Morning news brief
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Congressional leaders have agreed to a deal on how much money the federal government should spend this fiscal year, clearing the way for lawmakers to pass funding legislation before the January 19 deadline, hopefully in time to avoid a shutdown.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah. One of my kids asked just yesterday what a government shutdown would mean, and I explained that some people in the federal government would stop working; while others might have to work without pay, and that these people do everything from regulate workplace safety to food safety to defending the country. If Congress should approve all the details in time, they will keep working.
MARTIN: NPR's Eric McDaniel covers Congress, and he's here with us now to tell us more about all this. Good morning, Eric.
ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: All right. Tell us what's in the funding agreement.
MCDANIEL: Well, a lot of money, mostly $886 billion for the military and 773 billion for, well, everything else. But so far, this is basically a handshake deal, right? Now all they have to do is actually pass the spending bills, which is not going to be an easy feat. But yesterday, Michel, when I started thinking about what to say during this conversation, there wasn't a plan. There was no plan. So this is a major step forward.
And just for some context here, since these are obviously massive numbers, this is essentially a consistent level of annual spending to what President Biden and former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy agreed to in a deal last year, a deal that ultimately helped to doom McCarthy, who went on to become the first speaker of the House ousted in a vote by his colleagues. And now his replacement, Republican speaker of the House Mike Johnson, just agreed to essentially the same thing, but now with some little concessions, including a faster timeline on already-agreed-to cuts to the IRS and some unspent COVID money returned back to the government.
MARTIN: And what are you hearing about reaction?
MCDANIEL: Well, as you might imagine, some Republicans in the House are really mad. This is the anticompromise set of folks in the party - folks like the House Freedom Caucus and their allies. They wanted to leverage the looming government funding deadline on January 19 to extract big spending cuts and policy concessions on everything from abortion access to building a wall on the U.S. southern border.
This was always a pretty big long shot that they'd be able to achieve that. It wouldn't get through the Democratic-controlled Senate or be signed by President Biden, but it could have ended up in a government shutdown, like we talked about, but would have been really hard on millions of people. That's still a possibility, but it's less likely now. It would - it's still going to be hard to get a deal on 12 federal spending bills. But let's put it this way. They've agreed on the size of the House. Now they just have to, you know, come up with the blueprints and build the thing.
MARTIN: Yeah. A shutdown in the middle of an election year. I'm not sure who would really enjoy that. But look, the last time we talked, Eric, they were talking about working on aid to Israel, aid to Ukraine. Where does that stand?
MCDANIEL: So this is a separate process for the most part. There was some talk in Republican circles about trying to tie immigration reform to government funding. But for the most part, this is separate. They're calling it a big national security bill. So that's Ukraine, Israel, maybe some money for Taiwan and U.S. immigration policy, too.
So Republicans and Democrats for weeks in the Senate have been trying to figure out a way to address that because no one involved thinks that the immigration status quo is good. A record 10,000-some people are presenting themselves to Border Protection agencies many days, often making legal requests for asylum. Democrats want to handle that by putting more resources toward it; while Republicans want to curb who's allowed to request asylum in the first place and find other ways to limit the number of people arriving.
And there's a very, very different appetite for a deal in the Senate than in the House. Republicans in the House just got back from a trip to the U.S. southern border and could end up trying to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, a man who's personally involved with negotiating just down the hall with their counterparts in the Senate. So right now, at least, I think it's fair to say that government funding is more on track than foreign aid or immigration reform.
MARTIN: That is NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel. Eric, thank you so much.
MCDANIEL: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: We have a glimpse now of the low-level war along Israel's northern border.
MARTIN: This is a part of Israel far from the fighting in Gaza but very close to an ally of Hamas. Israel's army has been exchanging fire for months with Hezbollah, which is across the border in Lebanon. Recent violence in Lebanon, the killing of a Hamas leader has added to concerns that the fighting could grow more intense.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Israel, near that northern border, and joins us now. Hey there, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Where are you, exactly?
FRAYER: I'm on the side of a road that's swarming with Israeli soldiers, at the base of a hill where the other side of the hill is Lebanon - about two miles as the crow flies. The Israeli military has closed roads beyond where I'm standing. It says it struck a bunch of targets on the other side of this border overnight, including what it calls a Hezbollah military compound. Over the past day, I've been hearing lots of warplanes, booms of outgoing weaponry, air raid sirens on this side of the border.
