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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Seven candidates will take the stage tonight for the second Republican presidential primary debate in California.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former President Trump will skip it. Depending on the poll you consult, he's either far ahead of his rivals or even farther ahead.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is with us now to give us a preview of what we might see tonight and also the bigger picture of how things stand in the 2024 race so far. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So as we said, this is the second debate that Trump is skipping. Is there any way in which this debate might be different from the last one in Wisconsin?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, like before, there's going to be less attention on the debate without the front-runner, without Trump. But a key difference could be the audience. Republican strategist Sean Walsh told me that the fact that the debate is being held at Ronald Reagan's Presidential Library means attendees will be made up of more mainstream Republicans.

SEAN WALSH: I don't think we'll have the circus audience that we had at the last debate that Fox News held. I think that Chris Christie was going to make some very important points concerning former President Trump, and he was shouted down and did not have the opportunity to do that.

MARTIN: So do you think that these criticisms about Trump that Sean Walsh alluded to might actually be heard tonight on the debate stage? Do you think that other candidates, perhaps apart from Chris Christie, might have more to say?

ORDOÑEZ: They may. I mean, they're running out of time to distinguish themselves. And this crowd may be more amenable to hearing them out. I mean, of course, at that debate in Wisconsin, it wasn't just Governor Christie who was speaking out. Basically, anyone who spoke in any fashion against Trump was booed. And these other candidates, though, they don't want Trump to be the main topic either, but this could give them more of a chance to shine when they're outside of Trump's shadow.

MARTIN: All right. Speaking of Trump again, he's going to Michigan instead to speak with auto workers, but he's going to a nonunion shop. And, of course, he's going a day after President Biden was there speaking to workers on the picket line, which was widely viewed as an historic event. So what's the calculation for Trump and how he's handling that visit?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, you know, Biden has called himself the most pro-union president, but Trump has been, you know, successful at courting blue-collar workers. So he's going directly there to speak with them, as you said, but at a nonunion plant just outside Detroit. I was speaking with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He told me that Biden may have the support of union leadership, but not the men and women on the assembly line.

NEWT GINGRICH: Trump will do better with working-class voters than Biden will. That's the great irony. The establishment is for the old order. So the UAW leadership is for the old order. Their membership's probably going to vote for Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the big picture here is it just shows how important this group of voters are. Michigan voters helped both Trump and Biden win the White House - Trump in 2016, obviously, and Biden in 2020. And the union vote was a big part of that for both of them.

MARTIN: OK. Very briefly, then, Biden told union workers that they deserve more than they're getting from the auto companies. What will Trump's message be?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he's going to attack Biden's economic policies, especially electric vehicles. Trump's likely to talk about how he's better suited to protect the industry and, therefore, their auto workers' jobs. But union leaders really, really are opposed to Trump, and they are discouraging their members from attending.

MARTIN: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Amazon is facing a federal monopoly lawsuit.

INSKEEP: The Federal Trade Commission and 17 states have all sued the tech giant, accusing it of harming small businesses and shoppers. As always, we'll note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and pays to distribute some NPR content, and we cover it like any other company.

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh is with us now to tell us more. She has a monopoly on this story. Sorry, I had to do it.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Here I am (laughter).

MARTIN: All right. So, OK, Alina, how big of a deal is this lawsuit?

SELYUKH: It's a very big deal. It could be up there with historic monopoly cases. Think Microsoft back in the '90s. The FTC has been working on this case for years. It started under President Trump and it's now led by Chair Lina Khan, who became famous as a legal scholar arguing that Amazon and other tech giants are acting like modern-day railroad tycoons and should be restrained appropriately.

MARTIN: Can you just give us some of the specifics of the case against Amazon?

SELYUKH: Yes. So the focus is on the fraught relationship that Amazon has with other sellers on the platform. Most of the stuff that you buy on Amazon now actually comes from other sellers - about 60%. And the FTC argues that Amazon abuses its power over these sellers, kind of trapping them and costing them more and more in various fees, knowing that they can't afford to leave.

MARTIN: Have you had the opportunity to speak to some Amazon sellers? I mean, what do they say about this?

SELYUKH: You know, I mentioned fraught relationship. Selling on Amazon is lucrative, so sellers will talk about how they can reach shoppers now in ways that they couldn't even imagine 20 years ago. But also, Amazon is still their competitor. It can see what they sell, what's most profitable. It could sweep in, sell at a loss, squeeze out them and other rivals and then start raising prices.

