News Brief: Infrastructure Funds, Sudan's Government, Japan's Emperor
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
These are contentious political times. We don't have to tell you. You know that. But what you might not know is that there is one issue that seems to bring people together.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: This is a major effort to tackle our nation's most critical infrastructure need.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to start working on very shortly is an infrastructure bill because that's something I think everybody wants to see.
BERNIE SANDERS: When we rebuild our infrastructure, we rebuild the middle class.
SARAH SANDERS: I think this is a great place where Democrats and Republicans can come together. They can find some common ground.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Everybody loves to talk about infrastructure. That was Chuck Schumer, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Sarah Sanders. President Trump, for his part, has talked so much about infrastructure, it's sort of become a running gag in Washington - as in, is it Infrastructure Week again? But the thing is, a lot of Democrats want to rebuild the country's roads and bridges and do a lot of other projects as well.
Now, we're going to see today if all this could open the door to some sort of plan to move forward with actual legislation or whether it's just all talk again. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are heading to the White House today for a meeting on this with the president.
MARTIN: All right. We've got NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe with us this morning. Hey, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Happy Infrastructure Week.
RASCOE: Yes, always.
MARTIN: Always, in perpetuity. Although I guess, this time, the major players are at least getting in a room to try to move forward, right? How'd that happen?
RASCOE: Yeah. Well, you know, Nancy Pelosi requested this meeting. And she and Chuck Schumer, they wrote a letter to Trump saying that they want a big and bold infrastructure plan to deal with some of those crumbling bridges and roads and more. That letter also put responsibility on Trump to figure out how to pay for this big and bold plan. Earlier this month, Pelosi said Democrats are seeking at least $1 trillion and would work to get it to $2 trillion for this. So this is going to be a massive lift.
For the White House, Trump has made clear he does want airports and transportation systems in the U.S. to be more modern. He wants that money kind of invested in rebuilding America. But his infrastructure plan released earlier in his administration would spend about $200 billion in government money and focus on public-private partnerships to spur $1.5 trillion in investment.
Democrats have rejected that out of hand as too low for direct government investment. And Democrats are also saying they won't support an increase in the gas tax to fund projects unless it's coupled with rolling back some of those tax cuts that Trump really likes.
MARTIN: So they may agree more broadly on infrastructure - the idea of improving infrastructure - but there are real substantive differences. Meanwhile, I mean, can they circumscribe the debate over infrastructure with the Mueller report just hanging in the air in Washington?
RASCOE: I think that's why there's some skepticism about how far this is going to go. Democrats are currently fighting with Attorney General William Barr about testifying about that special counsel report. The White House is saying it's going to ignore congressional oversight request and basically refusing to cooperate with any of these investigations. And as you mentioned, or as you - when you talk about the Mueller report, some Democrats have talked about impeachment proceedings need to be on the table after the findings in the Mueller report.
Trump himself warned in the past that if Democrats continue to investigate him, he would not work with them on legislation. We'll see if he follows through on that. But it's questionable whether this is really kind of fertile ground for a grand compromise. There's also the question of whether Democrats would want Trump to win - to give Trump a win in a presidential - with a presidential election next year.
MARTIN: Right. OK, NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe for us this morning.
Ayesha, thanks. We appreciate it.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. Now we want to take you to Sudan because, as you will hear, the situation there is tense.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).
GREENE: Yeah, that is the sound of protesters today on the streets of Sudan's capital, Khartoum. They are occupying space outside the military headquarters, demanding that power be transferred from the military to a civilian government. Now, this comes weeks after the country's longtime leader, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted from power in a military coup.
MARTIN: NPR's Eyder Peralta has been out among the protests and joins us now. Eyder, can you just set the scene? Where are you exactly, and what are you seeing?
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. I'm guessing everybody remembers Occupy Wall Street. It feels like that and a mix of a music festival. Protesters have surrounded the military quarters here, and they've set up tents and stages. And they're sleeping here; it's a 24-hour protest. And right now, it's about midday here. It's 110 degrees. But as you can probably hear, they're still marching.
And in a lot of ways, what you're hearing right now is a celebration of a newfound freedom here. Young Sudanese are flexing this newfound power. And they're telling the military - in their face, in front of their buildings - that they are not moving until civilians are in control of this country.
MARTIN: So where are those negotiations? Because military leaders had been in talks with opposition leaders, right? Where does it stand?
