News Brief: Budget Deadline, North Korea's Military Parade
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stood on the House floor yesterday. It seemed like she had no plans to sit down ever.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah, she ended up speaking for eight hours, which is the longest talk in more than a century on the floor of the House. Pelosi demanded a House vote on the fate of immigrants brought to the United States as children who do not have legal status.
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NANCY PELOSI: As members of Congress, we have a moral responsibility to act now to protect DREAMers, who are the pride of our nation and are American in every way but on paper. There's nothing partisan or political about protecting DREAMers.
INSKEEP: Democrats and some Republicans say they do want legal status for people called DREAMers. As of March, President Trump takes away protection that President Obama granted under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The government-spending talks of recent weeks included a promise by Senate Republicans to at least debate that immigration issue. House Speaker Paul Ryan made no such promise, which is why Pelosi was speaking in protest. As a larger spending deal comes together, Pelosi says she'll vote no.
GREENE: All right, lots to talk about here with NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. And, Domenico, we do not have eight hours here. I just want you to know that ahead of time.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Oh, I'm aware.
INSKEEP: But he's going to be taking that time anyway.
GREENE: But he's going to be taking that time anyway.
INSKEEP: See if you can cut him off.
GREENE: Well, what is the point of an eight-hour speech. What was Pelosi trying to accomplish here?
MONTANARO: Well, first, what Pelosi did was historic. As Steve mentioned, she held the floor for eight hours. It was the longest House speech in history since at least 1909. The point of the speech was to protest that there is nothing in this Senate deal having to do with DACA. You know, some Democrats feel like they have leverage now, and they believe that they're giving away too much to Republicans. That will make it less likely to get a good deal for DREAMers. But there's a flip side to all this attention that Pelosi is getting. Republicans are perfectly happy to give her as much airtime as possible. They plan to bludgeon Democrats using Pelosi. And they've done it in the past. They'll do it again. They've been doing it in special elections. And there's reason for that. When you look at polling, she's less popular than President Trump.
GREENE: Oh, so they would give her the floor as long as she wants in many ways - hoping to get more material. What - so there's this deal in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer are celebrating this outbreak of bipartisanship. What exactly is in this spending deal if not immigration?
MONTANARO: So it finally loosens military and domestic spending levels, increasing them for two years. Republicans got more money for the military than the president had asked for. Democrats got more money for domestic spending than Republicans would ordinarily support. Notably, it funds the government through September 19 - September 2019, David, so we wouldn't have to keep talking about them passing these short-term Band-Aid spending measures.
GREENE: For a little while at least.
MONTANARO: Well, yeah, I mean for, you know, a good year and a half.
MONTANARO: And it also has funding in it to combat the opioid crisis, improve veterans' health care. It funds the Children's Health Insurance Program, for example, for a decade, which means that program goes from being in something of a financial crisis to being solvent for some time. And by the way, the debt ceiling would be risen through March of 2019, taking that issue off the table. That was set to be reached next month and always a point of contention among House conservatives.
GREENE: Help me do the math here. I mean, you mentioned point of contention for House conservatives. You have some conservatives in the House who don't want to spend a ton of money. You have Democrats who are angry that immigration is not part of this deal. Are there the votes in the House to pass this budget agreement?
MONTANARO: I mean, that's the big question - right? - because in addition to that debt ceiling, members of the House Freedom Caucus are not happy that it adds $400 billion in new spending. Remember. That tax bill was $1.5 trillion in tax cuts. Mark Meadows, the chairman of that Freedom Caucus, said even if President Trump calls him, no way he can vote for this. That means if they block it, then they need Democrats. And Democrats are not necessarily sold on this. Pelosi is against it. So there's a lot that needs to be done in the next 24 to 48 hours to get this done.
GREENE: Yeah, sounds like it.
INSKEEP: Even if they do have leverage though, the problem Democrats face is they already tried a government shutdown once and very quickly decided it didn't work for them and decided they really didn't have the leverage this time.
GREENE: Domenico, you were very succinct. We appreciate it.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
GREENE: NPR political editor, Domenico Montanaro.
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GREENE: All right, we've been talking a lot about the Olympics. But tomorrow, finally, the opening ceremony - the winter games officially begin in South Korea.
INSKEEP: North Korea is sending a delegation that includes Kim Jong Un's younger sister. By the standards of the constant tension on the Korean Peninsula, that's considered a big symbolic gesture. But then there's North Korea's other symbolic gesture - troops marching on the streets of its capital.
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INSKEEP: You're hearing sounds of a giant Soviet-style military parade in Pyongyang. You could see the soldiers' breath in the cold and see North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un smiling.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Elise Hu covers the Koreas for NPR. She joins us from Seoul. Hi, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi, there.
