News Brief: Tax Overhaul Progresses, Tillerson On North Korea
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
First, it looked like the GOP tax bill was going to be a done deal by Christmas. Now, who knows?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, things seem a little less certain now. Of course, let's remember. This is supposed to be a major legislative victory for Republicans, but they can only afford to lose two Republican votes in the Senate. And things are starting to look a little shaky. Cue Senator Marco Rubio talking to ABC.
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MARCO RUBIO: Unless they can figure out a way to add to the 1,100 figure, I won't support the bill.
GREENE: Won't support the bill - not exactly what Republicans wanted to hear. Rubio's talking there about the child tax credit. He wants that expanded, or he is threatening, at least, to vote no.
MARTIN: OK, let's bring in NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro. Happy Friday, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Happy Friday. Good morning.
MARTIN: All right, so Rubio is making this demand. What can party leadership do at this point? I mean, do they just give in to Rubio because they don't have a margin for error here?
MONTANARO: Yeah, they're likely going to have to. You know, they have a razor-thin margin. Like you noted, they can only lose two Republican votes. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker is already a no. Losing Rubio and Utah Senator Mike Lee, who's on board with Rubio, would not make passage possible. So that said, squeaky wheels get the oil. And that's likely what we're seeing here. In order to get what you want out of congressional bills...
MONTANARO: ...Sometimes you have to threaten your vote.
MARTIN: Make a little noise.
MONTANARO: And Rubio was annoyed that the president and congressional leaders before this - you might remember - seemed willing to raise the corporate tax rate a point to 21 percent to accommodate a tax cut for the wealthy...
MONTANARO: ...But had told him it was a non-starter to fund the child care credit that he wanted for the poor.
MONTANARO: So now he's taken the opportunity to force their hand.
MARTIN: So you mentioned Bob Corker. I mean, this is not just Rubio though. You got Corker and others expressing concern now.
MONTANARO: Yeah, you know, I mentioned Mike Lee of Utah. He's officially undecided. But he's tied to Rubio, and they're both expected to vote yes once they get around to accommodating them. Perhaps more concerning for Republicans and for everyone else is the health of Senators John McCain and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Cochran had a surgery to remove a non-melanoma lesion from his nose. His office has said that the surgery was more extensive than anticipated. He's missed votes this week. And McCain is suffering from brain cancer and currently hospitalized and receiving treatment for the side effects of chemotherapy.
MARTIN: Susan Collins of Maine has been making noise about the tax bill for a while now. Where is she at in this moment?
MONTANARO: She's likely a yes. You know, she wants these Obamacare stabilization subsidies in the bill. She believes that they'll be put into the government funding legislation in the Senate. It wasn't put in in the House, which started conversation that Collins might be a no. But she believes that it will be in the Senate version.
MARTIN: But even that's not done yet - the government funding bill.
MONTANARO: Right, absolutely not. That has to be done by the end of next week.
MARTIN: So how likely - you say that, yeah, Rubio's making noise. Yeah, there's some health concerns with a couple of people whom - you know, their votes are up in the air just because their physical presence is necessary. How likely is passage of the tax bill by Christmas?
MONTANARO: You know, it's still expected early next week some time. But with the result we saw this week in Alabama with Democrat Doug Jones winning, Republicans not only want to give Trump his first big legislative victory by Christmas, but they probably have to. I mean, Jones will be sworn in right after the New Year - reduce Republicans margins even further. So all of this is like - you know, they want to land this plane, but the whole process has been a little like trying to put it down in a snowstorm.
MARTIN: Right. And so Chuck Schumer's plea - you guys should just wait till Doug Jones gets in office to hold this tax vote. That's not going to happen, right?
MONTANARO: Because they won't be able to pass it.
MARTIN: All right, Domenico Montanaro, political editor for NPR. Thanks so much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: Today, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to address the U.N. Security Council.
GREENE: Yeah, he's going to be talking about how to confront North Korea's nuclear and missile program. And we should remember. This comes just days after Tillerson said he is opening the door for diplomacy with North Korea.
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REX TILLERSON: It's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it. And the president's very realistic about that as well.
MARTIN: Joining us now, NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So just describe this perceived new focus on diplomacy and why this is all happening right now.
KELEMEN: Well, you know, Tillerson and the rest of the administration really have worked on one aspect of the policy for much of this year. That is the pressure track, you know?
KELEMEN: For getting countries to cut ties, scale back diplomatic relations and trade...
MARTIN: Ostracizing North Korea.
KELEMEN: That's right. And, you know, they've had success on that front. But the Security Council resolutions don't just impose sanctions. They also call for a political solution. So you know, if you want to get China to step up the pressure and use influence to press North Korea to negotiate, you got to open the door.
