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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A breakthrough. After over a year of talks, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have finally reached a deal on an energy and health care bill that's also aimed at addressing inflation.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The Democrats' plan is to vote on the entire package next week ahead of an annual monthlong break in August. President Biden says he supports the plan, but in order for the bill to pass, it needs unanimous support among Senate Democrats.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following this legislation, and she joins me now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: OK. So what exactly is in this bill?

SNELL: So the biggest items include nearly $370 billion for energy security and climate change programs over the next 10 years. There's also $65 billion to extend elements of the Affordable Care Act through 2025. They're pairing all of that with more than $300 billion in deficit reduction. Now, that deficit reduction is really critical here because it is the key to getting Manchin on board after he blocked many other proposals over what he said were fears that more federal spending could stoke already record-breaking inflation in the country.

FADEL: So how do they plan to cut the deficit?

SNELL: Well, primarily, it's through a 15% corporate minimum tax that they say would raise about $313 billion. Plus, there's expanded IRS enforcement and tax changes for carried interest. That's all in addition to already announced plans to allow Medicare to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs. Now, all of this is a really big shift for Democrats. They were forced to dramatically scale back their ambitions to focus on only the Affordable Care Act and lowering prescription drug prices after they spent all of that time trying to get a more ambitious deal. Now, this is really a far cry from the trillions of dollars they once hoped to spend, and that included child care and education. But what they did end up with here is much more than most Democrats expected.

FADEL: These talks - they started, they fell apart, they restarted so many times. What made things different this time?

SNELL: Well, there are a lot of competing pressures on Manchin and Schumer. Yeah, there are pressures from Democrats, but there are also pressures from Republicans who tried to derail any last-ditch moves like this. The agreement was made public just a few hours after the Senate passed a critical semiconductor bill yesterday. And Republicans had promised to block that bill as long as Democrats were still trying to pass a different, broader partisan bill like this one on climate and taxes. Well, the semiconductor bill is done in the Senate, and Republicans just don't have as much leverage over Democrats to kind of force them in a direction, so they decided to move forward. And Democrats are also entering a really critical period for themselves in terms of midterm politics.

FADEL: Right.

SNELL: The upcoming August recess is all about campaigning and making the pitch to voters that Democrats not only need to stay in power, they need to gain seats. So fresh achievements are sometimes kind of the easiest ways to sell voters on those kinds of progress. That's why they want to vote on this next week. They want to be able to show that they got this done and then promise to voters that this bill is just a down payment on bigger plans.

FADEL: How realistic is it, though, that this might pass?

SNELL: Well, it's certainly their goal. The next step is to go through the vetting process to make sure that this fits strict budget reconciliation rules so they can pass this without a Republican filibuster. Then there's a lengthy voting process and making sure that they're on - that they don't have other delays, like members testing positive for COVID. And then it has to pass the House. But President Biden is already on board, and that puts a lot of pressure on Democrats to get in line.

FADEL: So, Kelsey, we mentioned this bill needs unanimous support among Democrats in the Senate. Are there any signs of trouble among Democrats right now?

SNELL: Well, I'm kind of watching a couple of separate political dynamics at play. Over in the Senate, the one thing to watch is Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. She hasn't said yet if she supports this bill, and she has, in the past, been skeptical of some of the changes they're talking about here on the tax side. Now, if it can get past the Senate, then we start to pay attention to what's happening in the House, where progressives who wanted a far bigger deal are a big question mark here; so are House Democrats who wanted bigger deductions for state and local taxes.

I will say, though, that the progressives put out a statement yesterday saying that they're still evaluating the bill, but they did call it promising. And the others, the ones who want those state and local tax deductions, have left themselves room to get on board. They kind of need to when all of the leadership of their party is pushing them to do so.

FADEL: NPR's Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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FADEL: Secretary of State Antony Blinken hasn't spoken with his Russian counterpart since the war began in Ukraine, but that's about to change.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us - the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who've been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.

KHALID: Griner is a U.S. Olympian and WNBA star on trial on drug charges in Russia. Whelan is a former Marine convicted in a secret trial on espionage charges.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about Blinken's efforts to get them home. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Michele, what did Blinken say about this yesterday?

KELEMEN: Well, he said that he put what he called a substantial deal on the table weeks ago and that he plans to raise this directly with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but he wouldn't really go beyond that. You know, for instance, he would not confirm, nor did he deny, reports that the U.S. is ready to do a prisoner swap and release Viktor Bout. He's this arms dealer, dubbed the Merchant of Death, who was caught in a sting operation in 2008 in Thailand, and he's currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. The Russians have long sought his release. The Biden administration did do a prisoner swap earlier this year. So this wouldn't be the first, but it would be a fairly dramatic one.

FADEL: So they're not confirming that there. Now, Griner was in court yesterday in Russia. She testified. What did she say?

