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Morning News Brief: Senate Debates Health Care, Manafort Subpoena Dropped


It is only Wednesday, but what a week it's been in the Senate's push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.


Yeah, senators voted to advance debate on repealing or replacing - or just repealing - that law and then demonstrated they do not know what to replace it with, turning aside one of the various Republican plans.

Senator John McCain voted to start debate even though he predicted the effort would fail.


JOHN MCCAIN: I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now. We all know that.

INSKEEP: And with a scar from recent surgery visible near his eye, McCain pressed his colleagues to return to a more bipartisan time.


MCCAIN: I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other, to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing, better serve the people who elected us.

INSKEEP: That was his hope. But how much progress did Republicans really make?

MARTIN: All right, we're going to put that question to Noam Levey. He is national health care reporter for the LA Times.

Noam, thanks for being with us.

NOAM LEVEY: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Explain where this process is right now. What's happening today?

LEVEY: Well, technically, the Senate is debating the legislation that the House of Representatives passed in May to roll back the Affordable Care Act. The - the vote yesterday by the Senate was to take up that piece of legislation - begin debating it. And the expectation, at least by Senate Republican leaders, is that over the next day or two, they will come up with some replacement for that House Republican bill - some bill that will roll back part or all of the Affordable Care Act.

MARTIN: So they're drafting this - explain this - they're drafting this in real time, like, with amendments from both sides.

LEVEY: It is really a remarkable process. It's been compared to sort of building a plane while it's in the air. There - there isn't, at this point, a clear indication of what exactly will emerge from this. And, of course...

MARTIN: Does...

LEVEY: ...Legislation like this - this big, this complex - usually goes through committee process, is debated by lawmakers in multiple committees before it gets to the floor. That hasn't been the case this time.

MARTIN: So if they're doing it this way, doesn't it make it less likely that this would pass - that they would come up with a solution and pass it - and pass it this week if it's kind of this open process?

LEVEY: Well, Republican leaders have been desperate to advance this piece of legislation all year. They obviously have been promising for years to repeal and replace Obamacare. They didn't have a lot of good options because that process wasn't going anywhere very quickly. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided, I think, that this was his best option, and that hopefully the pressure of the time clock on Republicans would force them to come up with an agreement. It may end up that the only thing that Republicans can get to is something that actually is a lot more limited than - than what probably the party had in mind.

INSKEEP: Noam, you're using the word hopefully quite a lot. Senator McCain addressed that hope in his rather dramatic speech, in which he not only predicted that this way of writing a bill would probably fail, but he actually said it probably should fail. This probably shouldn't be the way that we're writing legislation, he said, and urged that they return to what's called regular order.

MARTIN: Yeah, we'll see if that actually happens. It would require starting from scratch. Noam Levey of the LA Times covers health care. Hey, thanks so much for your time this morning.

LEVEY: My pleasure.


MARTIN: There was a moment when it seemed like President Trump's one-time campaign chairman would testify in public in connection to the Russia investigation. That moment has passed.

INSKEEP: The Senate judiciary committee is, like other committees, looking into Russian interference in the election, which is why Chairman Chuck Grassley issued a subpoena for Paul Manafort.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: We want Manafort to come like we want Trump Jr. to come, and other people that we're going to call in. The point is that we're willing to give all sorts of accommodations.

INSKEEP: Accommodations - in other words, the subpoena was a way to force Manafort to agree to different terms other than public testimony. And Manafort did, we're told, agree to give up information in some different way, and the subpoena was dropped.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Geoff Bennett has been following all of this, and he is here this morning. So Geoff, why would the Senate judiciary committee cut a deal with Manafort to avoid public testimony from him?

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Well, because the committee just felt like something is better than nothing. And in this case, the something the committee wanted is to speak with Manafort directly, even in private, because, you know, Manafort is a central figure in the broader Trump-Russia investigation. He has a lengthy lobbying and consulting career, and he has well-documented ties to Russian businessmen and politicians.

There's another dynamic here, too, in that there's a bit of a political turf war happening among the congressional committees looking into this Russia issue. And so what we saw is the Senate judiciary committee really trying to flex its muscle and - and show its relevance. But I'll tell you, all day yesterday, even with that subpoena hanging out there, people close to Manafort were telling us that it was unlikely that he would show up, that in the end, they would strike a deal so that he wouldn't have to endure that spectacle of a public hearing. And in the end, that's what ended up happening.

MARTIN: So does that mean Manafort's never going to have to testify?

BENNETT: Well, so both committee leaders - Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat - have said they expect public testimony will follow these private interviews. But I think that's doubtful in the short term because I - I put that question to someone close to the committee, and the response I got back is that Manafort and Trump Jr., for that matter, could perhaps testify in public at some point, which in Washington-speak, is as close to saying never as it gets.