PERALTA: They have. And it's not looking good for protesters. I mean, over the weekend, we heard there was a breakthrough. Both sides agreed that there would be some kind of power-sharing agreement between the military and protesters during this transitional period.
But the military has made it clear that they want to keep power. They want to control the transitional council. And what they have put on the table is a council with 10 members, seven of which would be of the military. The protesters say the military can keep a seat on the table but, of course, they want to be the majority. They want to control this transition because, they say, the military is just part and parcel of the Bashir regime.
MARTIN: How's the military responding to the fact that the protesters are still out there, are still - have committed to not leave until they get what they're looking for?
PERALTA: They want them off the streets. They - in fact, yesterday, they said that the protesters had agreed to clear the streets. And the atmosphere changed suddenly. Protesters extended roadblocks today. They spent the whole night adding boulders to the roadblocks. And now they're also blocking one of the main streets here in Khartoum.
And you know, the message is clear. They fought and died for this revolution. And they're not letting power slip from their hands. Just, you know, a bit of an example of what has happened overnight - they've started burning tires again on the streets. And that has not happened here since Omar al-Bashir was ousted. So protesters are digging in today because they say the military overnight tried to break in this sit-in. And they say they will not allow that.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from the streets of Khartoum, Sudan, amid protests, protesters there insisting that the military has to give up control of the government.
Eyder, thank you so much.
PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: All right. Japan today marks the end of an era - a literal era. The country's emperor is abdicating in a flurry of pageantry and a whole lot of reflection on the past three decades of his reign.
GREENE: Yeah. We've got to just set the historic context here. Akihito is the first emperor to retire in more than 200 years. He rose to the role of crown prince in 1952, the same year Japan regained its sovereignty.
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AKIHITO: (Foreign language spoken).
GREENE: That's him at the age of 18, saying he'd work for the prosperity of the Japanese people and the welfare of humanity. He became emperor in 1989 after the death of his father. And in doing so, Akihito became the first monarch to ascend to the throne under a U.S.-drafted constitution, which makes him a symbolic figure without political power.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's Anthony Kuhn with us this morning. He's covering today's abdication events in Tokyo.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: As you know, Japan is a culture filled with a lot of high ceremony. And this event is sort of like the highest of the high, right? I mean, can you just describe all the pomp and circumstance?
KUHN: OK. Well, the morning started with the emperor in these beautiful, rust-colored imperial robes. He went to a shrine in the Imperial Palace to report that he was abdicating to Amaterasu, who is the Shinto goddess of the sun. Japan has the oldest continuous monarchy in the world, and they're very proud of supposedly being descended from Amaterasu.
Then this afternoon, the action moved to a wood-floored state room in the palace, where all the men were dressed in morning coats. The women had hats. And there were boxes with these symbolic relics, like an ancient sword, a jewel and seals - or - seals affixed on official documents. And they were - there were very brief speeches by Emperor Akihito and Abe - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - that touched on themes of the past 30 years. The emperor thanked people for accepting him as their constitutional symbol of the state. And he prayed for peace for the world and Japan, which is very much what he's been doing for the past 30 years.
MARTIN: So as David noted, Akihito is the first emperor to ascend to the throne after World War II. He did so in 1989 in the post-war era. How did he take that role on? How did - I mean, it was symbolic, but how did he modernize it? Did he?
KUHN: Well, one way of modernizing it is to say that emperors ought to be able to retire. The problem is that, you know, as a figurehead, he doesn't get to make any rules himself. He can't even comment or criticize on the system. The law says that emperors rule for life, and he only got a one-off exception allowing him to retire.
But he did try to heal the scars of World War II, expressing remorse for Japan's aggression. He also married a commoner - the Empress Michiko - among the things he did to be a more modern emperor.
MARTIN: So what now?
KUHN: Well, I...
MARTIN: Who gets the throne (laughter)?
KUHN: His son. His eldest son, Emperor Naruhito, ascends the throne tomorrow. He's a very - considered a very cosmopolitan guy, who has studied at Oxford. And he's expected to continue in his father's quest to bring the monarchy into the modern age. And there will be ceremonies, celebrations, processions and banquets that will stretch into later this year and even next.
MARTIN: The party continues. NPR's Anthony Kuhn for us, covering the abdication, new ascension to the throne in Japan.
KUHN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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