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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today we hear from a country that would rather not be caught in the competition between the United States and China.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That country is South Korea. China is its big neighbor and trading partner. The U.S. is South Korea's vital ally and defender against its enemy, North Korea. In fact, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. alliance with South Korea. President Yoon Suk Yeol will receive a formal welcome and be honored at a state dinner tonight by President Biden.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following all this from the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Hey there, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What will the presidents do?

KUHN: Well, this is the first state visit by a South Korean leader in 12 years. And the visit began Tuesday evening with a visit by the leaders and their spouses to Washington, D.C.'s Korean War Memorial.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is an evocative spot. You've got these statues of American soldiers walking seemingly through the rain in South Korea, kind of a...

KUHN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Very, very powerful place.

KUHN: Yeah, it's a reminder of the conflict out of which the alliance was born. Then today, the main part of the visit, we have the welcoming ceremony, bilateral talks, a joint press conference and a state dinner. President Yoon is going to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, and then he's going to round out the visit with a trip to Boston to visit Harvard and MIT. And he's got a huge delegation of business executives who are signing billions of dollars worth of deals.

INSKEEP: And also thinking about North Korea, which has been testing a bunch of missiles. So what will the two leaders have to say about that?

KUHN: Well, a U.S. official told reporters anonymously that the U.S. is going to deploy a ballistic missile submarine to the area around South Korea for the first time since the 1980s. The two countries are also going to issue what they're calling a Washington declaration, and part of that will be the establishment of a new consultative group modeled on what the U.S. had with European allies during the Cold War.

Now, the South Koreans have been asking for and the U.S. has been promising more consultation on how they're going to deter North Korea and also more military hardware deployments to the region. So basically, these are additions to policies about which we've been reporting for some time. And at the end of the day, this is about reassuring a jittery South Korean public and about perceptions and about repackaging and reselling policies that have already been announced.

INSKEEP: Do the two presidents agree on how to approach China?

KUHN: Well, there are some frictions. There's one story this week that China is conducting a national security review into U.S. chipmaker Micron, and the U.S. government would reportedly like South Korea semiconductor-makers Samsung and SK Hynix not to take Micron's market share if China punishes Micron. President Yoon talked about this issue of supply chains in Washington last night. Let's hear what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT YOON SUK YEOL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "South Korea and the United States are the best partners in building stable supply chains," he said, "because we share values and have close economic ties. We can trust each other." So that's how he sees it. But China is a huge market for South Korean chipmakers, and the U.S. request has led to criticism that President Yoon is putting the alliance ahead of national interest. So the request puts Seoul in a tight spot.

INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks very much for the insights. I always appreciate hearing from you.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to address a problem.

MARTIN: The House Republican majority faces pressure to extend U.S. borrowing authority. The U.S. needs that in order to meet its obligations and avoid default. Republicans have said they won't do it unless they also get future spending cuts. But spending cuts are unpopular, and they have yet to fully agree on any plan that they would pass. Senate Democrats plan to reject whatever they pass, saying the U.S. should just pay its bills.

INSKEEP: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is covering this story. Good morning.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, this is about math. Republicans need 218 votes to pass anything that they can then negotiate over. Does Kevin McCarthy have a majority from among his own Republican members?

BUSTILLO: Not right now. McCarthy is whipping for votes in the House currently, and he told reporters last night that he remains confident a vote could come as soon as this week. The bill would increase the country's borrowing limit by $1.5 trillion or through March of next year, whichever comes first. And it aims to erase much of President Biden's agenda, including his college loan forgiveness proposal and much of the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate bill passed last year. But a group of House Republicans are pushing for changes on several provisions that deal with items like ethanol tax incentives and work requirements for safety net programs. Here he is giving an update on negotiations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: This bill is to get us to the negotiating table. It is not the final provisions. And there's a number of members that will vote for it going forward to say there are some concerns they have with it.

BUSTILLO: Several Midwestern lawmakers spent Tuesday in McCarthy's office negotiating provisions to keep biofuel tax credits and incentives. Since Democrats are all expected to vote no, McCarthy can really only spare a few GOP votes against the measure. And the White House yesterday also issued a statement that should the bill pass, Biden is ready to veto it.

