News Brief: Infrastructure Deal, Push For Vaccinations, Extreme Weather
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
A bipartisan infrastructure deal weeks in the making cleared its first hurdle last night.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Seventeen Republicans joined all 50 Senate Democrats in a vote to begin debate on this trillion-dollar package. It's money for roads, bridges, rail, transit, water and other physical infrastructure programs; a huge investment, although not all of it is newly authorized money. To be clear, senators only voted to begin debate here. They haven't actually finished writing the legislation, but the president celebrated. Most Senate bills require bipartisan buy-in to avoid a filibuster, and this time, they got it.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: While there's a lot we don't agree on, I believe that we should be able to work together on the few things we do agree on.
MCCAMMON: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now to talk about it. Good morning, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: So, as Steve said, there is still more work to do, but this looks like a significant step forward. And we know those are pretty rare in Congress.
MCCAMMON: Is this as promising as it sounds?
DAVIS: You know, it certainly took some effort. President Biden and the bipartisan group of senators announced they had a deal on this more than a month ago. It took a while to work out the details. And as Steve noted, it still needs to be written and pass both chambers. But I think this is a victory for President Biden, both in terms of the policy and in terms of the politics. It's been a central pillar of his domestic agenda. The White House projects that the investments that this bill will make will add millions of jobs annually over the next decade. And broadly, it's proof of his political argument, that he is someone who can bring the two parties together to get stuff done.
MCCAMMON: As we heard, there's a lot that's been outlined here. Break down for us what's actually in this package, at least as it stands currently.
DAVIS: Well, it will spend about $1.2 trillion over the next eight years. Just under half of that is new spending. It's focused on what people call hard infrastructure. Money for roads - there's about $100 billion in there for roads spending. Huge infusion of money for transit systems - it has $66 billion for one of Biden's personal priorities, the Amtrak rail system, which he rode for years as a Delaware senator. The bill will also spend money on clean energy programs, expand high-speed internet access, especially in rural parts of the country. And Biden also touted things like it will replace all of the nation's lead pipe systems.
MCCAMMON: And the inevitable question, how do you pay for half a trillion in new spending?
DAVIS: Yeah, always the good question with legislation. Most of it is shifting around unspent COVID relief money. It also shifts money from unemployment insurance aid programs. And then there's sort of a grab bag of smaller provisions, like strengthening tax enforcement on cryptocurrencies, restarting a tax on chemical manufacturers, among other things.
MCCAMMON: So as we've said, last night's vote was a really important step. What happens now?
DAVIS: Well, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says that they believe they can debate and pass this bill within the next few days, not weeks. Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday reiterated that she has no plans to take up this bill until the Senate also passes a budget resolution that would start the process on a $3 1/2 trillion spending package that Democrats are working on moving without any Republican input or votes using special budget rules. There's also been some grumbling among House Democrats about this infrastructure bill. I mean, they weren't really involved in this negotiation, and they have ideas on their own. But on the whole, if the White House is on board, it's going to be really hard to make changes to the fundamental deal. Most Democrats are much more focused on this upcoming budget package. It includes much more ambitious and new policies, like expanding Medicare, expanding paid family leave, universal pre-K education. That's really going to dominate the fall agenda in Congress.
MCCAMMON: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
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MCCAMMON: President Biden is set to announce today he wants all civilian federal employees to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus.
INSKEEP: That news marks a big change from just a few weeks ago, which is when the president stood on the South Lawn of the White House with a thousand mask-free guests to mark Independence Day.
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BIDEN: Today, we're closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.
INSKEEP: Since then, there's been a setback. Vaccination rates have stalled in many parts of the United States, and the delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, which is why the president is acting now.
MCCAMMON: We've got NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith on the line to tell us more. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MCCAMMON: What more do we know about this decision by President Biden?
KEITH: You know, he's been begging people to get vaccinated for months, but one area where he can do more than beg is where it comes to federal employees. And there are about 2 million of them. He's expected to announce that these civilian employees will need to be either vaccinated or that they will have to wear a mask at all times and get tested for COVID regularly. They're shying away from calling it a mandate. But this policy may have the effect of making being unvaccinated sort of a pain, which could push some people to just go ahead and get the jab.
MCCAMMON: A little more pressure there. On Tuesday, the CDC said that in many parts of the country, even people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in public places. So what is the president saying about this change in guidance?
KEITH: Yeah. So that's in areas with substantial spread, and it's a lot of the country. The president hasn't said much about it yet. And it's a bit awkward because it wasn't all that long ago that the CDC said vaccinated people could ditch their masks. And Biden at the time pitched it as a big incentive to get vaccinated. But vaccinations stalled ultimately anyway. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health, says that earlier masking guidance was sort of a mess.