MARTIN: Yeah, all right, so speaking of the Russia investigation, there's another matter to address - the matter of Jeff Sessions and his fate. This is, of course, the, quote, "beleaguered attorney general" - that's what President Trump calls him. Even yesterday, Trump gave this press conference with the prime minister of Lebanon. And during that, he was asked about Jeff Sessions' fate. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am disappointed in the attorney general. He should not have recused himself almost immediately after he took office.

MARTIN: President referring there to Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation. And this miffed the president.


MARTIN: He - he went as far as to say, if I had known he was going to step down from that investigation, I would have picked someone else, which is pretty extraordinary.

BENNETT: Right, because the president views Sessions' recusal as the original sin, which, you know, paved the way for the appointment of the special counsel. So for the last week, the president has made clear how he feels, but really not what he plans to do about it. There is some thinking that the president could have an ulterior motive here in publicly humiliating and belittling his AG. And that's if Sessions resigns or if Trump fires him, the president could appoint a more compliant attorney general, who would then get rid of the special counsel.

MARTIN: Who would have to get through the Senate. But...

BENNETT: Yeah, yeah. No easy thing, but Republicans on the Hill yesterday were rising to Sessions' defense...

MARTIN: To his defense?

BENNETT: ...As were - as were major figures in the conservative media circles.


BENNETT: You know this is a fight that the president...

INSKEEP: You know - you know, when Trump used the word beleaguered to describe Jeff Sessions, it's actually the president who seems rather beleaguered. He keeps complaining that he's not being protected by Republicans, that Sessions is not protecting him from the investigation. And he made a remark to the Boy Scouts the other day about loyalty, and made - he made a remark to the side of that - the Boy Scouts have the value of loyalty. He said he wished there was more loyalty in Washington.

MARTIN: NPR's Geoff Bennett's reporting on this. Thanks, Geoff.

BENNETT: You're welcome.


MARTIN: The country that started the Industrial Revolution wants to lead a revolution in fuel.

INSKEEP: Yeah, today the United Kingdom is unveiling a plan to ban all new cars, vans and trucks that run on diesel or gas - or petrol, if you prefer. It's part of an effort to curb air pollution, although it would take a while. This ban would not take effect until 2040.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Joanna Kakissis is here reporting from London. Joanna, no more gas-powered cars in the entirety of the U.K.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: (Laughter) That's...

MARTIN: How's that going down over there?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's what it looks like. And a few people I chatted with on my way to work, you know, we're giving it the thumbs-up and saying, you know, it's about time, you know, like, we need to do this. But, you know, if you look at a little bit more closely, clean air advocates, you know, are saying, yeah, OK, it's promising. But let's hear the details - the devil is in the details, as they say.

They want - they wanted more immediate action, like government-funded - funded and mandated clean air zones with charges, you know, for the most polluting vehicles to enter areas with high pollution, for example. And there's, you know, some concern about the timing. I mean, like, 23 years from now - that's a long time. You know, is it actually going to happen? But...

MARTIN: It would mean - it would also mean, I mean, setting up enough charging stations for electric cars, which is a big endeavor, I imagine.

KAKISSIS: Yes, yes. Again, it's in the - we don't know what the details of the plan are yet. And as I mentioned, clean - clean air advocates are saying, you know, anti-pollution advocates are saying that's what we need to look at. We need to look at the details of how this is going to be done.

MARTIN: So - and this is about curbing air pollution. It's something other European countries have tried, right?

KAKISSIS: Yes, it - France, earlier this month, made a similar announcement saying they wanted to do pretty much the same thing. Norway - Norway is also - has also made this a goal. And in Paris, Madrid, Athens, where I usually report from, and Mexico City, they're planning to blunt - to ban the most polluting cars and vans by 2025, you know.

So there's just, like, this mindset that we have to do something. We have to take some action on emissions here. But we spoke to an automotive specialist here in Britain, David Bailey of the Aston Business School in Birmingham, and here's what he said about the move.

DAVID BAILEY: Banning petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is a good move, I think. It sets a clear direction of travel for the industry. But in many senses, it's pretty irrelevant. It's a bit like saying we'll be banning steam engines by 2040 because we won't be buying petrol or diesel cars in 2040. Electric cars will already be here.

MARTIN: What's the auto industry saying, Joanna, just briefly?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, they're say - they're up for it, and they say that they're going to be making cars to fit this new philosophy - the electric car philosophy in the future. They're - they say they're up for it.

MARTIN: A new market is what they see. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reporting from London. Hey, Joanna, thanks so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.