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Morning News Brief: Infrastructure Debate, Coronavirus Origins, Pandemic Optimism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Very often, the simplest thing to compromise is a debate over numbers. You tell your kid to go to bed in 10 minutes, she asks for 20, so you settle on 15.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congress faces a similar debate over numbers in an infrastructure bill, though they are just a bit larger. Republicans yesterday offered to spend more than $900 billion on things like roads, bridges, broadband internet and water pipes. President Biden wants around double that. In theory, they could just meet in the middle. But there are other factors that aren't in play when a kid goes to bed. Republicans disagree on how to spend that money, as well as how much. On MSNBC, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren doubted whether Republicans want a deal at all.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: I don't really think this is a serious counteroffer. First of all, they don't have pay force for this. It's not real. They have this illusory notion of how we're going to take money that's already been committed to other places and other spending.

MARTIN: The Republican proposal does not include taxes to pay for it.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is here. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning. I feel like my bedtime negotiations do have the same stakes as a multitrillion-dollar debate.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) In fact, the time keeps getting longer. How about 30 minutes? Forty minutes? Wait a minute. We're going the wrong direction. Anyway, how does the Republican proposal here - and I'm talking about infrastructure, not bedtime - how does their proposal compare with Biden's plan?

DETROW: So a quick recap. The president initially proposed this more than $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, and that does not include an additional $2 trillion in broader spending. He also proposed addressing things like boosting child care access. But even as the president proposes this big expansion of government spending, Biden has insisted he wants to cut some sort of bipartisan deal. So a group of Republican senators, led by West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, has been negotiating with the president. Their first counteroffer was about $500 billion. It was more narrowly focused in terms of where it would spend money. Then the president dropped his proposal just a little bit to $1.7 trillion. And that brings us up to yesterday when the Senate Republicans came back agreeing to spend a little bit less than $1 trillion. So the White House had set a rough Memorial Day deadline for some sort of progress on these talks. And from what the president said yesterday, it sounds like this checks the box and he wants to keep negotiating.

INSKEEP: Well, it does sound like the bedtime negotiations are getting a little nearer and nearer on the numbers there. So why are many Democrats saying that this is a waste of time?

DETROW: So there's two things going on here. The first is a broad belief among Democrats in Congress and among party activists that Republicans just do not want to cut any sort of deal in the end with the administration, that they're just trying to slow things down. They point to how Republicans acted throughout the Obama administration and some recent comments by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, that he wants to stop the Biden agenda. Capito has insisted that these are good faith talks.

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SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: It sticks to the core infrastructure features that we talked to initially. It's a serious effort to try to reach a bipartisan agreement.

DETROW: So that's the first dynamic. The second is that the dollar figures do not tell the whole story. A lot of this Republican proposal includes already planned for spending. So Capito is really talking about less than $300 billion in new spending, which, of course, is very far from $1.7 trillion.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, and this is what Elizabeth Warren was referring to also, wasn't she?

DETROW: Yeah. And there's also the dynamic of how to pay for it. The president wants to undo some of the corporate taxes passed during the Trump years. He says he doesn't want to deficit spend. Republican leaders say they will not agree to that, even though they also warn against borrowing more money. So Capito wants to actually use some unspent COVID relief money, particularly the expanded unemployment benefits that two dozen Republican governors don't want to use anymore. White House does not see that as an option, and they argue that the vast majority of this money is already allocated for specific items.

INSKEEP: OK, and we'll have more debates as the president's budget comes out today. Scott, thanks very much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: The United States wants China to cooperate more fully with an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

MARTIN: China dismissed President Biden's renewed effort to investigate the theory that the virus may have leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Remember, that's the city where the virus was first detected. The president has given intelligence agencies here in the U.S. 90 days to get closer to a, quote, "definitive conclusion."

INSKEEP: NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is here to talk this through. John, good morning.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is it clear exactly what the Biden administration wants?

RUWITCH: Yeah, at this stage, it's not that clear. It's just - you know, they have this 90-day push, which is likely to involve reviewing some existing intelligence. They may coordinate with allies, which has been a cornerstone of Biden's approach to China so far. I guess what happens after that will depend on what the findings come up with. But the context of this is pretty important. I mean, Biden made the request on Wednesday. And a day earlier at the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in his speech pushed for transparency in the next phase of the WHO investigation into the origins of the pandemic and said international experts should be given independence to assess the origins. That's aimed at China. He didn't mention China, but it's aimed at China.

And the first phase of the investigation, you know, in January and February, which happened in China, was really criticized for being stage managed by the Chinese government and nontransparent. Well, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday that, you know, China made it clear at that same meeting that, in her words, they weren't going to engage constructively on a second part of the investigation.

