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News Brief: Biden's U.N. Speech, Texas Abortion Lawsuits, Debt Politics

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is about to face a bunch of critics who complain that he has broken a promise.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back. I speak today as President of the United States at the very start of my administration. And I'm sending a clear message to the world. America is back.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That in February. And he said he was going to restore the alliances that kept the U.S. safe and cut back public clashes with allies, for which his predecessor was known. Months later, the United States is in the middle of more clashes with allies. And that is the context of his speech to the United Nations today.

MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe with us. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: A lot riding on this speech today. What can we expect from the president?

RASCOE: Well, President Biden is going to make the case that the U.S. is closing the chapter on 20 years of war in Afghanistan and is now going to focus on diplomacy. He will talk about the need to work together to - in the pandemic around the world and to address climate change. But on COVID, there's a lot of concern from poorer countries about how far behind those countries are on getting vaccines. And there's been criticism of the booster shot plan for Americans that Biden has been pushing.

MARTIN: I mean, he's kind of been getting it from all directions recently. There's, you know, the way that the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in particular. We got to mention France, which pulled its ambassador from Washington over this nuclear security deal that the U.S. made with Australia. Is any of that going to affect the way his message is going to be received?

RASCOE: Well, so the White House acknowledges that there are some issues. But the White House says that because - that just because allies are questioning a decision, that doesn't mean they're questioning Biden's credibility. Here's how press secretary - White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained it yesterday.

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JEN PSAKI: Reestablishing alliances doesn't mean that you won't have disagreements about how to approach any particular issue in the world. That is not the bar for having an alliance.

RASCOE: Now, the thing about Biden is that he does have a really long history of backing the U.N. And people I've talked to said that that's likely going to earn Biden a certain amount of goodwill, especially after former President Donald Trump was so hostile to the U.N. So this moment gives Biden a chance to reset with allies and partners. But Alynna Lyon of the University of New New Hampshire told me that that's only going to go so far.

ALYNNA LYON: Words are pretty hollow right now. And so there's going to need to be some action on the part of President Biden and the Biden administration. They can't just talk the talk. They actually have to walk the walk.

MARTIN: All right. So what does the walk look like, Ayesha?

RASCOE: The White House is saying that starting this week, Biden is going to have a big virtual summit tomorrow about the pandemic. And they've invited leaders and NGOs and the private sector to try to make commitments to boost vaccination rates around the world to help out poor countries. Then on Friday, he's invited members of the so-called Quad Coalition to the White House. That includes India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. And they're going to talk about vaccines and how to counter China.

MARTIN: Before you go, do we know anything more about where things stand between the Biden administration and France's president, Emmanuel Macron? I mean, France was upset, to say the least, that they were sort of cut out of this deal to to sell nuclear submarines, to sell submarines to Australia.

RASCOE: So Macron is not going to be at the U.N. in person. The White House says that Biden wants to talk to Macron on the phone to help smooth over these differences, but we don't know when that will happen.

MARTIN: All right. Hasn't been scheduled yet. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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MARTIN: We're going to go next to Texas, where a doctor is facing lawsuits for performing an abortion in defiance of a new law.

INSKEEP: This is the law that bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. It's also the law with a creative enforcement provision. Ordinary citizens are invited to sue anybody who helps with an abortion. State officials are barred from enforcing the law, which made it impossible to go to court to stop them. The Supreme Court, you may recall, declined to block this law in advance. Now the case is going to court, though critics of abortion are not happy.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon is following this and joins us now. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Just start off by telling us more about the doctor who's being sued.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, his name is Dr. Alan Braid. He's an abortion provider from San Antonio. And over the weekend, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he said he intentionally violated this law in an effort to provoke a legal challenge to it. He's now facing at least two lawsuits. And remember, as we said, SB 8 bans most abortions in Texas and lets anyone file lawsuits against abortion providers or anyone else believed to have been involved in illegal abortions. These penalties for violations start at $10,000, creating a lot of incentive for people to file lawsuits. And that is what is beginning to happen, at least in one of these cases.

MARTIN: And so who's doing the suing. Who's behind the suit?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, one comes from an Arkansas man named Oscar Stilley. And he describes himself in the filing as a disbarred and disgraced former lawyer who is currently in house arrest. He's serving a 15-year federal sentence for tax evasion and conspiracy charges. Still, he told The Washington Post he didn't file the lawsuit because of any strongly held beliefs about abortion but largely because he was hoping to collect the money. He's asking for as much as $100,000. The other suit was filed by a man from Chicago, Felipe Gomez, who describes himself as pro-choice. And he is using this complaint to ask the courts to invalidate the Texas law.

