News Brief: China Trade Talks, Venezuela Leadership, Medicare For All
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning, we're going to bring you everything you need to know about not one, Steve, not one but two different sets of high-stakes negotiations taking place in Washington today.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. Republican and Democratic leaders are meeting to discuss border security. They need to agree on measures that can pass Congress and win the signature of the president in order to avoid another partial government shutdown in a couple weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell describes himself as flexible up to a point.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: I'm for whatever works that prevents the level of dysfunction we've seen on full display here the last month and also doesn't bring about a view on the president's part that he needs to declare a national emergency.
INSKEEP: There's a little warning at the end there since the president has threatened to bypass Congress to have a border wall built by declaring an emergency. So that's one negotiation. The other is, if anything, a much bigger deal. Chinese negotiators are in Washington to discuss a way out of a trade war.
MARTIN: Oh, yeah, that. So NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us this morning. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Let's start with the trade negotiations - U.S. top trade negotiators sitting down with their Chinese counterparts. What is supposed to happen today?
LIASSON: Well, the U.S. wants two things. The first thing is they want the trade deficit with China to come down. They want China, in other words, to buy more U.S. soybeans and other commodities. The second thing they want is harder to get. They want China to stop intellectual property theft, stop forcing U.S. companies to turn over their technology secrets. They want to stop China requiring U.S. companies to have a Chinese partner. In other words, they want China to change its business model. That's harder to do.
The big question is will Donald Trump settle for the first thing? In other words, will he just settle for China buying more soybeans, or will he insist that China makes these structural changes? And then, if the Chinese do agree to do that, how do you verify that?
MARTIN: Right. And, of course, all this is happening against this backdrop of, you know, the Chinese CFO of Huawei was arrested and all this international - or intellectual property theft that you referred to. I mean, are they - is the U.S. delegation expecting some kind of win out of this, or is this an incremental development?
LIASSON: Well, nobody says that this will be easy. The big question about the Huawei indictments is will that become a bargaining chip in these trade talks? Or to put it another way, how does it not become a bargaining chip? And we don't know the answer to that yet.
MARTIN: Let's pivot and think about the negotiations on Capitol Hill to keep the government open. The team of 17 lawmakers has been tasked with finding a solution that they couldn't find for over a month. President Trump, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, gave this effort a less than 50/50 chance of succeeding. So, I mean, he's undercutting them before they even get going.
LIASSON: Right. Well, the big question is Democrats now have not ruled out spending some kind of money for border security - barriers, a smart wall. They don't want what they say is President Trump's medieval wall. And the president is no longer demanding 2,000 miles of sea-to-shining-sea concrete barrier. He wants a couple billion dollars a year for 200-plus miles of border wall. And the question is, can they come up with a compromise that fudges this difference where both sides can say they won?
MARTIN: Do you see that opening?
LIASSON: I am not sure. I think it's possible we're headed for another impasse, but I don't think we're headed for another shutdown.
MARTIN: There's just not the appetite for that.
LIASSON: So you heard Mitch McConnell say he doesn't want the president to declare an emergency. He doesn't - didn't say I'm worried the president will shut down the government again.
MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. Let's shift our focus over to Venezuela. There are more protests expected there today and more pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to step down.
INSKEEP: Yeah. These will be the first mass protests since the opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself as president or was declared by the legislature as president. They said they were following the constitution. Guaido does have the support of the United States and other countries. He - however, President Nicolas Maduro has ordered authorities in Venezuela, the Supreme Court, to put a travel ban on Guaido, and all of his bank accounts have been frozen.
MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from Caracas, where he's covering all of this political drama. Hey, Phil.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: We've got a delay on the line. We should just note that. So the opposition led by Juan Guaido is calling for these protests. Is there an expectation they could get violent today?
REEVES: Well, there is, yeah. He's calling for people to walk out for two hours out of their homes and offices and shops and so on. And he's calling for it to be a nonviolent protest. You know, he successfully summoned hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets last week, so I expect this will be large. Some areas, we're expecting crowds; others may just be people on the streets banging pots and pans. We don't know how Maduro's security forces are going to react. According to the U.N. Human Rights Office, 40 people have been killed since this crisis really erupted nine days ago, most by Venezuela security services. And yeah, the worry is that there will be more bloodshed.
MARTIN: I mean, Maduro has told the Supreme Court to put this travel ban on the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. At the same time, Maduro says he's open to negotiating, but that doesn't seem like a negotiating kind of posture, to tell your opposition that, you know, your bank accounts are frozen and you can't go anywhere. What are the odds that these two men actually get in a room?
