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News Brief: Transition Progresses, ACA Challenge, Biden's Education Plan

NOEL KING, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden says President Trump's refusal to accept the outcome of the election is not affecting his transition plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOE BIDEN: We're going to be going, moving along in a - in a consistent manner, putting together our administration, the White House and reviewing who we're going to pick for the Cabinet positions. And nothing's going to stop that.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But the Trump campaign and a growing chorus of Republicans keep trying to stop it. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, as they allege, but they are insisting that legal challenges have to play out.

KING: White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been with Biden and following all of this. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we heard it there. President-elect Biden is plowing ahead.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, he held a press conference yesterday in Wilmington to defend the Affordable Care Act, which is currently before the Supreme Court. And as for the transition, he released a list of agency review teams, and, you know, we just heard he plans to release some Cabinet names before Thanksgiving.

But he also took some questions from reporters. It was the first time reporters were able to ask him directly about the election and kind of get his take on the president refusing to concede. And as you noted, he says nothing is going to slow down their process even though the Trump administration is blocking his team from receiving things like classified reports and important transition funding. He actually downplayed the idea of taking any legal action to force the matter. And he said the standoff is probably hurting Trump and his legacy more than him.

KING: What did he say about Senate Republicans who, again, in denial of reality, have mostly been backing up President Trump?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Biden said he hadn't spoke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, but that he expects to soon. He was kind of solemn on this note and scolded Republicans about the hold that Trump has on the party. He said they were intimidated by Trump. There are a few - and it seems to be a growing number of Republicans, though - who are breaking with the president. But Biden was asked very directly about how he could work with Republicans who will not even acknowledge him as president-elect. And he just kind of smiled. He said, they will; they will.

KING: Makes you wonder if President Trump was watching that. Have we heard anything from the Trump campaign?

ORDOÑEZ: Trump himself has been mostly quiet other than on Twitter. The campaign announced that it was filing a new federal lawsuit in Michigan, seeking to block the certification of election results until a review could be done. And it's just one of a series of legal challenges the campaign is pursuing. Many of them have already failed in a court, as we have reported. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also took some very pointed questions about the transition from the press yesterday. He insisted there will be a smooth transition - but for a second term of the Trump administration. So they're not giving up yet.

KING: Yeah, Mike Pompeo freaked a lot of people out with that statement yesterday. And there are questions about whether he was joking or being sarcastic. Despite all of the mess in this country, foreign leaders - many foreign leaders seem to have accepted the results. They've been calling Joe Biden. And he's been telling them what exactly?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, he's telling them that America's back and that the United States, as he says, is back in the game. Biden has routinely criticized, you know, Trump's "America First" approach to foreign policy, arguing that acting unilaterally has hurt the United States. He said yesterday that he had talked to six world leaders so far, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, who was a Trump ally. You know, Trump has yet to concede, but all of them are telling Biden that they look forward to working with him.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thanks, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The Affordable Care Act looks like it will survive another challenge in the Supreme Court.

GREENE: That's right. So yesterday, the court signaled that even though Obamacare might have some legal problems, it's unlikely that a majority of justices will vote to throw out the entire law. President-elect Biden talked about the high stakes in this court case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This argument will determine whether health care coverage of more than 20 million Americans who acquired it under the Affordable Care Act will be ripped away in the middle of the nation's worst pandemic in a century.

KING: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this one. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So this was the third time that the Supreme Court has heard a significant challenge to the Affordable Care Act. What happened yesterday?

JOHNSON: Texas and a big group of other red states argued that since Congress had zeroed out the financial penalty for not having insurance, also known as the individual mandate, that meant the whole law needed to go. But those arguments got a somewhat chilly reception from two conservative justices. Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh said flat-out that under court precedent, the bulk of the ACA would be likely to survive. And Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to be a skeptic, too. Here's Roberts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: I think it's hard for you to argue that Congress intended the entire act to fall if the mandate were struck down when the same Congress that lowered the penalty to zero did not even try to repeal the rest of the act. I think, frankly, that they wanted the court to do that, but that's not our job.

JOHNSON: So, Noel, this could just be a matter of simple math. If Kavanaugh and Roberts join the court's three liberals, the bulk of the law would survive.

