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News Brief: Funding Bill Blocked, R. Kelly's Conviction, Murder Rate Surges


The federal government could shut down in just three days.


Yeah, a vote failed in the Senate last night that would have avoided a shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blamed Republicans.


CHUCK SCHUMER: I cannot emphasize that this isn't just another political game. We're facing a parade of horribles that will hurt every single American in this country.

KING: Congress has to meet deadlines this week to keep the government open and to stop the U.S. from defaulting on its debts.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following this story. All right - so walk us through this vote that failed last night. What exactly happened?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Republicans blocked Democrats from taking up stopgap funding legislation to keep the government running past the end of the fiscal year, which will be reached at midnight on Thursday. The bill also suspended the debt limit, something Republicans had vowed to oppose, even as the limit could be reached next month. So in a procedural Senate vote, not one Republican joined Democrats to move forward on this bill, falling short in this evenly divided Senate from the 60 votes needed.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Republicans warned that they would block this vote, so this can't be a surprise.

GRISALES: Right. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had warned for months that the debt limit was a Democrats-only problem. He reiterated that on the floor last night.


MITCH MCCONNELL: There's no chance Republicans will help lift Democrats' credit limit so they can immediately steamroll through a socialist binge that will hurt families.

GRISALES: So McConnell is referring to Democrats' proposed $3.5 trillion social spending bill there. But we should note this was expected to get taken up in the House this week. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats last night that would not be the case. That said, Republicans maintain they'll support keeping the government open, but not raising its borrowing power.

MARTÍNEZ: That's a lot of political gamesmanship.

GRISALES: Exactly - and quite the blame game, too. Democrats had hoped Republicans would blink on this. If not, the GOP would own the fallout. But Republicans say the fault actually falls on Democrats since they control the House, the Senate and the White House. And there's some polling that's on their side when it comes to how Americans view this crisis.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So where does this leave Democrats now? What's next for them?

GRISALES: So they're scrambling. Schumer said after the failed vote that the Senate will take action this week to prevent a shutdown and work on preventing that default next month. But to do that, they'll need to revamp legislation first to keep the government open. So in order to reach that 60-vote threshold required in the Senate - that is, getting 10 Republicans to vote with Democrats - they'll need to remove the debt limit provision from this legislation and move it through Congress and to Biden's desk in three days' time if they want to avert a shutdown on Thursday.

Then they'll also need to quickly address how to suspend the debt limit in time next month. One possibility is to attach it to Democrats' social spending bill, which, as we noted, is still being negotiated and will take more time to resolve to raise the suspense in the end on whether they can indeed meet this goal by next month or face a financial crisis.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So those are some pretty massive concerns. And that's not the end of the uncertain votes in Congress this week.

GRISALES: Right. House Democrats will vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. This is something that has been negotiated by both parties, and they're going to be negotiating on that $3.5 trillion spending bill to see if they can reach an ultimate deal there. That said, these two bills, Democrats had hoped to move in tandem. And now that that's not a possibility, it's not entirely clear whether both of these bills will ultimately pass.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you for having me.


MARTÍNEZ: Now, we want to warn listeners this segment deals with sexual abuse. Robert Sylvester Kelly, better known as R. Kelly, was found guilty yesterday of racketeering and sex trafficking in a federal court in New York.

KING: Eleven people accused him of sexual coercion and exploitation. Here's U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis talking after the verdict.


JACQUELYN KASULIS: To the victims in this case, your voices were heard, and justice was finally served.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Andrew Limbong has been following the trial. Andrew, tell us about the convictions.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: So - yeah, like you said, he was found guilty of all charges. And those charges can be split into two categories, right? So in one section, you have the racketeering, which puts them at the head of a criminal enterprise. So that means that Kelly and his assistants and bodyguards and drivers all working together to use, like, R. Kelly's fame as a musician to lure potential victims of crimes. And those crimes include everything from sexual exploitation of children to bribery and forced labor. And now, in the second category, those are the Mann Act violations, which involved the transportation of women and girls across state lines to engage in illegal sexual activity. And during witness testimony, you know, we heard stories of him arranging flights for his victims, like, to and from his home in Illinois and to and from, like, different concerts across the country and to and from their homes.

MARTÍNEZ: What was the defense's reaction to this?

LIMBONG: Well, throughout all the trial, the defense had been painting the accusers as, like, liars and opportunists who didn't have a consistent story. Here's Kelly's defense attorney, Deveraux Cannick, outside the courtroom yesterday, sort of continuing that argument.


