News Brief: GOP Health Bill Vote Postponed, Iran Sentences U.S. Citizen
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So we begin another week, and there's another setback for the Republicans in their effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chose to delay a vote to start debate. He needs every vote he can get. And Sen. John McCain is not available. He's recovering from surgery.
GREENE: Yeah, surgery to remove a blood clot - though it sounds like he's doing better, right?
INSKEEP: Yeah, well, from what we hear, anyway. He's described as being back at home and in good spirits. You'll recall that Sen. McCain is 80, still pretty vigorous despite a hard life, including torture in a Vietnamese cell. He's remained at the center of public life for many, many years. Don't know how long he's going to be away.
But any delay here gives time to the health bill's critics including, by the way, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who criticized the cuts to Medicaid yesterday on CNN.
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SUSAN COLLINS: That would affect some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including disabled children, poor seniors. It would affect our rural hospitals and our nursing homes.
GREENE: Now, NPR's Scott Detrow has been following this whole debate on Capitol Hill. He's with us this morning. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So you listen to Susan Collins there. Other critics have used this moment to come out and express doubts about this bill. What does the path forward look like?
DETROW: It is very unclear. Remember that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to get this done as quickly as possible. He wanted to get it done before the July Fourth break because he did not want this measure lingering.
GREENE: Yeah, it's lingering.
DETROW: It is definitely lingering now. So this could be a week. It could be longer. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said they will vote as soon as John McCain is back. But remember, it's being delayed because there are already two Republicans saying they are opposed to this bill.
And there's no margin for error. We still have several key swing votes who have not announced a position. Susan Collins said over the weekend, that is eight to 10 Republicans who have not made up their mind on this bill.
GREENE: OK, so the number's still uncertain. We always get - when we've gone through this the last few times, Scott - that CBO score, the Congressional Budget Office scoring the number of people who might lose their insurance and so forth - is that going to happen again? And what could that mean for this?
DETROW: Yeah, later this week - and the thing that has really jumped out and stuck in the public before is that estimate of how many people would be without insurance one year down the line, 10 years down the line.
The last time around, it was 22 million people. It's been in that range several estimates in a row. So that's a key thing to look for - also, questions about what this does for costs and how these changes would affect people with pre-existing conditions.
GREENE: An interesting moment because governors watching this whole debate very closely - and they gathered at a National Governors Association conference. Was this bill a big topic there?
DETROW: It was. Vice President Mike Pence came up to talk to them. Several members of the administration were up there trying to pitch it. But, you know, the governors did not love it, especially how this scales back Medicaid spending, something the new draft didn't really change.
Many states expanded Medicaid and would be on the hook to either pay for that coverage, or figure out how to help constituents who suddenly would not have health care. That is not a position a governor wants to be in. So one key voice is Brian Sandoval, the governor of Nevada. Watch his response.
INSKEEP: Can I just mention that all of this is being delayed because of John McCain's health? But it's not entirely clear that, when McCain returns, that he's a yes vote. He's made a statement saying that while he would really like it if there was some kind of bipartisan consensus - we'll see how this turns out - he hasn't said he's a no vote either, as I understand it. But it's not clear exactly where McCain would stand.
GREENE: A lot to watch for. And NPR's Scott Detrow, I'm quite sure we'll be talking about this a lot more. Thanks, Scott.
DETROW: Probably. Thanks.
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GREENE: So we now know what happened to an American grad student who disappeared months ago in Iran. An Iranian news outlet is saying that he has been sentenced to jail in Iran for 10 years.
INSKEEP: He's been in custody for some time. And his supporters had kept his case quiet, hoping for a resolution. But now the Iranian authorities have spoken. He's from Princeton University. His name is Xiyue Wang, and he was doing research for his Ph.D., we're told. And he was picked up by Iranian authorities and accused of spying.
It is claimed by the Iranians that he obtained, quote, "highly confidential articles", whatever that means, for Princeton and other entities. The U.S. State Department has said the charges are fabricated.
GREENE: And let's bring in NPR's Peter Kenyon here, who's in Istanbul following this. Peter, what exactly happened here?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, according to Iran's Mizan news agency, a judiciary spokesman says, Wang came to Iran, quote, "for infiltration purposes," that he wanted access to the Iranian archives and to thousands of pages of Iranian documents. They claim he was working, quote, "for American and British institutions." Now, the Tasnim News Agency - this is the one that has ties to Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps - they refer to Wang as the American spy.
