News Brief: Relief Bill, Pandemic Roundup, Derek Chauvin Trial
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Congress is on the verge of approving one of the largest spending bills in modern history.
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
President Biden's $1.9 trillion aid package is the fifth COVID-19 relief bill to move through Congress to help people hit financially by the pandemic. The Senate passed the bill on a strict party line vote on Saturday. The measure includes $1,400 direct payments to many Americans, expanded child tax credits and billions for state and local governments. Here's what Biden said after the vote.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By passing the American Rescue Plan, we'll have heeded the voice of the American people, not ignored their voices. By passing this plan, we will have delivered real, tangible results for the American people and their families.
DETROW: The package moves back over to the House this week for what's expected to be final approval.
MARTIN: We've got NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell with us. Good morning, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
MARTIN: So there's been a lot of changes, and this is a big ol' bill. So just remind us what made the cut. What's in this final version?
SNELL: Yeah, this is not just a big bill. This is a just really enormous bill. And aside from the checks that you had mentioned at the beginning, this covers everything from money for vaccines in schools to small businesses and state and local governments. But one of the things that Democrats talk about a lot is they wanted this bill in particular to focus on relief for parts of the economy that have been badly hurt but are less seen or didn't see a lot of relief in the earlier bills. Like, there's a huge anti-poverty program in here for families in particular, changes to the way that people who are low-income earners who don't have children receive money and funding for businesses and spaces and communities that are suffering because of yearlong closures. Now, the House is set to vote on this tomorrow with the hope of sending it to Biden for his signature by the end of the week.
MARTIN: Right. So we need to just point out the House already passed a version of this measure, right?
MARTIN: So explain why it has to go back there.
SNELL: It has to go back because they made several changes in the Senate to bring some moderate senators on board. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in particular had a lot of demands for how that - how he needed this bill to be changed in order to vote for it. What they did is they decided to keep unemployment payments at $300 a week but only through September 6. And for people earning under $150,000 dollars, the first $10,200 of unemployment received last year will be tax-free. Democrats also had to cut out a $15 minimum wage because it violated Senate budget rules.
MARTIN: So those concessions been made to moderates like Manchin. Does that create other fault lines within the Democratic caucus?
SNELL: Yeah, there are real risks here about alienating progressives in the House because in the House, margins are also tight, just not as tight as they are in the Senate, though it is notable to see Senator Bernie Sanders, who was the original sponsor of the $15 dollar minimum wage laud this bill. You know, Democrats want to see this pass partially because, you know, Biden is getting a little bit of a pass on the bill in general because it's so popular, and Democrats agree that it's needed. But this argument really foreshadows tougher fights ahead on things like infrastructure and any other priorities that the Biden administration might have. But, you know, this really is a landmark bill for a lot of Democrats because it has long-standing priorities. You know, some are talking about this as a narrow shot at this generation's New Deal. And they want to make sure that the changes for the social safety net, like those monthly payments for kids - they want them to be commonplace and accepted, and they have to get this bill passed first.
MARTIN: So let's talk about, acknowledge Republicans in this conversation. I mean, we heard Biden say this package is broadly popular. You've reinforced that. But if that's the case, why have House and Senate Republicans all opposed it so far?
SNELL: Well, there is polling to show that it is broadly popular in the country, but Republicans oppose it both on the substantive terms and on political terms. They say it's too big, and it has unnecessary provisions. You know, Democrats see a political advantage in having Republicans against this broadly popular bill.
MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, thank you.
SNELL: Thanks for having me.
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MARTIN: OK, this was a record-breaking weekend for COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S..
DETROW: Yeah, 2.9 million doses were administered on Saturday alone, according to Andy Slavitt, who coordinates the White House's COVID response. That is 20% higher than the previous daily record. But public health officials say it is still important for people who have had shots to stay the course and stay vigilant, at least for now. The CDC is working on guidance about what activities are safe if you're fully vaccinated and what you need to hold off on.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into this. And she joins us. Hi, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. So first, the numbers look good, right? I mean, how many American adults have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine so far?
AUBREY: Yeah, there's definitely progress. About 23% of adults in the U.S. have received at least that first dose. That's 60 million people or nearly 60 million people. The boost in supply of doses has helped. There's now more than 2 million shots a day being administered, including the doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine that rolled out just last week. And the company has promised 100 million more doses by June.
MARTIN: The CDC is expected to come out with this guidance soon, explaining what is safe to do after you've been fully vaccinated. Do we have a sense yet of what's going to be in that guidance?
AUBREY: Yeah, I mean, we're expecting that sometime this week. And I will tell you - spoiler alert - it will not be a complete return to normal yet. I've been asking lots of infectious disease experts about how they're navigating this in their own lives. I spoke to Dr. Josh Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says if you're fully vaccinated, meaning you've gotten both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer shots or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two weeks after this, you should have some new freedoms. He says both of his parents have now been vaccinated.
JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN: My parents really, really have wanted to see their young grandkids in person. And they've sort of waved at them outside. But now they're going indoors. And they're - you know, they gave him a hug for the first time in a long time. They were still wearing masks. But it really meant a lot to the kids and to them. And it gave my parents a sense that, you know, we're on the right track here.
AUBREY: On the other hand, he says there are activities that are still off-limits. For instance, his dad loves baseball, but he said right now, there's no going to baseball games. Big crowds not a good option. We'll wait for that. As more people get vaccinated and transmission slows, the risk to all of us will diminish.
MARTIN: We've heard a lot about inequities around the country in terms of who has been vaccinated. Has the progress that we've seen in administering vaccinations - has that made a dent in that?
AUBREY: You know, this is definitely still a big issue, the inequities. Joshua Sharfstein analyzed the inequities in the state of Maryland by looking at vaccination rates in predominantly Black counties and predominantly white counties. And he says what he found is reflective of a national problem.
SHARFSTEIN: African American residents of Maryland are about half as likely as white residents to be vaccinated so far. And it certainly reflects a pretty serious inequity, considering that African Americans are actually more likely to get sick and more likely to die from COVID.
AUBREY: He says there are multiple reasons for this. And more can be done to support communities where there may be more hesitancy and less access.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks as always. We appreciate it.
AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: All right. Jury selection is scheduled to start today in the murder trial for the former police officer charged with George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.
DETROW: Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes last May. Floyd's death, caught on a viral cellphone video, set off months of protests for racial justice. That outrage also led Minnesota's attorney general to take over the case and charge Chauvin with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
MARTIN: NPR's Adrian Florido is in Minneapolis to cover the trial. Good morning, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: It's a big day, an emotional day in Minnesota. Protesters there demanded murder charges in Floyd's death. That got them. And now the trial is set to begin. What kinds of conversations are you having with people there?
FLORIDO: Well, people here are nervous. They're hopeful. They're also scared. This is seen as an important test for whether police who kill can be held accountable. Yesterday, I went out and spoke with demonstrators who were marching to the downtown Minneapolis courthouse, where the trial is going to be held. And this is what Jada Pounds (ph) told me.
JADA POUNDS: And I want this trial to set the precedent for our legal system to show that we are not going to stand for this because this is not how America that we live in should be for us, especially as people of color and Black people.
FLORIDO: She said a conviction will send a message that police can be punished. But she also fears that an acquittal in this trial would send the message that police can kill with impunity.
MARTIN: I mean, this is such a high-profile case. The stakes are so high. How difficult is it going to be to seat a jury in a case like this?
FLORIDO: That's going to be a huge challenge. A jury is supposed to be impartial - right? - sort of a blank slate. But, of course, who hasn't seen that video of George Floyd gasping for breath and formed an opinion about it? So it's going to be really interesting to see how lawyers for both sides approach this task beginning today. Based on a questionnaire that went out to prospective jurors, we expect them to be asked about their views on things like Black Lives Matter, on police brutality, whether they've attended protests themselves, even what podcasts they listen to.
MARTIN: Derek Chauvin, I understand, has hired a private attorney for his defense. The prosecution is being led by the office of Minnesota's attorney general, Keith Ellison. What do we know about Ellison's strategy at this point?
FLORIDO: Well, the reality in this case remains that convicting a police officer is not an easy task. And this is something that Ellison said very plainly when he announced the second-degree murder charge against Chauvin last year. He said winning a conviction will be hard. And he isn't the only person who's tempering expectations in this trial. I spoke with Nekima Levy Armstrong. She's a longtime activist and former head of the Minneapolis NAACP. She said that she, like many people in the city, is hopeful, but only guardedly so, about a conviction.
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Realistically, in the state of Minnesota, we have not ever had a white officer convicted of killing a Black person. That is an important aspect to all of this.
FLORIDO: Attorney General Ellison has also been trying to add a lesser murder charge against Chauvin to secure a better chance of convicting him. There have been some really last-minute court rulings on this, which have raised the possibility that jury selection, even at this very late hour, could still get pushed back.
LEVY ARMSTRONG: So, I mean, a verdict could still be many weeks away at this point. Are officials preparing for possible unrest?
FLORIDO: They are. The heaviest preparations are here at the downtown courthouse. It's been completely barricaded, totally off-limits. There are also a thousand National Guard troops who've been brought in to patrol the city. Officials are also preparing for the possibility that outside extremists and agitators could come in and try to cause trouble. And so it's a very guarded situation here in Minneapolis.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Adrian Florido reporting from Minneapolis on the beginning of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with George Floyd's killing. Adrian, thank you. We appreciate it. And we'll check back in with you as the trial unfolds.
FLORIDO: Thank you, Rachel.
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