In the town of Kiryat Shmona, near here, residential neighborhoods have been hit by rockets, presumably fired by Hezbollah. I don't know if you heard that boom just behind me. There are gaping holes in the side of houses here. But compared to the south of Israel and in Gaza, there have been very few casualties here because the area has been largely evacuated of civilians, tens of thousands of people relocated to hotels farther south that have been paid for by the Israeli government. Now, there's no mandatory evacuation on the Lebanese side of the border, and there have been a lot of casualties from Israeli strikes there.
INSKEEP: What are you hearing from people who are on the ground still?
FRAYER: I mean, really, one of the only civilians I could find here was a man named David Itkin. He stayed behind while the rest of his family evacuated. He's staying to work overtime as an essential worker in a factory. And I asked him about the atmosphere in his hometown here.
DAVID ITKIN: It's like a ghost town now - not a lot of people, not a lot of traffic. Politicians and society, everybody is saying that Nasrallah is making speeches.
FRAYER: He's referring there to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. You mentioned last week there was an airstrike in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. It killed a top Hamas leader. Israel has not claimed responsibility for that attack, but Nasrallah nevertheless says he will respond to it, quote, "on the battlefield." And that battlefield may be right here.
INSKEEP: Let's just note that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Israel today. Is he likely to have discussions that would touch on the conflict you're watching?
FRAYER: He is expected, certainly, to do that. He's got a lot on his plate. He's been meeting with regional leaders in Gulf countries and elsewhere, drumming up support for the rebuilding of Gaza after the war there ends. When he lands here in Israel, he's expected to push Israeli leaders to curtail their widespread bombing of Gaza. And there are actually signs that that may already be happening. The Israeli defense minister said with the withdrawal of thousands of Israeli troops from northern Gaza, the military is refocusing on more targeted special ops missions there. But Blinken has said he's worried that this conflict could, quote, "metastasize." And that's a reference to this new front that could be kicking off here on the Israel-Lebanon border.
INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thanks for your reporting.
FRAYER: Thanks so much, Steve.
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MARTIN: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remains at Walter Reed hospital today. That's a week after he was admitted for complications from what we are told was a recent elective medical procedure.
INSKEEP: What's unusual here is not that Austin is in the hospital - that happens - but that Austin kept his hospitalization quiet from the White House and members of Congress for days.
MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now to tell us more about this strange situation. Good morning, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it is strange. I'm sorry. I know that most people, you know, don't feel a need to tell all their personal business when they go into the hospital. But he is a member of the cabinet, and we know he's still in the hospital. Do we know how he's doing?
BOWMAN: Well, we really don't know his condition, the initial medical procedure or the resulting complications. He was in the intensive care unit, Michel. So clearly it was serious, but, I'm told by a source, not life threatening. The Pentagon put out a statement yesterday afternoon saying the Secretary is, quote, "recovering well and in good spirits," and he resumed his duties Friday night, but no word on a release date.
MARTIN: Can you walk us through this whole story about who knew what when? I'm talking about officials in Washington here.
BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon put out a brief release Friday afternoon, the 5, saying on New Year's night, January 1, Austin was admitted to the hospital. We were later told his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was informed the next day that she was the acting secretary. Now, Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico and was told a couple of days later, on Thursday, that Austin was in fact in the hospital. She offered to head home, but was told, listen, Austin would resume duties on Friday. Also on Thursday, the White House was finally informed Austin was in the hospital, and some members of Congress were only told - get this - a half hour before the press release was issued on Friday afternoon. Now, Austin himself has released a statement saying, quote, "I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed."
MARTIN: OK, the public. But what about his boss, the president?
BOWMAN: Well, right. You would think that Biden's principal military adviser in this time of war in the Middle East and possible continued military action by U.S. forces against militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen would have picked up the phone and told officials, at least the president, because there have been ongoing meetings about all these issues. You know, did anyone notice he was not around?
Now, Biden spoke with Austin over the weekend, and we're told he has confidence in the secretary. But members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, still want answers. The top leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Adam Smith, put out a statement yesterday. They said several questions remain unanswered. What was the medical procedure and resulting complications? What is the Secretary's current health status? - how and when the delegation of the Secretary's responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and Congress.
MARTIN: So, Tom, I'm going to mention here, you've covered the Pentagon for a long time. Have you ever seen anything like this?
BOWMAN: Absolutely no, never anything like this. But Austin, who's 70 years old, he's always been very quiet, not very talkative, rarely seen in public or the press room. And he was in the same way when he was a four-star general, when he was in charge of operations in the Middle East. He's not a force or clearly a powerbroker like his predecessors, Donald Rumsfeld or Robert Gates or Leon Panetta. He's, frankly, just kind of a silent partner.
MARTIN: That is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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