Princeton issued a statement saying it's very distressed by all this, by Wang's arrest and his sentencing. School says he was a fourth-year doctoral candidate researching the Persian Qajar dynasty for his doctorate. Now, this is a dynasty that was in power from the late 18th century to the early 20th. So it's kind of hard to see what the relevance is here.
And as you mentioned, the State Department did issue a statement, but it was very brief. They often don't go into any details about these kind of cases.
GREENE: It's just hard to imagine doing that kind of research and not having to dig into the archives in a country. What - is this strange, unusual - the arrest and sentencing of a U.S. citizen in Iran?
KENYON: It is, a bit. I mean, most recent cases that we're familiar with have involved Iranian-Americans. Tehran doesn't recognize dual citizenship. They just go ahead and try them as Iranians. In the past few years, we've seen businessmen - Siamak Namazi, his father, Baquer - he was in his 80s - they're both being held.
The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian was arrested in 2014, charged with espionage. He finally was released in a prisoner exchange right around the time the nuclear agreement was being signed. So this is a little different, in that respect.
INSKEEP: Well - and we have his other high-profile case, the arrest of the brother of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani - any sort of connection here at all?
KENYON: No, absolutely no connection between these two cases. Rouhani's younger brother and adviser - his name is Hossein Fereydoun - he's long been a target of Iranian hard-liners. Hard-line media have launched kind of vague accusations of corruption and financial wrongdoing. But it's his connection to the president that really seems to matter here.
The hard-liners, you remember, were badly beaten by Rouhani and moderates and reformers in this year's elections. And they seem to want some revenge. And, of course, Rouhani doesn't control large sections of the government. So they seem to be trying to make Rouhani's second term in office as difficult as possible.
INSKEEP: Because Iran's justice system is not so transparent, it's widely presumed that cases like this are somewhat fake and designed to send a message to different people. It's still mysterious what the message would be in the case of the conviction of the Chinese American, although the message being sent by the arrest of Rouhani's brother is hard to miss.
GREENE: Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks as always.
KENYON: Thanks, David.
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GREENE: All right, so legally, this vote in Venezuela yesterday meant nothing. But it sure sent a message to the government.
INSKEEP: Yeah, more than 98 percent of voters indicated that they do not want President Nicolas Maduro to rewrite the country's constitution in order to give himself more power. Now, this was an informal vote organized by Maduro's opponents. So you'd mostly show up if you were opposed to him.
But with that said, Maduro's party has done really badly in recent real elections. He's faced many months of protests amid shortages of food and medicine and jobs.
GREENE: NPR's Philip Reeves joins us. And Phil, 7 million people come out for a vote that wasn't supposed to matter officially. What - so what is the meaning of this?
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, that's a lot of people. I mean, it's about just under a third of the number of Venezuelans who are registered to vote. The outcome, as Steve highlighted, is not surprising, given the deep unpopularity of Maduro - and the unpopularity, if you believe the polls, of his plan to establish a constitutional assembly that will rewrite the constitution.
The number - 7 million's actually very slightly less than Maduro himself got in 2015. But it is a big number, especially given the potential for violence yesterday, which did occur, by the way. One woman - a nurse, age 61 - was shot dead when men on motorbikes opened fire into a crowd of Venezuelans at a polling booth.
GREENE: Yeah, it's such a tense time in Venezuela with this political unrest and food shortages. And now you have Maduro trying to say that he wants to rewrite the constitution to fix this. This vote happens. What do Maduro's supporters say about this vote?
REEVES: Well, Maduro himself has been characterizing it is a meaningless internal exercise by the opposition coalition. He's telling them to calm down. And he characterizes this constitutional assembly that he's creating as a body that's going to bring peace and end the political crisis in Venezuela.
The opposition point out, though, that the way that somebody's going to be elected guarantees it'll be packed with Maduro, you know, supporters, party supporters. And they fear that it will then go on to destroy what remains of the democratic institutions in Venezuela - notably, the national legislature, which has been undermined by the Supreme Court for a very long time now.
But they're worried that'll be eliminated, and there'll be no more elections and Venezuela will become an all-out dictatorship.
GREENE: Wow. So it sounds like this vote is not going to change Maduro's plans to rewrite the constitution or move forward with this at all.
REEVES: Well, I think they hope that this will lead to a lot of pressure on him to cancel the vote. We don't know whether he will. International pressure will likely intensify. And they're trying to undermine the credibility of the exercise and perhaps create rifts, which are believed to exist within the establishment, although large rifts have yet to emerge.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Philip Reeves covering the unrest and political crisis in Venezuela. Phil, thanks as always.
REEVES: You're welcome.
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