GREENE: So how do we interpret the last couple of days and North Korea's message? I mean, they're playing nice at the Olympics, and then they go - I mean, it's this display of military power. What's happening?
HU: Well, this happens to be an anniversary. This marks the day the Korean People's Army was founded. North Korea had been holding a parade to mark a similar anniversary that's a little bit forward in the calendar in recent years. But now the regime has moved it back to this February date. And conveniently, it gives North Korea a chance to show off its troops and tanks and missiles just as everyone's eyes are on the Korean Peninsula.
GREENE: While the world is watching, yeah.
HU: That's right. So even though North Korea is being diplomatic with these Olympic Games and sending this delegation, joining in in a lot of these unified activities, Kim Jong Un still wants to remind the world that he takes their military seriously - that they're going to defend themselves if threatened.
GREENE: OK, so he's sending also his younger sister to the games in South Korea. I don't think I know anything about her. Who is she?
HU: Kim Yo Jong - she's influential by virtue of having her brother's ear. She's immediate family - younger sister, about 30 years old, someone he trusts. Kim Jong Un has a surviving brother, but he isn't part of the Worker's Party hierarchy in the way that this younger sister is. She's part of his entourage. And she's officially the deputy head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department...
GREENE: That's quite a name.
HU: ...And in charge of her brother's logistical needs and organizing his presence at public events.
GREENE: OK, so this delegation is going to be at this huge public event in South Korea - the Olympics. I mean, are they going to be making overtures to South Korean officials - or, I mean, to U.S. officials who are going to be there?
HU: Well, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said it has no intention to meet the U.S. side during the visit to South Korea. And then there's U.S. Vice President Mike Pence who announced just yesterday more ratcheting up of sanctions aimed at further isolating North Korea, keeping up this pressure and isolation campaign by the Trump administration, because of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
But at the same time, the Trump administration has also said that it isn't ruling out a meeting - saying that there are no plans but, quote, "we'll see" - or "we'll see what comes about." That has come from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as well as the vice president. There are reasons to be skeptical about any sort of high-level contact. But North Koreans and American leaders at the high level are both going to be in the same place in the same stadium at the same time tomorrow, so it'll be really interesting to watch.
HU: We'll see.
GREENE: We'll see.
INSKEEP: All of it clearly about managing a crisis still rather than resolving it.
HU: That's right.
GREENE: Indeed. NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul - Elise, thanks.
HU: You bet.
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GREENE: All right, next month, Russia is holding a presidential election, and here is some stunning news, Steve. Vladimir Putin is going to win.
INSKEEP: Wow, unbelievable.
INSKEEP: OK, it's actually preordained. But you can learn a lot about a country from an election, even one where the results seems to be cooked, especially if you talk with politicians disqualified from running - among them Alexei Navalny, who describes Putin as scared going into this election.
ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Through interpreter) He's afraid. He understands perfectly well that his 80 percent approval ratings exist in a vacuum - when there's only Putin and no other politicians, just some fake candidates.
GREENE: OK, so this Putin critic Navalny was speaking to NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim, who's on the line. Hi, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So just remind us, if you can, who Alexei Navalny is.
KIM: Well, in some case, he's really come out of nowhere and put himself front and center on the political stage. And now he's so toxic for the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin won't even mention his name in public. I think that gives you an idea of how much he's really gotten under Putin's skin with his slogan that Russia's being run by crooks and thieves. Navalny is a lawyer. He is 41 years old - quite charismatic. And he started as an anti-corruption campaigner who became a protest leader. Right now, his brother is in jail. He's been attacked. And the office where we had the interview has been raided a couple of times. And now he faces arrest for organizing protests a couple of weeks ago. When we met yesterday, I asked him what drives him to keep attacking the Kremlin.
NAVALNY: (Through interpreter) I want to live here, and I can't tolerate the injustice that for many people has become routine. Probably my profession as a lawyer led me to politics because you can't get justice here.
GREENE: OK, so Navalny not likely to win an election. So what exactly does he want as he's getting his message out? What is he demanding here?
KIM: His demands are pretty clear. He says he wants an independent judiciary, competitive elections, free media. And what's more - he says that a majority of Russians actually want the same thing even though the Kremlin, of course, would say that Russia is already a democracy.
GREENE: So is - does he have an ultimate goal here in terms of this election - like, I mean, keeping Putin's numbers down or what?
KIM: Well, I think - you know, I left with the impression that he still has the ambition to be Russia's president. But for the election, he wants to organize his network that he organized on Twitter to act as election observers and to uncover any irregularities.
GREENE: OK, NPR's Lucian Kim speaking to us from Moscow - Lucian, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.
KIM: Thank you.
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