SAAD OMER: They got a good grade, probably an A, in terms of biological science when they came out with some of those recommendations. But they got an incomplete at best on behavioral science.
MCCAMMON: Which leads us to the political question, Tam, how risky is this state of the pandemic, politically speaking, for the president?
KEITH: President Biden was elected, at least in part, because people felt like he could fix this, and things are a lot better than they were six months ago. But this turn is disappointing. I talked to David Axelrod. He was a senior adviser to former President Obama and is now at The University of Chicago.
DAVID AXELROD: You know, we were building, building, building back to normalcy. And now this is a backslide. And it's very dispiriting and I think hard to tell people actually we're going backward, not forward, at least for now.
KEITH: Axelrod also was critical of the way the CDC has communicated the shifts in the virus and the guidance. And President Biden has really tied his pandemic response to the CDC, following their lead. Axelrod and other strategists I talked to said it's not clear that Biden will take the blame for some of the more unpredictable parts of this pandemic. But as the midterm elections get closer, there's less time to recover from setbacks. So there are big questions. Does vaccination pick up? Are these vaccination mandates we're hearing about the beginning of a trend? These analysts also told me it's critical for Biden to ensure schools open in the fall and that the economy continues to improve.
MCCAMMON: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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MCCAMMON: When it comes to extreme weather, this summer has been a disaster.
INSKEEP: Heat waves, floods and other extreme weather events are killing people around the world. And looking ahead, the forecasts for more extreme droughts, wildfires and hurricanes are all pretty bad. The culprit, of course, is climate change.
MCCAMMON: Here to talk more about how global warming is driving this dangerous weather is Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. Good morning, Rebecca.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.
MCCAMMON: So let's start with the heat. A heat wave in June set new records in many parts of the U.S.; another is on the way. Of course, it is summer. You sign up for some heat this time of year. But how unusual is what we're experiencing right now?
HERSHER: Yeah, last month was the hottest June ever recorded in the U.S. for more than a century. And that's about four degrees hotter on average. And we really saw extreme heat waves come through. Like in the Pacific Northwest, more than 100 people died in that event. There have also been new heat records in Europe, the Middle East and the Arctic. And scientists say a lot of those broken records would be extremely unlikely without climate change.
MCCAMMON: At the same time, we're seeing extreme drought in the western U.S. and overseas in places like northern and southern Africa. That leads, of course, to wildfires. How is climate change making those things worse?
HERSHER: Well, you know, it all goes back to that heat. So the heat dries out the land and the vegetation. It exacerbates drought. And then when wildfires do come through, they burn hotter, they move more quickly. And one of the most worrisome places where fires are burning - and this is for the third year in a row - is Siberia. And that's a big concern because the soils there, they're either peat or permafrost. They are rich in organic matter. When fires hit them, it releases even more carbon into the atmosphere.
MCCAMMON: OK, so that's heat and drought. On the other end of things, there have been more flash floods where water rises and overtakes areas really quickly. It's happening in a lot of places.
HERSHER: Yeah. Fast moving water is really dangerous, and hundreds of people have been killed just in the last few weeks. So Central China got about a year's worth of rain in less than a day. People were trapped in the subway cars - really horrifying images from there. Germany and Belgium saw rainstorms that turned entire towns into rivers, swept away homes. In Mumbai, India, rain triggered landslides that buried neighborhoods. And here in the U.S., there were dramatic flash floods in Arizona after a heavy rain. So that's all really deadly. But at a scientific level, these water disasters are not surprising. You know, scientists have issued warnings about this exact thing for years.
MCCAMMON: Right. Rebecca, what's the mechanism here? I mean, how exactly does a hotter Earth lead to more flash flooding?
HERSHER: Right. So basically hot air plus hot water means tons of moisture in the air. So you can think of it like a sopping wet sponge. And when that water falls in a short amount of time, that's when you get this extreme rain. So, for example, scientists say that during the floods this month in Europe, the warm air was as saturated as the air during a hurricane. You know, Europe, it just isn't built to handle hurricane levels of rain. And there's also a potential wind connection. So as the Earth heats up, some climate models show that the winds in the upper atmosphere slow down in some places. And those winds, they carry our weather systems. They're like boats in a stream. So when the wind slows down, the weather lingers. And if that weather is a rainstorm, it means longer rains, you know. And it's important to say that these questions, they're the cutting edge of climate science. This is what scientists are working on right now is answering these questions.
MCCAMMON: Lots of big questions. Rebecca Hersher from the NPR climate team, thanks so much.
HERSHER: Thanks so much.
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