opportunity to reshape the way that the government works in Americans' lives and to redirect wealth away from the rich and more towards the poor and working class.
INSKEEP: Well, what happens next?
DAVIS: Well, first, this has to be put into a budget resolution that has to be passed by both the House and Senate - again, expected to pass only with Democratic votes. Schumer says he wants to do this before the August recess. It's a pretty ambitious timeline. He also wants to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that's already working its way through Congress. So it's a lot to do. If and when this resolution is passed, then respective committees go to work writing the actual legislation that will hit that $3.5 trillion target. That's probably not going to happen until the fall, realistically. So this is a process - this could likely fill out the rest of 2021. But again, getting this agreement is a big step forward in advancing one of the top priorities for the president.
INSKEEP: Although, as you note, they haven't actually written the bill yet - good to know. Sue, thanks so much.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.
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INSKEEP: OK. So many questions are still unanswered as an investigation continues into the murder of Haiti's president, Jovenel Moise.
PFEIFFER: Haitian officials have replaced the most senior members of the presidential security detail due to their actions the night Moise was killed. In the meantime, plans for the president's funeral are underway, and police are still searching for additional suspects.
INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and joins us now. Jason, good morning.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
INSKEEP: I just want to remind - many listeners will know you've been to Haiti many times over the years, which gives...
INSKEEP: ...You a particular perspective. What's it like to be there now?
BEAUBIEN: Well, things are definitely quite tense. And, you know, obviously with the pandemic and whatnot, I haven't been here for a while. It is much tenser than I have ever seen it before. Basically come into the airport, come straight to the hotel. The hotel is under lockdown. There's got chains across the gate on the front. You know, the border with the Dominican Republic remains shut. Flights in and out of the country are still quite limited in terms of even getting in here. You know, but it has been a week since this assassination, and things are definitely starting to come back to life. Businesses are reopening - shops, you know, little markets along the side of the street, just still some problems with gasoline, gas lines out there. And trash has always been a challenge here, but it did seem like there were quite a few trash fires burning as we sort of moved through the city to come over here. But compared to the days immediately after the assassination, when things were completely locked down, the streets were empty, things are definitely starting to come back to life.
INSKEEP: I feel a need to ask what you mean by lockdown at your hotel. Do you mean that nobody can come in or that you, yourself, are very limited in being able to go out?
BEAUBIEN: Basically, I couldn't even have visitors come into the hotel, people that I wanted to talk to. If I wanted to talk to somebody, I needed to go outside of the hotel. They're not taking in any new guests. Things are just, yeah, basically shut down.
INSKEEP: OK. Let's talk about the news here. We just heard that senior members of the president's security detail have been replaced, which I guess is not terribly surprising given what happened. But what was the reasoning?
BEAUBIEN: You know, the head of the Haitian National Police, he says these are precautionary measures. But he is saying that they're continuing to investigate what degree of involvement each of these entities had. You know, it's the presidential security unit. It's the team from the national police that were in charge of that and the presidential palace, general security, the top people there. The big question is - how did these killers, you know, whoever they were, manage to get into the presidential residence, kill him and somehow none of the security were injured or killed in the incident? And that is raising a lot of questions here about what happened, what they knew, what they didn't know - were they involved? So there's concern there.
INSKEEP: Even bigger question on my mind - who's really running the country now?
BEAUBIEN: So Claude Joseph was the prime minister at the time when the assassination occurred. He has basically taken power, and he is standing in and acting as if he's the interim leader. However, you're getting other people who aren't recognizing that. You've got Ariel Henry. He's a neurosurgeon. He was named to be the prime minister and was supposed to be replacing Joseph at the time that the assassination occurred. Then you've got people from the Senate basically saying that the leader of the Senate, Joseph Lambert, he should be the acting president. You even had one of the country's most powerful gang members hold a press conference over the weekend. And he was saying that he believes that the people need to take to the streets and demand justice for this cowardly act by the foreign mercenaries. So you're getting all kinds of people coming forward saying that they're in charge and they're the ones who should be calling the shots.
INSKEEP: Jason, we'll keep listening for your reporting. Thanks so much.
BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.