News Brief: Senate Panel To Vote On Pompeo Nomination, Nicaragua Protests
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When it comes to voting in Congress, the majority typically rules. But supporters of Mike Pompeo on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have to find a way to get him confirmed without one.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Right. Now, Pompeo is President Trump's choice for secretary of state. The committee is the first to consider his nomination. Remember that phrase in the Constitution, advise and consent? Well, all Democrats and one Republican on the committee have already said that they do not consent. The committee chairman is Republican Bob Corker.
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BOB CORKER: So it's just the environment when I know that they are the base, the left. But the base on the Democratic side abhors the president, and I realize that many of them just don't want to do anything that shows a proxy of support for Trump by voting for secretary of state.
GREENE: All right. So the committee might send him to the full Senate with what is called an unfavorable recommendation. The full Senate then votes, but he barely has a majority there.
INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis covers Congress and is in our studios once again. Good morning.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. So we just heard Bob Corker describe why he thinks there's opposition. What do the opponents of Mike Pompeo say?
DAVIS: Well, Senator Corker certainly has a point. Democrats are under tremendous political pressure to oppose this nomination from outside groups. But one of the arguments they'll say against Pompeo is that the job for being the nation's top diplomat is different than the job for being the nation's top intelligence officer. And there is a lot of skepticism among Democrats that he has the world view and the experience to lean more towards diplomacy. And in the words of Senator Chris Coons, who is one of the Democrats opposing him, there is a lot of concern among Democrats that, in his words, Pompeo will embolden President Trump's most belligerent and dangerous instincts when it comes to foreign policy.
INSKEEP: You remind us, first, that Pompeo is currently the head of the CIA...
INSKEEP: ...Second, that he is considered a hardliner, as they would say, on issues like what to do with the Iran nuclear deal. That's why the opponents would say they're worried about him?
DAVIS: That's it in part. And also that his history, you know, he has been a political figure when he was in Congress. He was one of the members of the Benghazi committee that was also a very politicized thing. And it's just a very politicized time. I think that Corker has a very strong point that Democrats do see this vote in some ways as a proxy vote for the support of the policies of President Trump, which they oppose.
INSKEEP: Although this might be one of these occasions on which Senators do not necessarily use all their power, right? Because you have this committee. They've rounded up a majority against him. They're going to vote against him and then let him go to the full Senate, where he may just barely squeak through anyway. What difference does it make?
DAVIS: It's true. And today would be unprecedented. It will make history, in a way, if he is voted unfavorably out of committee. This has never happened for a secretary of state nominee. But at the end of the day, it may not really matter. It does not preempt Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from bringing his nomination to the floor. They do still believe he ultimately has the votes to get approved by the end of the week. And, as Corker said, you know, whether you get confirmed by 95 votes or 50 votes plus Vice President Mike Pence, at the end of the day you're still the secretary of state.
INSKEEP: When they're vote counting, does it look more like that 50 scenario?
DAVIS: Well, Rex Tillerson, the previous secretary of state, was confirmed with 56 votes. It might be even more narrow for Mike Pompeo, which would make him the secretary of state confirmed with the least amount of support probably in about a century.
INSKEEP: Sue, always a pleasure to see you. Thanks very much.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.
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INSKEEP: You know, there was a time decades ago when Daniel Ortega was a symbol of socialist influence in the Western Hemisphere.
GREENE: Yeah, there sure was. Decades ago, he was leader of a revolutionary movement that ran Nicaragua. In more recent years, though, he has become an elected president with practical problems, and an effort at welfare reform has prompted violent protests. Human rights groups say at least two dozen people have been killed. President Ortega's forces are accused of using live rounds to quell these demonstrations.
INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Nicaragua's capital, and she's on the line. Hi there, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
INSKEEP: What's the situation like?
KAHN: Well, it appears as if the president's cancellation of the Social Security reform packages has helped quiet things down a bit. And the police have been restrained, too. There were reports of looting yesterday and some violence. But, you know, I was out last night at this large demonstration with hundreds of people at this busy traffic circle, and there was no police in sight. It was this jubilant, emotional scene last night. The crowd was singing the national anthem, people weeping, and one man jumped on the hood of the car and screamed out the names of the protesters who had died. You know, many shot by police. And after each name, the crowd responded in unison, (speaking Spanish). It was very moving. It felt as if people were breathing a sigh of relief after what has been nearly a week of intense national outrage here.
