House Passes NDAA, New Student Loan Relief, Floods In India : Up First The House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, leaving Senate to fight over its policies on transgender health care, diversity and abortion. Also, two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court shut down President Biden's student loan relief program, the Education Department has approved another relief program, one that targets certain low-income borrowers. Plus, we bring you the latest on the deadly floods and landslides in India.

House Passes NDAA, New Student Loan Relief, Floods In India

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. House on Friday passed the National Defense Authorization Act, but only just.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

That's right. The NDAA usually has overwhelming bipartisan support, but this time, it passed by a margin of 219-210.

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

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SIMON: The annual defense bill got caught up in the culture wars, with House Republicans pushing to amend Pentagon policies on transgender health care, diversity and abortion.

PFEIFFER: We'll let you know what to expect as the bill advances to the Senate.

SIMON: Also, a new plan to erase student loans for 800,000 borrowers - and it is separate from the plan the U.S. Supreme Court recently nixed.

PFEIFFER: Plus, we'll bring you the latest updates on the deadly floods in northern India.

SIMON: So please stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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SIMON: The National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense bill, also known as the NDAA, defines national security priorities for the Pentagon.

PFEIFFER: And historically, because that bill is deemed crucial, it has passed with bipartisan support. But on Friday, it very narrowly passed the Republican-controlled House, with votes falling along party lines.

SIMON: The $886 billion bill became the latest target in culture wars between Democrats and Republicans, drawing in everything from diversity to abortion access.

PFEIFFER: Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the bill sends this message to Democrats.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Stop using taxpayer money to do their own wokeism. A military cannot defend themselves if you train them in woke.

SIMON: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us. Susan, thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did this defense bill become a proxy fight?

DAVIS: Well, hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus really focused their political muscle in shaping this bill in a way they never have before. Very broadly, Republicans do take issue with Biden administration policies that they say make the military too socially progressive. So in this bill, for example, they passed amendments that would roll back existing policies that fund DEI programs - that's diversity, equity and inclusion. They also added in prohibitions on things like specialized health care for transgender service members.

Democrats oppose these, but they also counter that they're policies that make the military attract a more diverse workforce and could help struggling recruitment if they are seen as more inclusive. That's the force of the Democratic opposition to these amendments. Much of this bill, Scott - it's important to remember - is very bipartisan. One good example of that - this bill includes a 5.2% pay raise for service members and more child care and housing assistance for military families.

SIMON: There's a significant divide in this defense bill, though, over access to abortion, isn't there?

DAVIS: Yeah. The Biden administration enacted a policy that covers certain costs of service members if they have to travel to receive abortion services. This came in response to the Supreme Court Dobbs decision when it overturned Roe v. Wade. Since that point, more than a dozen states have enacted near-total bans on abortion. Republicans say that this policy violates a very well-established law known as the Hyde Amendment. That says that taxpayer dollars can't be used to pay for anyone's abortion. But this Biden policy does not actually pay for abortion costs. It does reimburse for travel expenses, and it also allows for up to three weeks of administrative leave to receive that care. But the Republican-passed bill would effectively end that policy.

SIMON: We've been talking about what's been happening in the Republican-controlled House. Democrats control the Senate. Can we expect these fights to resume there?

DAVIS: Well, there hasn't been as much interest among Senate Republicans in focusing on these culture war-type issues specifically in a defense bill. Frankly, none of these Republican amendments can survive in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says they want to pass their own version of the bill before the August break. And then, they're going to have to try to reconcile two competing versions of the bill.

It's really hard to say how that can happen unless Speaker McCarthy is willing to water down his bill to get more Democrats on board. But stripping out these amendments would likely see support collapse among the conservatives that helped write it. So for now, McCarthy seems ready to fight. And one sign of that - he already announced that one of the negotiators he's sending to that table will be far-right conservative Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

SIMON: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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SIMON: Just two weeks after the Supreme Court struck down President Biden's student loan forgiveness program, some low-income borrowers got some much-needed relief through a different plan.

PFEIFFER: On Friday, the Department of Education said it would be erasing the debts of more than 800,000 borrowers.

SIMON: It's part of a pledge the administration made last year in part in response to an NPR investigation. NPR's Cory Turner led that investigation and joins us. Cory, thanks for being with us.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: So convince me that this is somehow not related to the Supreme Court fight.

TURNER: I know. The timing's weird. It's weird. It surprised me, too. And it is confusing. But no, this has been in the works since April of 2022. It has been on a completely separate track. This relief is also real. It is happening imminently. It affects some of the oldest loans and some of the oldest borrowers in the system, Scott. And that's because, by definition, folks who are going to get this relief have had loans for at least 20 years. And one more thing here while we're talking about the court - this move is not going to be vulnerable to a court challenge the way Biden's broader program was. And that is because this is essentially the Ed Department trying to fix years of pretty serious mistakes with the loan program.

SIMON: Help us understand those mistakes that affected these 800,000 borrowers.

TURNER: Sure. Well, it all has to do with what was really meant to be the safety net of the federal student loan program for low-income borrowers. It's a suite of repayment plans that peg monthly payments to borrowers' income. So folks who don't make very much don't pay very much. They can even qualify for a $0 monthly payment. And these income-driven repayment plans - they're called IDR plans - have, for years, made one really big promise to borrowers, and that is that if they make these monthly payments for 20 years, the government would forgive whatever debt is left over after that.

Here's the problem, Scott. Borrowers were spending 20 years or more in the system, but nobody was getting forgiveness. There was this incredible review from borrower advocates. It came out in March of 2021. It found that some 4 million borrowers had been in the loan system for at least two decades. And yet just 32 - that is a three-two, Scott - had gotten loan forgiveness through one of these IDR plans.