MARTIN: But, Sarah, this is how the law was designed, right? I mean, it had this accountability mechanism. If a person breaks the law, they were going to be sued by ordinary civilians. So explain why anti-abortion groups aren't happy with this outcome.

MCCAMMON: Right. They had hoped that the prospect of these penalties and litigation would stop Texas abortion providers from performing abortions beyond the limit in the law. Now, most providers in Texas say they are complying with the law but not Dr. Braid. And now he's facing these two lawsuits. But Texas Right to Life, which pushed hard for SB 8, isn't pleased. This isn't what they intended. In a statement, they say, quote, "Both cases are self-serving legal stunts abusing the cause of action created in the Texas Heartbeat Act for their own purposes."

MARTIN: But Doctor Braid, the doctor who defied this this law - you mentioned he did this intentionally. He knew it was coming. He must be trying to draw out these legal questions. Is this going to call into question the law itself and whether it's going to be allowed to stand?

MCCAMMON: I talked to Mary Ziegler, a Florida State University law professor who focuses on reproductive rights. And she thinks so. She says anti-abortion groups who backed this law in Texas hoped it would prompt lawsuits from like-minded people. But now that it's taken effect, it's being used in a variety of other ways.

MARY ZIEGLER: As a vehicle for getting rid of the law or just a vehicle for collecting money. And neither of those things, I think, are what Texas Right to Life had in mind. The problem, of course, is when you have a law where anyone can sue for any reason, there's no guarantee that they'll share the aims of Texas Right to Life.

MCCAMMON: And there are several ongoing challenges to this law. This is just one more potential opportunity to test it in court.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Keep the government running and stop the U.S. from defaulting on its debts. Congressional Democrats want to do both with the same bill.

INSKEEP: Republicans object. They say Democrats are in charge in Washington and need to increase the debt limit on their own. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer says both parties ran up the debt, and both should own it.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: What Republicans are doing is nothing short of a dine and dash of historic proportions.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is with us this morning. I'll get the words out. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: So conversations about the debt ceiling and spending limits can be complicated, so we are turning to you for clarity. Explain what is in the spending and debt limit bill that Democrats want to pass.

SNELL: Here's what Democrats have told us. They want to lift the borrowing cap through the end of 2022. So that means allowing the country to keep making payments on debt from money that has already been spent. And conveniently, that end of 2022 date pushes the debt debate after the midterm elections.

MARTIN: Ah.

SNELL: Yes. And the federal funding portion of it will go through the end of December of this year. It also includes $14 billion for natural disasters from the past year and a half. But that doesn't include Hurricane Ida. They want to put an additional separate $10 billion alone for Ida relief. There's also about $6 billion for resettling refugees from Afghanistan. And this is - you know, it's meant to be a giant package of priorities. It's kind of an attempt to entice Republicans to vote for it or at least make them look bad if they vote no. It is, you know, a familiar standoff. We've heard this before. Spending and debt seem to keep coming up over and over and over again.

MARTIN: Right.

SNELL: But this time, we have less than 10 days to go before the fiscal year ends on September 30. And if they don't pass a government spending bill we have another government shutdown.

MARTIN: Well, Senate Republicans have been saying for weeks that they wouldn't agree to a debt limit increase. And they haven't given an inch on that, have they?

SNELL: No. And nothing has really changed here. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put out a statement after Democrats announced all this saying that Democrats have decided to pass more than $3 trillion in new spending using budget rules to avoid Republican votes and avoid a fight with Republicans. And they should have to use the same tools to increase the debt limit. He says Republicans support extending current government funding and the money for the disaster relief and the Afghan assistance. They just don't support the debt limit part. The way he phrased it is - and this is a quote - "Democrats want to build a partisan future." And he said, quote, "Democrats are fully capable of owning this step themselves."

MARTIN: I mean, he's right, isn't he? I mean, Democrats could just go it alone.

SNELL: They could, but they'd have to go back and rewrite the instructions for budget reconciliation, that process that they're using for the spending bills. And they could include the debt limit there. But that also has risks. It assumes Democrats can pass the reconciliation bill, and that's far from assured right now. There are huge divisions within the party over the overall size of that spending portion of the bill - the details of the tax policy and the policy for renegotiating drug prices, just to name a few of the problems that they're facing. Plus, as Democrats say, Republicans helped spend this money. And Democrats want Republicans to, you know, have their fingerprints on passing the extension.

MARTIN: But if it comes down to keeping the government open or going it alone, I mean, it's kind of an obvious choice for Democrats, right?

SNELL: We really don't know how this is going to resolve. And, you know, the last major debt limit standoff in 2011 got resolved, but it led to a downgrade in the country's credit worthiness.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.