News Brief: GOP COVID-19 Relief Plan, Myanmar Coup, Russian Protests
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden invited a group of Senate Republicans to the White House to talk COVID relief today.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's recall that in his final days, the previous Congress approved a COVID relief measure, but that money is running out fast. President Biden promised to do more right away. He wants $1.9 trillion for individuals, businesses and schools. Now a group of Republican senators have sent him their counteroffer. To be precise, 10 Republicans made that offer - exactly the number Democrats would need to overcome a filibuster. But the Republicans want to spend much less. And Democrats do have a way to get their own measure through the Senate without Republicans if they choose.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following this one. Good morning, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So Joe Biden's plan calls for a lot more spending. We have that clear. What are the other main differences, though?
KEITH: Yeah. We're expecting to get more details today. But the group in that letter to the president yesterday stressed that their plan includes the amount Biden sought on vaccines, COVID testing and PPE. That's about $160 billion. But besides that, it is much slimmed down. In interviews yesterday, some of the GOP senators indicated their plan has direct payments but smaller amounts and to a more targeted group and a much smaller amount to help schools reopen. And we didn't hear anything so far about state and local aid, which made up about $350 billion of Biden's plan.
KING: Yeah, the stakes are pretty high there because state and local governments are hurting because they've lost a lot of tax revenue. I mean, at the end of the day, Tam, Democrats could still do this alone without Republicans.
KEITH: Democrats have been talking about using a parliamentary procedure known as the budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to evade the filibuster and pass the package, potentially with a simple majority. And Democrats are preparing this week to begin the first step in that process - working on a budget. Democrats have cited the beginning of the Obama presidency when he was trying to pass a big economic bailout and they tried to get Republican support and they really felt like they ultimately got burned on it, got a smaller package than they wanted, and it took too long. But Republicans have been critical of threats from Democrats to go it alone, saying that Biden promised bipartisanship and unity in his campaign and in his inaugural address. Here is Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of the 10 senators in the letter, on "Fox News Sunday."
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BILL CASSIDY: So if you want unity, if you want bipartisanship, you ought to start with the group that's shown it's willing to work together for a common solution. They did not.
KEITH: Now, of course, Biden has accepted their request for an invite to the White House. The meeting will happen at 5 p.m. today. But there's a sense more broadly from Republicans on the Hill that beyond that, they just want Biden to come to them, not the other way around. In their letter, the 10 senators note that all other COVID relief measures have passed on a bipartisan basis and say that it would be better to do it that way this time as well.
KING: And you have noted that even though Democrats could pass relief without Republicans, it's not necessarily something that would happen. Like, it's possible, but it doesn't mean it is inevitable.
KEITH: The reconciliation process is not an easy one. It starts with something that in many years Congress simply hasn't done, which is pass a budget. In this case, it has to be a budget that both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin can agree to. Democrats have the narrowest majority possible in the Senate. They can't lose a single Democratic vote if they want to go it alone. And just as an indication that they might be concerned, last week, Vice President Harris did a bunch of local TV interviews to sell this COVID relief package in West Virginia and Arizona, where there are moderate senators who haven't signed on yet.
KING: OK, interesting. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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KING: Myanmar's military successfully launched a coup earlier today.
INSKEEP: Yeah. The military detained the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her top officials. She's a popular leader who has been through this before. Way back in the 1980s, her party won elections, but the military took over and detained her. She eventually received a Nobel Peace Prize and after many years of protest became a democratically elected leader again. But now the military has taken over again after the results of an election they did not like.
KING: This is a developing story. And reporter Michael Sullivan in Thailand is following it. Hey, Michael.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: OK. So the military is offering their reasoning for doing this, as Steve said - the results of an election that they don't like, disagree with. What are the - what specifically are they charging?
SULLIVAN: Well, they say there was massive election fraud, and it gets back to the idea that the military-linked party performed very badly in the November election, much worse than some observers had expected. And the military cried foul, and they've been grousing about it ever since on social media and elsewhere. And last week, the coup rumors started surfacing and now this.
KING: Yeah. So if this has been going on since November, why today? It's February 1. Why did it take them months?