REEVES: Well, let's not forget that Maduro accuses Guaido of staging an attempted coup with U.S. collaboration. So a travel ban (laughter) is kind of rather a light response. Most countries, you would be in jail if you were also at the same time summoning huge crowds out in the street to support you. So I think Maduro is trying to feel his way here. He talks about negotiating, but, you know, I can't see how the opposition will do that with a man they don't recognize as president, unless it's a specific discussion about his departure.
REEVES: And also there's no sign that Maduro's interested in a discussion about his departure, I should add. I mean, Maduro is standing firm when it comes to the issue of his departure.
MARTIN: Meanwhile, the U.S., the Trump administration, has cut off Maduro's revenues from oil and is exerting a lot of influence in Venezuela in hopes of pushing Maduro out of power. How is that being received? I mean, what do Venezuelans on the street, the protesters, make of the U.S. involvement?
REEVES: Well, I think the protesters appreciate it, but I think a lot of people are also very worried. It's very hard to see how we can avoid a very violent situation evolving here. Let's say, best-case scenario, that Maduro goes, but what happens then? Will the police and the national guard just show up for work the next day, saying that, you know, the Venezuelan socialist experiment's over, we work for someone else now?
There's a very high risk there'll be a vacuum for a while while these security forces figure out who's in charge and while the strongly pro-Maduro elements disappear. And, remember; this country's got a population that's very hungry and very poor, mightily abused and angry. I don't see how you could avoid a situation where, in those circumstances, there will be mass looting. And that's in the opposition's best-case scenario.
MARTIN: Thanks so much...
REEVES: It could get much worse than that.
MARTIN: Right. Thanks so much, Phil. NPR's Phil Reeves in Caracas for us.
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MARTIN: OK. Back in this country, Democratic presidential hopefuls are already staking out their positions on critical issues, including health care.
INSKEEP: Democratic Senator Kamala Harris spoke in a CNN town hall meeting earlier this week and supported Medicare for all.
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KAMALA HARRIS: It is inhumane to make people go through a system where they cannot literally receive the benefit of what medical science can offer.
INSKEEP: Yeah, in the town hall, she supported not only government insurance for everybody but also eliminating the private insurance industry. Who needs it, she effectively said. Afterward, her campaign walked that back, saying that she would be open to more modest reforms, which suggests just how politically tricky health care remains.
MARTIN: All right. We have got NPR health policy correspondent Alison Kodjak with us this morning. Hey, Alison.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm well. This is a big question to start off our day here. But what does Medicare for all mean exactly?
KODJAK: Well, it depends on who you talk to. But the plan that Senator Harris says she supports is the one that was proposed last year by Senator Bernie Sanders. And this would be a national health program that would, as she said, replace the private health insurance system. Here's how she described it.
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HARRIS: Well, listen; the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don't have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require.
KODJAK: So her idea is that everyone gets a Medicare card just like the one that my mother has, and doctors have to sign an agreement each year to be part of the program.
MARTIN: This is the same as when people say single payer.
KODJAK: Exactly. Exactly. The government is that payer.
MARTIN: How does she want to pay for this, or any Democratic candidate for that matter?
KODJAK: Exactly. I mean, that's a big unknown. It's going to cost a lot of money. Harris said in that town hall, and when I asked her staff, they didn't respond. She didn't respond, and she didn't describe it. In his proposal, Senator Sanders didn't put in a pay for, but he outlined some options. He said that overall as a country, we spend $3.2 trillion a year on health care, and that includes Medicare, Medicaid and our private insurance system. And he says Medicare for all will cost a lot less.
Another analysis I've seen says the federal government will pay $32 trillion over 10 years to pay for Medicare for all. So the pay-for proposals mostly include maybe a tax increase on employers, similar to Social Security tax. One proposal is a 4 percent tax on everyone's income. There's basically tax increases on higher earners. It's a way of increasing taxes and replacing what we spend right now on health care premiums.
MARTIN: Since then, as Steve noted, though, Kamala Harris' campaign backed down a bit on this and said, wait a second, she also might be willing to consider other more moderate proposals instead of an altogether single-payer system, clearly indicating this is a political bugaboo for Democrats. It's not like they're all in line for this.
KODJAK: Yeah. No, it's really tricky. I mean, a lot of people co-sponsored that bill, including other presidential candidates, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren. But it's tricky because people like the idea of Medicare for all. But once you talk about the tax increases, it becomes much, much less popular.
MARTIN: NPR's Alison Kodjak for us this morning. Thanks, Alison. We appreciate it.
KODJAK: Thanks, Rachel.
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Correction Jan. 30, 2019
In an earlier audio version, we described the Kamala Harris campaign as backtracking from one aspect of "Medicare-for-all." Her campaign said that in fact, she remains supportive of the "Medicare-for-all" bill she co-sponsors with Bernie Sanders.