KING: OK. But did the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, offer any indication of what she's thinking on this one - because the ACA kept coming up at her confirmation hearing?

JOHNSON: It did. Justice Barrett asked several questions, mostly on the issue of standing, in essence, whether the red states and some individuals had actually suffered harm or an injury that would give them the right to sue in the first place. But Amy Coney Barrett didn't really give a signal one way or another about how she might vote. Remember; she told Democrats last month she'd made no promises about the health care law and she wasn't hostile to it, even though she's written some critical things about the ACA in the past.

KING: It is notable, Carrie, that this case was filed a couple of years ago, but it's being argued during a global pandemic. So the timing's super interesting. Did that come up at all yesterday?

JOHNSON: You know, the U.S. House of Representatives was there to defend the law. Don Verrilli, their lawyer, raised the issue of health care coverage. And here's what Verrilli told the justices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON VERRILLI: In view of all that has transpired in the past decade - the litigation before this court, the battles in Congress, the profound changes in our health care system - only an extraordinarily compelling reason could justify judicial invalidation of this law at this late date.

KING: OK. But because it's 2020 and everything is topsy-turvy, we have to ask. If the court does pull a surprise and throws out the ACA, what happens next?

JOHNSON: What would happen is President-elect Joe Biden could work with Congress early next year to try to impose some new financial penalty, maybe something small, like a dollar for not having insurance. Biden has talked about wanting to make other, bigger changes to the health care system. Republicans have been fighting the ACA for 10 years now. If the court upholds this law in large part this year, that may be the end of the legal road for a while.

KING: Wow. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: During his acceptance speech on Saturday night, President-elect Joe Biden gave many shoutouts, including this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: For American educators, this is a great day for you all.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING, CHEERING)

BIDEN: You're going to have one of your own in the White House.

GREENE: Biden there was talking about his wife, Jill Biden, who is a long-time English professor at a community college. Now, despite those optimistic words, the state of education, we should say, is troubled in this country. Many schools are holding classes remotely because of the pandemic. Teachers, parents are really frustrated.

KING: Anya Kamenetz is on NPR's education team, and she's been talking to people in and around the Biden transition team. Good morning, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what is Joe Biden's top priority on education?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's pretty basic. It's getting school doors open safely given the pandemic, and he's called that a national emergency. One recent estimate, Noel, says just about 38% of children right now are in public school districts that are open five days a week. And so that raises a lot of worries about learning losses, social and emotional impacts, especially for young children and those with special needs.

KING: Yeah. I mean, it seems like just about everyone would like to be in school right now or would like to - would like their kids to be in school right now. But there's the pandemic. What can Joe Biden do about that?

KAMENETZ: So one thing experts told me is that, regardless of any legislation or any significant funding getting passed, just more coordination at the federal level would help right away for schools to reopen and stay open, talking about things like tracking cases nationally and getting more coordinated safety guidance, for example. And it's interesting to note from some of the doctors that he's named to his COVID safety task force, they've been really vocal about the need to open schools safely and with proper funding. So, for example, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, who Biden named to his task force, said in an op-ed, being safe is not free.

KING: They need funding, you said. What do they need funding for, and where would the money come from?

KAMENETZ: You know, I think the basic thing is social distancing, which means smaller class sizes, which means teachers and educators. The pandemic's recession has actually forced a lot of educators out of work at the worst possible time. One estimate, about a million educators have been laid off. So education groups have asked for $200 billion in emergency relief, which is a big number at least to be starting with. And if there ends up being a new coronavirus stimulus bill, it could be the biggest education package for - from the federal government in a really long time.

KING: OK. So beyond legislation, because you've been talking to the transition team, what are some other areas of education policy that you think we should have an eye on?

KAMENETZ: Well, the president-elect has pledged often and publicly to appoint an educator as the education secretary. And I talked to Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, about what that means.

BECKY PRINGLE: It brings a smile to my face to say it. It seems like something we would take for granted that the secretary of education would be an educator. But no, it is something we have to say out loud.

KAMENETZ: Especially, she says, after four years of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had no professional experience with public school classrooms.

KING: NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Thanks, Anya.

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

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