INSKEEP: Well, is there any chance that China would be persuaded to be more cooperative?

RUWITCH: Look, if we're talking about an investigation into the hypothesis that this pandemic started from a Chinese biolab, it leaked or there was an accident of some kind, I think the answer would be a hard no. I mean, throughout the pandemic, the Chinese government has really bristled at the suggestion that the pandemic started in a lab there. And they've even promoted theories that the coronavirus didn't really - didn't originate in China at all. I mean, of course, it started - it was first detected in Wuhan. But, you know, for instance, the Chinese government says they've found samples of it on imported frozen food, the implication being that maybe that's how it came in at first. They've even said U.S. military personnel as part of a delegation to the Military World Games, which were held in Wuhan in October 2019, may have brought it in. They're calling for investigations outside of China into the origins of the pandemic. So it seems like open, genuine cooperation is unlikely, I mean, especially now - right? - because U.S.-China relations are just so strained across the board.

INSKEEP: I guess we should pause to say we don't know of any evidence to back up the Chinese claims that you just mentioned there. Have U.S. relations with China changed at all as the president has changed?

RUWITCH: Not much. And that probably hurts prospects for cooperation and getting to the bottom of the pandemic. I mean, the Biden administration is in the midst of reviews of China policy. There's no clear deadline for them. And for now, they're keeping in place a lot of the Trump-era policies, including tariffs, for instance, the whole trade war. The U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, had a phone call with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He this week. He's Chinese leader Xi Jinping's right-hand man on trade and economics. They did not have any obvious progress towards easing tensions.

INSKEEP: John, thanks for your work.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Ruwitch.

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INSKEEP: If you're heading out of town this weekend, you are not alone. According to AAA, 37 million Americans are expected to travel for the Memorial Day weekend.

MARTIN: Obviously, this was not the case last year, right? In fact, that number is up 60% compared to 2020. This year, we're all feeling something we haven't in a very long time, at least a lot of us - optimism. The country finally looks like it's on the right track in the battle against the pandemic.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So do the numbers back up that optimism?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, they do. Everything is going in the right direction and has been for some time now. You know, the number of people catching the virus every day has been tumbling pretty steadily for more than a month. The 70 average number of infections has plummeted from nearly 68,000 on April 18 to less than 22,000 today. And that's the lowest it's been in almost a year. And the number of people getting so sick they're ending up in the hospital has also dropped. So with the number of people dying, that's plunged below 500 a day - so pretty dramatic improvement. And that's all made health officials almost kind of giddy with optimism. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky at the last COVID briefing earlier this week.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This coming weekend is Memorial Day. I know that many of you are looking forward to spending time with your family and friends. Thanks to vaccines, tens of millions of Americans are able to get back to something closer to normal.

STEIN: You know, in fact, Steve, the country passed a major milestone in the vaccination campaign this week with more than half of all adults now fully vaccinated.

INSKEEP: How different is all of this from, say, the past Memorial weekend?

STEIN: Oh, yeah. You know, it's really quite striking. I'm sure you remember how different things were back then. The country was locked down and in kind of a state of shock about what was happening. You know, public health officials were issuing dire warnings, pleading with people to avoid holiday gatherings, you know, to prevent big surges. It only took a month to go from 400,000 deaths to 500,000. But it's been more than three months now since that terrible milestone. And thankfully, the number of people dying every day has slowed from the thousands to the hundreds. And today, you know, the CDC is telling vaccinated people they can take off their masks and enjoy getting together with family and friends at picnics and, you know, barbecues for the holiday weekend.

INSKEEP: Well, what can we expect as we get past that holiday weekend and into the summer?

STEIN: You know, the thinking is that nationally the numbers should keep going in the right direction, at least through the summer. You know, I talked about this with Justin Lessler at Johns Hopkins.

JUSTIN LESSLER: I think they continue to get better so long as the vaccination - you know, we continue to have more and more people getting vaccinated, things will continue to get better.

STEIN: You know, there could still be surges in places where not enough people have rolled up their sleeves. And there could still be yet another surge in the fall and the winter as the weather gets colder and people head back indoors, especially if not enough people have gotten vaccinated. And of course, the big worry is the variants. So far, that really contagious variant first spotted in India hasn't taken off in this country, but the numbers look like they may be starting to rise. So, you know, things are looking good, but we're not out of the woods yet by any means. And the pandemic is still causing great suffering in many parts of the world.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that last point is vital to remember. Rob, thanks very much.

STEIN: Yeah. You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.