SULLIVAN: Well, today was the day the new Parliament elected in November was supposed to convene. And it appears the military just didn't like the idea of that happening, felt it was wrong. And the military and Aung San Suu Kyi have never been close, as Steve said. The military kept her in detention or under house arrest for more than 15 years before it agreed to free her and allow the 2011 general election. But the military-drafted constitution of 2008 allows it to retain a lot of power over the defense ministry, the home ministry. The military also reserved a quarter of the seats in Parliament for itself, and that's prevented Suu Kyi and her party from achieving some of what they wanted and kept the military very involved in how things run. So she's been trying to get the Constitution changed. That hasn't gone down well with the military either.
KING: I was reading today about domestic flights in Myanmar being cancelled, about some journalists having gone into hiding. Has the military said what their plan is and who is most concerned here?
SULLIVAN: I think many, many people are concerned and what their plan is - I don't think anybody really knows what the endgame is. The military said today it will rerun that November election in a year's time. But we'll see. I mean, the military got awfully used to running things in Myanmar for about 50 years before this halting transition to democratic rule. They may decide they just want to do it again. But all of this comes at a time when Myanmar is facing an economic crisis, a COVID crisis, ongoing ethnic insurgencies, new ethnic insurgencies. So it's already a very uncertain time for Myanmar. I don't see this helping.
KING: Reporter Michael Sullivan in Thailand. Thanks, Michael.
SULLIVAN: You're welcome.
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KING: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is posing a political threat to Vladimir Putin from inside prison.
INSKEEP: Yeah, Russians are furious over the way the government has treated Navalny. Someone - it's thought to be the Kremlin - poisoned Navalny over the summer. He recovered outside the country, then came back to Moscow and was immediately put in prison. Now, for two weekends in a row, Russians have come out to protest despite the dangers to their own safety from police.
KING: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Hey, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So you were at the protest this weekend. What did you see? What did people tell you?
KIM: Well, the police didn't take any chances this weekend, and they simply sealed off the entire downtown area. They closed metro stations, blocked off sidewalks to pedestrians and really flooded the streets with riot police. So the protesters just changed their tactics and just walked around the city center in large groups of people, though hardly anybody I met wanted to admit that they were protesting since the penalties for unauthorized rallies are really severe. I spoke to one protester. He said his name was Andrei Katkov. He's a 27-year-old manager in a trading company.
ANDREI KATKOV: I'm just walking now. It's my city, and I just want to have some time outside. That's my right.
KIM: He said for him, this was not only a conflict between President Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny. He said it was much bigger about a clash of generations between people who grew up in the Soviet Union and young people with open minds.
KATKOV: We are now living in another country. We have another mentality. No Soviet mentality more.
KIM: He really represents a growing number of Russians who don't have any memory of politics in the pre-Putin era, and they're feeling very frustrated and boxed in.
KING: OK, so the times are changing there. I like that quote from Andrei Katkov - I'm just walking around, nothing to see here. But these protests are not just happening in Moscow. They're happening all across the country. So is the Kremlin looking at that and thinking this is a threat?
KIM: Well, you know, the fact that these protests took place in so many towns and cities across Russia is hugely significant because, in the past, they've mostly been concentrated in large urban areas. This protest is really national, and there were arrests in dozens of cities, including in the conservative Russian heartland that has traditionally been very loyal to Putin. And, of course, the Kremlin is extremely sensitive about that. And that's why we see so many arrests. They're basically trying to scare people off the streets.
KING: Alexei Navalny is still in jail at this point. So who is the opposition, the organized opposition, if you will, and what is their next move?
KIM: Well, the opposition in Russia is very diffuse, and these protests represent more than just support for Navalny, as we heard from that young man, but really dissatisfaction with the Kremlin and with the state of the economy across the country. Navalny's team is in charge of these particular protests. And that's one reason why the Kremlin has brought new charges against Navalny's aides who remain in Russia. So Navalny still has people outside of Russia, and they're trying to keep up this momentum. Tomorrow, Navalny has a court date. Prosecutors want to give him 3 1/2 years in jail for an alleged parole violation in an old case that Navalny calls politically motivated. Navalny's team are now calling on people to show up at the court tomorrow morning.
KING: And if Navalny is released from prison, let's say the charges are dropped, does all of this go away?
KIM: No, of course not. Well, first of all, we don't expect him to be released, but second of all, this dissatisfaction is much deeper and not just about Alexei Navalny's treatment.
KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.
KIM: Thanks, Noel.
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