MARTIN: So is that going to happen? I mean, are the wheels in motion to start talks?
KELEMEN: It's unclear whether the North Koreans are ready for this. You know, right now, they're still talking about how if the U.S. tries to seek a naval blockade, that would be an act of war. There's a lot of concern in diplomatic circles that all this tough talk is going to lead to miscalculations. The U.N. secretary general says that there's a danger of sleepwalking into conflict. That's how he put it. He sent a top official, Jeffrey Feltman, to North Korea recently to try to open channels of communication. And Feltman didn't come away with any promises. But he says he was heard at least.
MARTIN: Well, and now you have a question about how much leverage Rex Tillerson actually has. So if he's decided we need to engage with North Korea now - we've been tough, and now we need to talk with them. But he's been undercut by President Trump. I mean, does Tillerson have the standing power to make this happen? There's all these reports that he's going to be out the door.
KELEMEN: That's right. And, you know, everyone is watching that. You know, these comments that he said this week was part of an effort by him to kind of push back on this narrative that he's on his way out the door. He not only spoke to a think tank. He also had a town hall with State Department employees. He talked about plans that he has to visit Africa and Latin America in early 2018. So he's showing no signs that he's on his way out the door yet. And though the White House says they haven't changed their policy on North Korea, we haven't seen that presidential tweet yet totally undercutting Tillerson.
MARTIN: We'll just wait and see - I guess. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much, Michele.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
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MARTIN: It is a big day in Brussels.
GREENE: Yeah, European leaders, including France's Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will decide whether the European Union will begin discussions with the United Kingdom on a future trading relationship. I know this sounds like just talking about whether to talk. But this is actually a pivotal moment in the U.K.'s long and fraught goodbye to the world's largest collective market.
MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt is following the meeting in Brussels. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: How's the vote expected to go?
LANGFITT: It looks like the European Council - these big European leaders are going to approve it. And the reason is the United Kingdom has agreed to pay up to a $50 billion divorce bill - cover things like future payments to the EU budget than it already promised to make - and also agreeing not to build a new border between Northern Ireland, which is a part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent country and part of the EU. But the bottom line is the U.K. met the European Union's demands. So it looks like it's probably going to go forward.
MARTIN: Explain, Frank, why this part of the divorce - the trade piece is so critical to Britain.
LANGFITT: Well, it's really - it's crucial the United Kingdom because this allows them to try to salvage a really important economic relationship for the country. The U.K.'s enjoyed tariff-free access to the giant EU market - more than a half a billion consumers. And voters decided - of course, this was last year - to sever that relationship in that big referendum - the Brexit referendum. The U.K. wants to get as much access to that market back as it can. It's going to be hard though because they don't have a lot of leverage. The EU is clearly in the driver's seat here and not in much mood to compromise.
MARTIN: You sound like you're somewhere, Frank.
LANGFITT: I am. I am.
MARTIN: We can hear traffic in the background.
LANGFITT: (Laughter) I'm on...
MARTIN: Are you in a random place? Or are you somewhere interesting (laughter)?
LANGFITT: No, I'm not in a random place. I'm actually looking up...
MARTIN: What a coincidence - where are you, Frank?
LANGFITT: Yeah, I'm actually looking up at the council building where they're meeting right now. But what's really interesting where I am is there's a giant mural that says - it covers the building. And it says the future of Europe, and it has all of these birds painted on it. And it's a really kind of - how do I put it? - it's a really unusual symbol of an optimism that has begun to take hold here in Brussels. If you go back to the Brexit referendum, the Trump win, people here were very depressed. They were very worried that the European Union would split apart and fall apart. Then we had those votes in the Netherlands and also in France. And right-wing politicians did not win. And these days, honestly, the mood in Brussels is much more optimistic about kind of the future of liberal, democratic, free market capitalism. And that - this mural really, really caught my eye.
MARTIN: You mentioned that - you know, what has been happening with the Brexit - that this already seems like a cautionary tale for the U.K. How so?
LANGFITT: It does. I mean, the government now is bitterly divided. There's some in the cabinet who want a sharp break from the EU - others who want to stay as close as possible. Earlier this week, another kind of rebellion in Prime Minister Theresa May's Tory party - one of the people who was involved in it got a death threat. And, you know, it's not the sort of thing you see normally in U.K. policy. The other thing is shaken confidence in the U.K. economy. The currency is down. Inflation is rising. And the U.K. economy, since the Brexit vote, it's slipped from the fifth to sixth largest in the world. So a lot of pressure over in the U.K.
MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Brussels. Thanks so much, Frank.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel.
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