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News Brief: Relief Bill, Brexit Deal, Fewer Tourists In Bethlehem

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On this Christmas morning, the fate of the $900 billion COVID relief bill that Congress passed this week after seven months of tough negotiation is up in the air.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. Here's how we got here. President Trump, who is no longer in Washington, said he had problems with the bill. The biggest one was he wanted individuals to get bigger direct payments - $2,000 instead of $600 - which is also what Democrats originally wanted. And so yesterday they tried again to get it.

GREENE: All right. Let's talk more about this with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So the only reason that, as Noel just mentioned, lawmakers are still wrangling over this is because the president intervened at the last moment. But then he left and went to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Florida, for the holidays. Have we heard anything from him about the bill?

KEITH: We have not. As of last night, though, I was told that the bill - like, the paper copy - was in the process of being delivered to Florida, where the president is. The person who's familiar with this process didn't indicate how it was getting there, though I would like to imagine that Santa is just stashing it under the tree at Mar-a-Lago.

GREENE: I like that image. Yeah.

KEITH: I mean, why not? It's only 5,000 pages.

GREENE: Right.

KEITH: The president's schedule has indicated - and this is rather unusual to have a paragraph in the president's schedule. But for the last two days, it has said during the holiday season, President Trump will continue to work tirelessly for the American people. His schedule includes many meetings and calls. However, he's golfing, and he is tweeting but not about this big piece of legislation that everybody is wondering about. Instead, he is tweeting misinformation about election results and complaining that Republicans haven't been loyal enough to him, including a tweet where he said everyone was asking, why aren't the Republicans up in arms and fighting over the fact that the Democrats stole the rigged presidential election? Obviously, they didn't. It wasn't. He lost.

GREENE: Well, I mean, what a position for Republicans now because the president basically said he wanted something that Democrats actually had been wanting. And so how did that play out in the last couple days?

KEITH: Yeah, and it's not something that Republicans seem eager to support. Democrats, as you say, are the ones who wanted these larger direct payments. So yesterday, they tried to pass it in the House through what's known as unanimous consent. Bringing it up - everyone would have to agree to it, and most people aren't there. But if one person shows up and objects, then it doesn't go through. A Republican showed up and objected, so it didn't happen. They'll try again on Monday.

But, you know, even if that bill passed, it wouldn't fly in the Senate. And as for Republicans, they are expressing a mix of confusion and dismay and frustration. For example, Republican Senator Roy Blunt, who is part of the leadership in the Senate, told reporters yesterday that he had no idea what the president will ultimately do, that the president's team was involved in negotiations and knew what was going into this measure. But he thinks the president should sign it.

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ROY BLUNT: If you start opening part of the bill up, it's hard to defend not opening the whole bill up. It took us a long time to get to where we are. I think reopening that bill would be a mistake.

KEITH: In terms of what's next, the president does need to sign it by Monday night or veto it or do whatever he's going to do. But if he doesn't sign it by Monday, there could be a government shutdown because this piece of legislation is connected to a bill that funds the government for the rest of the year through September.

GREENE: And we just can't stress enough - I mean, a lot of Americans have been waiting months for some kind of help, and now there could be more delays.

KEITH: And they thought it was on the way.

GREENE: Yeah. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So on Christmas Eve, Britain and the European Union finally finalized their divorce.

KING: That's right. They agreed on the terms of a trade deal that's supposed to take effect after January 1. It still has to be approved by the British and EU parliaments, but the odds look good there. Here's Ursula von der Leyen. She's the president of the European Commission.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: It was a long and winding road, but we have got a good deal to show for it. It is fair. It is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.

GREENE: You know, we talked a lot about reaction to all of this from Britain. Let's get the view from Europe this morning. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is based in Paris and joins us. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, guys. Joyeux Noel.

GREENE: Oh, merry Christmas to you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

GREENE: So are Europeans looking at this as some kind of Christmas present?

BEARDSLEY: Oh, yes. They are so tired of the Brexit saga, 4 1/2 years on. And most of all, this is the chance to move on, to talk about something else, to deal with other problems. You know, everyone was talking about, this is the deal that averts Britain crashing out on December 31. But now they're saying it's a lot more than that. You know, both sides are saying it's a good deal. You heard European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen. And both sides are emphasizing the still very close relationship of these European nations - their friendship, their partnership. Here's von der Leyen again, followed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking.

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VON DER LEYEN: The United Kingdom is a third country, but it remains a trusted partner. We are long-standing allies. We share the same value and interests.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will be your friend, your ally, your supporter and indeed, never let it be forgotten, your No. 1 market.