INSKEEP: So the president gave up on this effort to change Social Security. Effectively, people would pay more in and get less out. It's the kind of debate you could imagine having in the United States, but it turned violent there. Was that the only thing that people were concerned about when it came to President Ortega?
KAHN: No, no. Clearly not. That's what started it, and that angered pensioners and other supporters, and they protested last week. But I think it was the heavy-handed response by police and the killings that just backfired and enraged students, brought out other workers. It was like this spark was lit, and the protest grew and spread across the country and really became a manifestation of, you know, many more grievances against President Ortega and his wife, too, who's very unpopular here. She's the current vice president.
INSKEEP: Let's just remember. So he came to power in a revolution in 1979. He ruled essentially until the end of the Cold War and then went away, and then amazingly came back years and years later as an elected president. What has his more-than-a-decade in power this time generally been like up to now?
KAHN: Well, he's very much consolidated his power. He ended term limits. He's been in power for about 11 straight years now, this time around. And, you know, his family's hold on the country is much stronger. He controls not only the Congress, but the military and the Supreme Court here. He's slowly eroded democratic institutions, and people have really been fed up. You know, and he continues, see, with this antiquated rhetoric. He was on national TV blaming all ills and opposition on manipulated protesters financed by U.S. imperialists. He went on yesterday that, you know, these protests are backed by extreme racist right-wing in the U.S. And he's loath to really validate opposition to him.
INSKEEP: Part of a global trend, I guess, of democratically elected leaders making their countries less and less democratic as time goes on. Carrie, thank you very much.
KAHN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Nicaragua.
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INSKEEP: Now we have some testimony about what happened in an alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus.
GREENE: Yeah. The facts of what happened the night of the attack a little more than two weeks ago have not yet been independently established, but we can say that shortly after the attack, rebels in Douma surrendered and tens of thousands of people boarded buses to be exiled to refugee camps in the north of Syria.
INSKEEP: NPR's correspondent Ruth Sherlock and Beirut producer Lama Al-Arian together gained rare access to northern Syria, and now they're safely out and she's on the line. And, Ruth, how did you go about meeting people who could give you information there?
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, we met them at refugee camps run by Turkey in northern Syria, in Aleppo province. They'd just arrived off these buses after surviving years of siege and bombardment in Douma. They're exiled from their homes. Everyone was thin and shellshocked. And when we arrived, there was this huge thunderstorm, and people were waiting in the rain in sandals and what little clothes they had for supplies to take back to their tent - food, water, diapers.
INSKEEP: So you were talking to them. And what stories did they tell?
SHERLOCK: I want to share with you some of the interview we did with one of these people, Seena (ph). She's 19 years old. And when we met her in a tent with three other women and lots of small children, they hadn't even had the chance to unpack. You know, rain was seeping into this tent. She says, the night of the attack, there was heavy conventional bombing, airstrikes. But then a barrel hit with a strange smell.
SEENA: (Through interpreter) Called them. They smelled it. My children started to turn blue so we tried to go upstairs to get some air, and then the bombs were shelling us. So we had to go back downstairs, and we had to take some vinegar and rub it in our noses.
SHERLOCK: What did she smell, exactly?
SEENA: (Through interpreter) We smelled as if it was a barrel of chlorine just spilled everywhere.
INSKEEP: I just want to repeat that phrase. The children started to turn blue.
SHERLOCK: Yes. You know, and one of the things she said was that the kids were the first to smell the attackers. And how did she recognize that? She said these are the children of war.
INSKEEP: They knew. They knew. How does this fit with other interviews that you gathered when you were in northern Syria?
SHERLOCK: There was a pattern here. We spoke with several people who said they were witnesses. Some were still sick. There was a woman in a medical clinic whose lungs were badly damaged, and there was a man who was so ill in his tent that he couldn't sit up and he kind of struggled for breath as he talked to us. He clutched an inhaler. Most of the people we spoke to described the chemical attack as being chlorine gas. Now, chlorine is not one of the chemical weapons that was removed from Syria by international inspectors a few years ago after another chemical attack because it has so many civilian uses. But it's been weaponized so often in this war, and in high doses it turns into acid in your lungs and can kill.
INSKEEP: What have some of these people said when they hear Russian accounts or Syrian government accounts that there was no gas attack, it was maybe a sandstorm, or something?
SHERLOCK: One of the women started crying and said, honestly, I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. It happened, she said.
INSKEEP: OK. Ruth, thank you very much. Really appreciate it.
SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock has just completed some reporting inside northern Syria.
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