DEVERAUX CANNICK: When you go over the discovery, you saw witness after witnesses giving three, four, five different versions as to what they said happened here.

LIMBONG: And he also said that the government was, like, cherry-picking facts to form a narrative, which - one that was set by the 2019 Lifetime docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly," which put a lot of these crimes back into the public eye.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's next, then, for R. Kelly?

LIMBONG: Well, we just wait for his sentencing. That hearing is scheduled for May. He faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years, and that could go up to life in prison. Now, he's also got another federal trial upcoming in Illinois. That one involves producing and receiving child pornography, enticing minors to engage in sexual activity and obstruction of justice. And of course, yesterday's conviction will definitely, like, hang over that trial when it happens.

MARTÍNEZ: Thing is, though, I mean, R. Kelly was and still is a huge figure in music. I mean, do you see that changing?

LIMBONG: It's hard to tell, right? I mean, like, the hashtag #MuteRKelly sort of grassroots campaign had gotten some success and, you know, even more so after that "Surviving R. Kelly" docuseries came out. Right? A bunch of Kelly's music got pulled from radio stations, and he was deemed, like, culturally toxic. Like, in recent years, such stars such as like Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga have distanced themselves and apologized for ever even working with him. But yeah, he still gets millions of listeners. I just checked on Spotify, and he's listed there as having 4.8 million monthly listeners there.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Andrew Limbong. Andrew, thanks a lot.

LIMBONG: Thank you.


MARTÍNEZ: All right. New data released by the FBI show an unprecedented spike in murders nationwide in 2020.

KING: That's right. Homicides rose by almost 30% last year compared to 2019. That's the largest single-year increase ever recorded in the U.S. - although, worth noting, the murder rate is still lower in this country than it was in the 1990s.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now. Ryan, tell us about this FBI crime data.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, the headline here is pretty sobering. The data show 21,570 murders in 2020. That's 4,900 more than in 2019. So you said at the top, that's almost a 30% year-on-year increase. Richard Rosenfeld is a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Here's what he had to say about that.

RICHARD ROSENFELD: That's historically unprecedented. A percentage increase of that magnitude in a single year has simply never been recorded to my knowledge. So that's very troubling.

LUCAS: Now, the spike in murders, of course, is bad, but there is good news here. Not all violent crime increased. Robberies, for example, were down. Property crimes, which accounts for most crime in the U.S., dropped by 8% in 2020. That continues a long-running downward trend. But that spike in murders, it's glaring, it's jarring, and it's, of course, a serious problem.

MARTÍNEZ: I think probably the question everyone has here is, why did this happen?

LUCAS: Well, it's difficult to attribute causality because often local factors drive crime, and we're talking about nationwide statistics here. But 2020 was unusual in that two things really did touch every community in the country - the pandemic and the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. And those two things coincided with a dramatic increase in murders. Researchers say that certainly points to some sort of connection. But Rosenfeld said several things could have contributed to this - economic hardship caused by COVID-19, police pulling back because of the pandemic, trust in the police cratering in many communities because of Floyd's killing. And also, research shows that more people were carrying firearms in public. And the FBI data show a gun of some sort was used in around 77% of these murders, which is the highest number on record. So all of these things could have factored in, but their exact connection at this point is still unclear.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you talk about the pandemic and the civil unrest being nationwide phenomenons. Was this spike in murders a nationwide thing as well, or was it just limited in scope?

LUCAS: Well, according to the FBI data, this was very much a nationwide thing. Murders were up in small towns and big cities and really everything in between. And that's a shift from what happened back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, big cities like New York and Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., were driving the national murder rate. In 2020, it really was happening everywhere. But look; the homicide rate and the overall crime rate, even with this spike, is still significantly lower than it was in those peaks in the 1990s.

MARTÍNEZ: Ryan, what about this year, though? Has the surge in murders continued into 2021?

LUCAS: We don't have FBI data for 2021 yet. We won't until next September. But Rosenfeld has compiled preliminary data from several dozen big cities. Here's what he said.

ROSENFELD: What we're beginning to see is that that homicide increase that began last year, it has not disappeared. But it is or does appear to be subsiding.

LUCAS: He said the data show a 16% increase in murder in the first six months of 2021. That, of course, is not great, but it is a rate that's less than the 30% that we saw in 2020. And that, Rosenfeld said, is at least a small cause for optimism.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. At least there is some optimism. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.