BEARDSLEY: So David, this morning, the British press is saying happy Brexmas (ph), and the French press is actually hailing the negotiators and their stamina. French newspaper Le Monde said after four years of psychodrama, there's a deal. And it called Boris Johnson an unsinkable political machine.

GREENE: I know there's a lot of detail in this very long agreement, but can you talk a little bit about what's covered here and what's not?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, the biggest thing about it is that there are going to be no tariffs and quotas, and that's really huge. But it does - it deals with goods, but it doesn't talk about services. And about 80% of British exports to the continent are services. There will still be customs checks. And I can tell you that could pose a problem. This morning, the European affairs minister was on the radio talking about how France had put on the job 1,500 new customs officials and veterinarians who will be able to stop cargo. I was just up in the border of Calais, and there's a lot of horses coming through and medicines. Those kinds of things can be checked now. And, you know, even if it's like a minute, 2-minute stop for something, if you've got thousands of trucks a day, that could lead to backups.

GREENE: Well, what kind of impact are we really expecting on both sides of the channel as we move forward from this?

BEARDSLEY: Well, British economists say, actually, the GDP in the U.K. will be 6% less over the next decade if it had stayed in. And the Europeans are saying it's not going to be much of an effect. You know, there's a 450 million market here compared to 60 million something.

GREENE: I guess we should say, too, I mean, Britain is about to feel even more isolated because of these travel restrictions that are going on with this new coronavirus variant.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. The U.S. government says it now requires all airline passengers from Britain to get a COVID test 72 hours before. That's a turnaround. The Trump administration said it wasn't going to do that before. And remember, just days ago, we saw thousands of trucks stuck in Britain. So Britain looks very alone and fragile. And this is also showing what could happen if there are backups on the border.

GREENE: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thank you so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, David.

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GREENE: It's a tradition says the little town of Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus.

KING: It's actually the little city of Bethlehem these days. About 30,000 people live there. And on Christmas, tourists usually come from all around the world - but not this year. Like so many other places, Bethlehem is suffering during the pandemic.

GREENE: We have NPR's Daniel Estrin with us from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning. (Speaking Arabic), as they say in Arabic.

GREENE: Very nice. I love all of this global merry Christmas and happy holidays from all over the place this morning. So you're currently in Jerusalem, I know, but you were in Bethlehem yesterday - right? - for Christmas Eve. And what's it like there in the middle of a pandemic?

ESTRIN: Well, usually, I speak to you on Christmas and, you know, Bethlehem is bustling with pilgrims from Korea to Kentucky. And they're lining up in the Church of the Nativity, this Byzantine stone church. And they kneel down, and they kiss the silver star that marks where tradition says Jesus was born.

This year, the church was totally empty. Israel has banned incoming tourism. Palestinian officials are even restricting other Palestinians from coming into the city. But the city just refused to cancel traditions in the birthplace of Jesus. And it was really moving to see, David, all the sudden, in the empty streets, the marching bands arrived.

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ESTRIN: And Palestinian boy scouts and girl scouts, with their colorful uniforms and their batons - they were scaled back this year, but they marched through the empty streets. And I met one of the scouts marching, Celine Bitar.

CELINE BITAR: Usually, these streets are full of people, but we have to go and show people our love to them and to this special day on Bethlehem. So this is our joy to come to here today.

ESTRIN: And they heralded the arrival of the Roman Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem. He had just recovered from COVID-19 two days ago.

GREENE: Oh, wow. Well, how has Bethlehem in general coped with the pandemic? I mean, I know Palestinian areas have really been strained for resources.

ESTRIN: Bethlehem relies on tourists, and Israel is banning all foreign tourists now. So the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce thinks that about a fifth of the businesses there will simply never recover. And the Palestinian Authority does not have a real program for economic assistance. So - in addition, they haven't even secured vaccines. Meanwhile, their Israeli neighbors are among the first in the world to be getting vaccinated now. So the pandemic really is highlighting these stark differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

GREENE: Is there a sense of optimism at all as we head to a new year?

ESTRIN: Well, Palestinians don't expect tourism to recover. They're skeptical. You know, they see President Biden coming in, skeptical that he will have much time to focus on peace efforts, on improving conditions for them. But the Latin patriarch in his midnight Mass gave a homily, and he said, you know, the lesson of Christmas and the pandemic is we're all connected. We're all responsible for each other.

GREENE: All right. Powerful message on this Christmas Day. NPR's Daniel Estrin with us from Jerusalem this morning. Daniel, thank you as always - really appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.