Yesterday, a few sellers were brought together by an anti-monopoly think tank, and they described all of this. And one of them was Nicholas Parks from Alabama. He sells hot sauces and spices.

NICHOLAS PARKS: You can't compete head-on in any relevant way in the grocery category. So we have to find items that Amazon doesn't sell. And if they pick up one of the items that we sell, then that effectively means we just can't sell that item any longer.

SELYUKH: He also mentioned that when you tally all the fees, about half of what he makes on the platform goes back to Amazon.

MARTIN: And let's look at this from the consumer standpoint. How does this affect shoppers?

SELYUKH: Well, so the case argues that it could mean that perhaps you're not seeing best-quality results at the top of your search or you're paying more because sellers are paying more. And even more directly, the lawsuit argues that Amazon actually punishes sellers that try to charge lower prices elsewhere on the internet, meaning you might see higher prices caused by Amazon even if you don't shop on Amazon.

MARTIN: And what does Amazon have to say about this?

SELYUKH: Amazon paints FTC as radically veering from its mission to protect consumers and argues that if the government wins, the result could be higher prices, slower deliveries, fewer options for shoppers and businesses.

MARTIN: So what's the goal here? What do the FTC and these 17 states want the court to do?

SELYUKH: The FTC wants the court to make Amazon stop acting anti-competitively. I want to note that at the moment, they're not asking the court to break up Amazon. But this case is going to play out over probably many years, and so a lot can change in the years of litigation ahead.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thank you so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The rollout of the new COVID vaccine is facing some speed bumps.

INSKEEP: When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the next round of COVID-19 boosters earlier this month, doses were supposed to be available that day at pharmacies. Two weeks later, consumers are reporting problems.

MARTIN: NPR's Yuki Noguchi is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So what are the challenges this time?

NOGUCHI: Well, one's going to sound familiar - a lack of supply. It's just like three years ago when vaccines first came out, you know, except this time, of course, approval was anticipated and demand isn't as high as back then. But some stores just don't have doses yet.

And Jen Kates ran into this. She's an executive at Kaiser Family Foundation, as well as a consumer looking to get vaccinated at her pharmacy this week. Her appointment got canceled, and she tried to go in anyway.

JEN KATES: The very nice pharmacist said, yeah, we just don't have the supply. We're not getting enough in, and we're still letting people schedule appointments.

MARTIN: So you might get an appointment but not get a shot. Why is that happening? So why are stores like hers not getting the shots?

NOGUCHI: There's no great explanation. It's, you know, not true across the board because some stores have stock and some don't. One difference this time is that pharmacies had to buy vaccine from their suppliers - you know, wholesalers - and they're no longer getting these doses for free from the federal government. So perhaps there are some hiccups in that adjustment. But either way, manufacturers say they've made plenty of doses, so it's likely to clear up in a matter of weeks. The other big category of problem, though, is insurance.

MARTIN: OK. So tell me about that. What's the roadblock there 'cause I thought that insurers were supposed to cover COVID-19 vaccine costs?

NOGUCHI: And you're right. And that is actually the biggest change from every other round of COVID vaccines that we've seen. This is the first time insurers, and not the government, are supposed to be covering the cost of these vaccines because they are preventative medicine. So whether you have private insurance, like through a job, or you have government-sponsored insurance, like Medicare, it should be free to you without copays or charges. But Kates at KFF says insurers seem to have missed that memo.

KATES: What my colleague ran into was a plan saying, yeah, we don't have it, and we're not going to cover you out of network, which is actually against federal law and regulations.

NOGUCHI: And so insurance snags like this or other snags like that are - you know, with this new COVID vaccine is happening about 20% of the time or more, according to John Beckner. And his group is the National Community Pharmacists Association, and it represents independent drugstores. Beckner says, basically, insurance systems haven't updated their systems to reflect the new rules, and it's causing pharmacies headaches, too. You know, the systems sometimes don't reimburse pharmacies for the cost of the vaccines because the federal government used to supply them for free.

JOHN BECKNER: Pharmacy is on the hook for that money until it becomes rectified.

NOGUCHI: And I asked the American (ph) Health Insurance Plans about some of these reported challenges, and they responded in a statement saying they are covering the new COVID vaccine, and they say they're working with pharmacies and government and others to ensure that consumers don't face any costs.

MARTIN: Yuki, I have to tell you, I have faced this myself. I tried to get the COVID vaccine and have been unable to do so.

NOGUCHI: Well, they would say hang in there.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Yuki, thank you so much.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.

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