KELEMEN: Yeah, you know, she's pleaded guilty. She was caught at the airport in February with vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Griner explained to the court that this was medically prescribed marijuana for pain relief, that she did not mean to bring it to Russia, where it's illegal. She packed in a hurry on her way to Yekaterinburg, where she plays for a Russian team during the WNBA's offseason. Her lawyers say they're not taking part in discussions about any prisoner swap and that such a deal would only be possible after the court reaches a verdict.

Blinken is clearly hoping to move this process along by talking to Lavrov in the coming days. The Biden administration is facing a lot of public pressure to get Brittney Griner home. Biden's spoken to Griner's wife about the case. And Paul Whelan's family has also been pushing hard for his release, since he's been held longer, for several years now, and was left behind in a recent prisoner swap that freed another former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed.

FADEL: Now, if there is a prisoner swap, what precedent does it set for Americans in Russia?

KELEMEN: Well, it is a dangerous precedent there and everywhere, by the way. Secretary Blinken was clearly sounding worried about that. Take a listen to what he had to say at his news conference yesterday.

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BLINKEN: We, of course, want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice.

KELEMEN: You know, the U.S. has been trying to get prisoners out of Iran, Venezuela and many other places. And the secretary says he wants to make sure that countries don't have an incentive to arrest Americans and hold them as hostages. But the U.S. has done prisoner swaps. The Obama and Trump administrations did them with Iran; Iran continues to hold Americans. So the question for the Biden administration is whether they can find a way to impose costs on countries that do this habitually rather than just continue to negotiate prisoner-swap deals.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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FADEL: President Biden and Chinese Leader Xi Jinping are expected to speak by phone in the coming days.

KHALID: The relationship has been tense between the world's two biggest economies, and it's only getting more tense with reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might be planning a trip to Taiwan.

FADEL: NPR's John Ruwitch joins us from Beijing to talk a little bit about what to expect from this call. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, John, this isn't the first call between these two leaders. It's actually the fifth. So why is it happening now, and what's important about it?

RUWITCH: Well, the Biden administration says this call's been planned for a while. It's part of what they dub relationship tending. John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, had this to say about the call yesterday during a briefing.

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JOHN KIRBY: President wants to make sure that the lines of communication with President Xi remain open because they need to.

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's 'cause it's a challenging time. Relations remain frayed across the board. China and the U.S. don't see eye to eye on how they can make things better in the relationship. The Chinese government insists that the U.S. is the cause of the breakdown in relations, and it's up to the Biden administration to fix it. Beijing even issued a list of demands a few weeks ago, things it thinks the U.S. should do to that end.

FADEL: Now, from the U.S. side, the buzzwords for policy toward China are, invest, align and compete, right? What does that mean, and does it leave room to improve the relationship?

RUWITCH: Well, invest is invest in America; align is to align, you know, with allies in policy toward China; and compete is to compete with China on a broad range of issues. U.S. officials say there is room to work together on topics like climate change. And the Chinese acknowledge that there should be cooperation, but they really aren't happy with the U.S. approach.

Scott Kennedy is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

SCOTT KENNEDY: The Chinese seem to be actually dragging their feet on trying to, you know, really make progress on areas where we could collaborate because they're waiting for the U.S. to give that broad signal.

RUWITCH: You know, these are the two most powerful countries on earth.

FADEL: Right.

RUWITCH: U.S. officials have said that Ukraine will be on that list of issues that they're going to be discussing. China is aligned with Russia in the Ukraine issue. Taiwan, of course, is also going to come up. It's a perennial issue at the heart of the relationship, but it's been stirred up because of this - these reports that House Speaker Pelosi is planning a trip to Taiwan. That trip is not confirmed yet. But Beijing considers the island, of course, a part of China, even though it doesn't control it, and has threatened, quote, "forceful measures" if there is a visit.

FADEL: What about tariffs? The Biden administration has been discussing this as a possible way to lower inflation at home. Is that something that could break the ice?

RUWITCH: Well, the White House has been considering rolling back some Trump-era tariffs on consumer products. It's unclear how much it would help with inflation. So there's still debate about that. And a decision on tariffs is not expected out of the White House before the talks. China has always seen them as illegitimate. Here's Scott Kennedy again.

KENNEDY: I don't expect the two presidents really to make tariffs in the negotiation about whether to reach a deal or not - a central part of their phone call. But I do think that they might talk about, to what extent do we have an economic relationship which ought to be more positive some than it is right now?

FADEL: Right. So how does that happen? These are the world's two biggest economies, but they're at loggerheads.

RUWITCH: Yeah, there are strong headwinds, and both sides have been focusing lately on that sort of compete element of the relationship, taking steps to strengthen and insulate their economies. You know, just yesterday, the Senate passed a bill to help American semiconductor makers compete with China. The administration's also been trying to curtail China's access to global chip supply. That's just reinforced the notion in China that in order to survive, it needs to be self-sufficient, not just in chips, but things like energy and food. You know, Biden and Xi Jinping might not make much concrete progress in these talks, but the fact they're having a discussion, you know, underscores the point that both seem to believe that talking is better than not talking.

FADEL: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you, John.

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

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.