SIMON: Thirty-two - how is that possible?

TURNER: Well, it's possible because these plans didn't have one problem; they had all of the problems. So first, for years, when low-income borrowers would call their loan servicer and say, help, I can't afford my monthly payment, servicers instead put millions of borrowers into forbearance when they could have put them in these IDR plans. Forbearance means payments are paused, but interest keeps building and building, Scott. It is not good. And then, last April, 2022, NPR published an investigation that I did around a bunch of leaked Ed Department documents that showed even more problems and that the department knew about them.

So several loan servicers weren't keeping track of borrower payments. That means even if a borrower did reach 20 years and technically qualified for forgiveness, the servicer didn't know it. And then, one of the strangest things that I found was that the record system that Ed and its servicers use is so bad that when a borrower is transferred from one servicer to another, which happens a lot, their payment history can get cut off or lost. The Ed Department called our findings unacceptable. They quickly pledged to do a one-time review of millions of borrower accounts. And that, Scott, is basically what we're seeing now - the department giving this retroactive credit to borrowers towards loan forgiveness to the tune of $39 billion. And there is more to come, too.

SIMON: More to come? How so?

TURNER: Yeah, these 800,000 borrowers are just the beginning. This account adjustment - that's what the department calls it - is going to last into 2024. So stay tuned. Both the cost and the number of borrowers helped are both guaranteed to grow.

SIMON: NPR's Cory Turner, thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome.

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PFEIFFER: More than 100 people have died in flooding and landslides caused by monsoon rains in India over the past two weeks.

SIMON: Much of the flooding has been occurring in the northern parts of the country with large areas of the capital, New Delhi, also underwater.

PFEIFFER: We have freelance reporter Sushmita Pathak, who's based in Delhi, with us now. Good morning, Sushmita.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: What are you seeing in Delhi? What's the situation there?

PATHAK: We are seeing really dramatic scenes here. The Yamuna River that goes through Delhi has been flowing at record-high levels, and it was about 680 feet on Wednesday. And that has inundated nearby low-lying areas. Thousands of people have been evacuated. You know, they've been shifted to relief camps set up in the city, and traffic came to a halt in several places. It has also affected the city's drinking water supply. Some important landmarks, like the iconic Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, are also waterlogged. There's water around India's Supreme Court. There's waist-deep water in some places.

There's also the 17th century Red Fort that's flooded. Now, the Red Fort is where the prime minister gives his Independence Day speech every year. And what's striking is that originally, the Yamuna River used to flow right by the fort. It used to feed the moat surrounding the fort. But the river changed course over the years. And now it seems like the river has reclaimed its original path, and Delhi residents are getting a glimpse of what the fort looked like several centuries ago.

PFEIFFER: Oh, how interesting. Would you give us a sense of what's been happening in India over the past two weeks that got the country to this point?

PATHAK: So over the last two weeks, there have been intense spells of rain across northern India. So that's an area that spans several states. Most of the damage has been in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. That's a mountainous area about 300 miles north of Delhi. Key highways there are damaged due to landslides. We've seen, again, very dramatic footage of bridges and buildings being swept away in overflowing rivers. Tens of thousands of tourists were stranded. It's a tourist destination. The army has been called there for rescue operations. Most deaths have also occurred in Himachal Pradesh. And more heavy rain is forecast across a number of states over the next few days.

Coming to Delhi - last weekend, Delhi had the third-highest amount of rain recorded in a single day in July. It was about 6 inches according to India's weather department. It didn't rain much last week in Delhi, but a dam north of Delhi has been releasing water, and that has caused the Yamuna River to overflow. I went there on Tuesday. I took the metro over a bridge on the Yamuna River, and I could just see this huge expanse of brown, muddy water. And by Thursday, the river was flowing at an all-time high. It started receding on Friday, though.

PFEIFFER: And, Sushmita, is it clear whether this is cyclical rain and flooding? Or is this also the influence of climate change?

PATHAK: So this is monsoon season. June to September is monsoon season in India. So heavy rains are common during this time of the year. But climate change is making intense spells of rain more frequent, and that's increasing the likelihood of landslides and flash floods especially in vulnerable mountainous areas like Himachal Pradesh. And that state has also seen a lot of construction activity in recent years. So after this disaster, experts are cautioning that infrastructure development should be mindful of the fragile environment there and the risks associated with it. Climate change is also making heat waves more common. So overall, extreme weather events are increasing in India because of climate change.

PFEIFFER: That is reporter Sushmita Pathak in Delhi. Thank you.

PATHAK: Thank you.

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SIMON: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, July 15, 2023. I'm Scott Simon.

PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. Today's podcast was edited by D. Parvaz, Nicole Cohen, Don Clyde, Barbara Campbell and Ed McNulty.

SIMON: It was produced by Danny Hensel and directed by Michael Radcliffe with engineering support from Jay Czys.

PFEIFFER: Evie Stone is our senior supervising editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Oliver. And our deputy managing editor is Jim Kane.

SIMON: There's a Sunday UP FIRST as well. Sacha, what can they expect on The Sunday Story?

PFEIFFER: Tomorrow, Ayesha is talking to the producers who ran NPR's 2023 Student Podcast Challenge about this year's submissions. We'll also hear from a bunch of young Americans about what they care about and what they see happening in their communities.

SIMON: And for more news, interviews, books, music, just plain fun sometimes, you can also find us on Weekend Edition from NPR News.

PFEIFFER: Find your NPR station at stations.npr.org, and tune in every Saturday and Sunday morning.

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