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News brief: Senate's filibuster issue, Texas hostage details, Iran nuclear talks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Senate Democrats are barreling ahead with a public showdown over the filibuster and voting rights.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yes, a showdown partly within their own party. Democrats, you'll recall, want to set federal standards for voting, among other things. Every Republican is opposed to their bill, meaning the narrow Democratic majority would have to end the filibuster to pass the Senate. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona oppose doing that. Vice President Harris addressed the resistance during a Martin Luther King Day service yesterday.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: There are a hundred members of the United States Senate, and I'm not going to absolve, nor should any of us absolve any member of the United States Senate from taking on a responsibility to follow through on the oath that they all took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

INSKEEP: The pressure from the White House has not changed much, but Democrats are marching ahead.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following all of this. Kelsey, why are Democrats doing this right now when issues such as inflation, omicron, supply chain issues are all top of mind for so many voters right now?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Well, in part because Democrats are running out of time to get legislation passed this year. It is an election year, and they promised voting protections like ensuring access to mail-in voting and making Election Day a federal holiday. They did all of that in the last election, and they need to make sure they prove that they tried. They also need to show exactly who stopped them from making these changes to the law. You know, it also demonstrates the same thing with the filibuster. Activists in some in the Democrats' base are demanding changes to the filibuster. And Democrats have said for some time that they just couldn't do it. And these votes will again show that they tried. It's also an attempt to blunt some criticism while taking a chance to make Republicans fight publicly about election security and keep the focus on former President Trump, who has been continuing to lie about the 2020 election.

MARTINEZ: So you outline two different hurdles here - filibuster and voting rights. Who's standing in the way of each part of this?

SNELL: So let's go in order of how they're going to kind of run into these hurdles throughout the week. So Democrats have a plan to allow them to start debate on the voting rights bill without a Republican filibuster, but they still need 60 votes to end debate and then hold a final vote. So most Republicans oppose the voting rights bills. And so they've got no shot at getting to 60 there. So Schumer plans to bring up filibuster reform. Now, there are a few different options. They're considering, you know, some things that would just tweak the edges of the filibuster. They are going to kind of roll out what those changes are. But they need unanimous agreement among Democrats to get any changes passed. And Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona says she opposes any changes to the filibuster. And Joe Manchin of West Virginia has signaled that he might be OK with some changes. But there's really no incentive for him to vote for them right now when they've got no chance of actually happening. So Democrats will be stymied once they get to there.

MARTINEZ: What about talk of more maybe bipartisan efforts to do something narrower? Republicans talk about changing the Electoral Count Act. What can you tell us about that?

SNELL: Yeah, this is much different, is completely separate bill. And this is, you know, a law that governs the counting of Electoral College votes. There is a bipartisan group of senators who kind of want to clarify the law, including the limits of the powers of the vice president to reject electoral votes. It's what insurrectionists are calling for on January 6. There are even some pro-Trump Republicans who are in favor of this. White House and Democratic leaders initially rejected this. And the legislation doesn't actually exist yet, and there have been no serious top-level talks about it so far.

But Republican senators like Mitt Romney were incensed by President Biden's speech last week for suggesting that they're part of Jim Crow 2.0 because they don't support the specific bills Democrats are trying to pass. You know, Romney's saying, look. We're willing to talk. But he says the White House hasn't reached out. And, you know, they aren't really negotiating on this yet. And Biden's seal of approval and personal attention is kind of a signal of seriousness.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks a lot.

SNELL: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Details are emerging about the hostage standoff at a Texas synagogue over the weekend.

INSKEEP: Here's the story as we understand it. The gunman was a British citizen named Malik Faisal Akram. He didn't seem like a threat at first. He knocked at the entrance to the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Saturday morning. And Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker answered the door and let him in, thinking he needed shelter, made the man a cup of tea. The rabbi then joined his congregation for prayers. And that's when things went wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS MORNINGS")

CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: I heard a click. And it could have been anything, and it turned out that it was his gun.

INSKEEP: The rabbi told "CBS Mornings" of his 11 hours at gunpoint as the man negotiated with police outside.

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CYTRON-WALKER: The last hour or so of the standoff, he wasn't getting what he wanted. He was getting - it didn't look good. It didn't sound good. We were very - we were terrified.

INSKEEP: He says past training helped him and others escape alive.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Wade Goodwyn is in Dallas, where he's been covering the story. Wade, so all this started with an act of generosity, a rabbi helping a man who appeared to maybe need some help.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Right. It's painful to have this story begin with this act of kindness. So it's Saturday, and there's a Shabbat service about to begin. And that's when Akram pulls this gun. And he begins to angrily voice commands at Rabbi Charlie, as the rabbi's called. And Akram's voice gets heard by a group of worshippers who are listening to the service on the web, and a couple of them called 911. And that's how it all began.