INSKEEP: Again, the Democratic position here, of course, is this is a hostage situation. The U.S. should just pay its existing bills and that the White House is not going to negotiate over paying the existing bills. McCarthy, though, is trying to shape something that cuts future spending in some way. What would happen to social safety net programs?

BUSTILLO: Well, let's look specifically at food stamps. McCarthy wants to raise the age limit of adults 18 to 50 who do not have children and are considered, quote, "capable" from 50 to 56, effectively increasing the number of people who are subject to work requirements. Currently, they have to show that they are working 20 hours a week in order to get food stamps. And if they stop work or don't work enough hours for three months, they lose the benefits. But hunger advocates say that the change will push for more people off the program. Here's Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center.

ELLEN VOLLINGER: It's a strategy that is only certain to take food away from people. It is not going to improve their employability or their prospects in the labor market.

BUSTILLO: Vollinger argues that often the food benefit is being given to a person because they are not able to make enough money on their own to sustain themselves.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just remember also that food stamps are not the largest part of the budget here. It's things like defense and Social Security, which are not going to be touched. What happens now?

BUSTILLO: Well, if McCarthy manages to get the bill through the chamber, it would increase pressure on Biden to start some talks on what a compromise could look like. But many of the current provisions, like food stamp work requirements, are a nonstarter for Democrats. Here's Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, who believes the debt limit is not the appropriate place to have this debate.

DEBBIE STABENOW: There's multiple places - whether it's within the budget, within the farm bill - other ways to do this without being in a situation of threatening default.

BUSTILLO: Now, even if this specific bill fails to get to Biden's desk, it does signal some of McCarthy's thinking when it comes to programs that could be negotiated in other packages coming later in the year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ximena Bustillo, thanks as always.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: How could the conflict in Sudan affect U.S. interests?

MARTIN: The U.S. and other allies and regional powers have been trying to establish a cease-fire that will hold. But the longer the conflict between warring generals goes on, the more danger there is to the people of Sudan and to regional stability.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen has been talking with the experts. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What's at stake?

KELEMEN: Well, I put that question to a couple of Sudan watchers, and I'd like you to hear what Susan Stigant had to say. She runs the Africa program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

SUSAN STIGANT: Sudan sits at the crossroads between North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and into the Red Sea, where I think it's upwards of $700 billion of economic trade flows. So having a stable Sudan that looks to the United States as a partner, as a core partner - that's incredibly strategic.

KELEMEN: So she says it's really important for the U.S. to help get Sudan back on track. Remember, this is a country that was led for decades by Omar al-Bashir. He was accused of carrying out a genocide in Darfur. He was toppled in 2019, and that ushered in kind of a hopeful period. But in October of 2021, the military launched another coup, and now two of the generals behind that are vying for power. They've taken their fight to the streets of Khartoum, derailing, really, this transition to democracy.

INSKEEP: Are there other countries in the region that have become involved in this conflict?

KELEMEN: Yes, lots of them. Saudi Arabia has financial interests in Sudan. The United Arab Emirates does, too. And it has dealings with one of the generals, even relying on him to send Sudanese mercenaries to fight in Yemen. You have Egypt that's backing another general. There are Russian mercenaries that have been involved. So it is really, really complicated, Steve. I've also heard some complaints about U.S. diplomacy, that the U.S. was too focused on working with those generals and not pressuring them or imposing sanctions on them to get back to serious negotiations.

INSKEEP: So how could this situation grow even worse?

KELEMEN: Well, a lot of concern about the humanitarian situation - 450 civilians have been killed so far in this conflict. And there are concerns that the conflict can really rock the whole region. One longtime Sudan watcher, Cameron Hudson, who's with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it this way.

CAMERON HUDSON: If you look at where Sudan sits on the map, it is surrounded by a host of highly fragile states which are all either currently in some kind of internal rebellion or coming out of some kind of civil conflict, whether that's Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea. These are all highly fragile states.

KELEMEN: And the concern really is that, you know, fighters from those places could enter into Sudan. The U.N. secretary-general is worried about that, too. He said this conflict is lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders and set back development for decades. That was a dire warning that he issued at the Security Council yesterday.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks.

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

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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