MARTINEZ: Now, we've been hearing a lot about how the assailant repeatedly pressed law enforcement for the release of a Pakistani scientist currently imprisoned in Texas. What else have you learned about that?

GOODWYN: Yeah, he wanted the release of this convicted Pakistani woman. Her name is a Aafia Siddiqui, and she was connected to al-Qaida. She's now in federal prison near Fort Worth, which is not that far from the synagogue. And in 2008, she was convicted of trying to kill a group of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan while she was being interrogated. And somehow, she managed to grab an M4 rifle and started shooting. But she couldn't hit anyone, and she was shot in the stomach by the interrogator. And eventually, she's, you know, shipped to the U.S. and sentenced to 86 years. You know, and during the standoff we just had, Akram's brother, who helped English authorities by trying to talk his brother into releasing the hostages, has told the press his brother was very seriously mentally ill. And he was surprised Akram had even managed to get into the U.S.

MARTINEZ: Wade, how did the hostages wind up getting free?

GOODWYN: Well, I mean, the oldest man was somewhat infirm. He got released at 5. And after 9 p.m., it got to get bad. And Akram was getting furious with the FBI. And the rabbi thought it was time to try to escape. They were near an exit. And that's when Akram told them to get down on their knees. And the rabbi shook his head no, reached down, grabbed a chair, threw it at Akram. And the three of them bolted out of the exit door like lightning and disappeared into the darkness. Akram followed, opened the door there a little bit, couldn't see them. So he went back inside. And then seconds later, the FBI attacked him.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn talking to us from Dallas, Texas, Wade, thanks.

GOODWYN: You're quite welcome.

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MARTINEZ: There's a flurry of meetings aimed at reviving the international agreement that had put limits on Iran's nuclear program.

INSKEEP: This deal has slowly eroded since the Trump administration abandoned it back in 2018. Iran and other nations are still in the agreement. But the United States reimposed economic sanctions, and Iran has ramped up its production of uranium toward what would be needed if it wanted to build a nuclear bomb.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to discuss the latest. So, Peter, we discussed - we mentioned that former President Trump took the U.S. out of this deal. And he said the Obama administration hadn't made it tough enough. And that seems to still be an issue for the Iranians. Can you update us on that?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, yes. The Trump withdrawal from the original agreement is a huge issue for the Iranians. They're demanding guarantees that it won't happen again, which makes sense from Tehran's point of view. Why agree to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief that could disappear at any moment? The Americans say, practically speaking, that kind of guarantee isn't really possible. This is not a formal treaty, which would be harder to get out of. But then a treaty would have required approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, which would have been highly problematic. There is another factor at play - money. When the original deal took effect, billions of dollars flowed into Iran, to the consternation of critics in the West. And another influx of cash would be highly attractive to Iran. Possibly, that would help convince Tehran to get back into compliance with the deal, even without guarantees.

MARTINEZ: There have been several rounds of talks here. Where do the other issues stand as the talks resume this week?

KENYON: Well, reports out of Vienna suggest progress has been made on what both sides would need to do to restore the agreement. But there are some key decisions remaining on an exact sequence of events and the crucial item of lifting sanctions. And just to remind everyone, the U.S. isn't directly involved here. As a nonparty to the agreement. The U.S. isn't at the table. Since 2018, it's been the four other members of the U.N. Security Council - the U.K., France, Russia and China - plus Germany, negotiating directly with Iran.

MARTINEZ: Now, there are other meetings possibly coming up in Russia and Saudi Arabia. What's known about those so far?

KENYON: Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, is to visit Russia next week. Moscow is interested in salvaging the nuclear agreement. It's not clear exactly what those talks will focus on. There's one report that the Iranian president will address the Russian legislature, the Duma. As for Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says a serious approach is needed to ensure restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and its missile program. Now, Iran's ballistic missiles aren't covered in the nuclear deal, and Iran says - so far been saying its conventional weapons are not up for discussion.

MARTINEZ: Peter, can they still talk about this for weeks and months? Or is there any kind of time crunch on this?

KENYON: Well, there is pressure coming from the U.S. Washington wants results soon. There's a concern that if Iran's nuclear program advances too far, this agreement won't be able to achieve what it sets out to do. Tehran, for its part, says it won't be held to fabricated deadlines. And remember, these talks aim only to restore the original deal, which was criticized for not being tough enough on Iran and not lasting long enough. So addressing those concerns - that would mean a new round of negotiations with Iran. And Iran's hard-line leadership, from the Ayatollah to President Raisi to other institutions, are all firmly in the hard-line camp. It's not clear they're ready for a new set of talks.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.

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