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News brief: infrastructure bill, Texas mask rules, Rittenhouse trial

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden plans to sign a landmark $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law on Monday.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Biden traveled to the Port of Baltimore to sell it.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By investing in our roads, our bridges, our ports and so much else, this bill's going to make it easier for companies to get goods to market more quickly. Here in Baltimore, you've got a port that's older than America itself.

MARTIN: Biden also used the trip to talk about economic headwinds, though, like inflation and the shipping delays that are squeezing a lot of businesses and have got consumers moving up their holiday shopping schedules.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us now. What did the president say about what the infrastructure bill could mean for America's future, maybe giving some people a little relief?

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Well, the president conceded that the pandemic has shaken up the economy, creating strong demand, but also supply bottlenecks and making it hard to get things at the store and driving prices high.

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BIDEN: Jobs are up, wages are up, value's up, and savings are up. But we're - we got problems, too. Many people remain unsettled about the economy, and we all know why. They see higher prices.

RASCOE: He talked about two bits of economic news out yesterday that show the current situation. Unemployment claims continue to fall, but also that inflation surged again last month to a record level - but - or in a record increase. Biden said something he's been saying a lot lately, which is that the infrastructure bill that's going to be signed next week will start to ease inflation. His argument is that because a lot of this inflation is caused by these supply bottlenecks, if you improve that by investing in ports and things of that nature, it will alleviate the bottlenecks and help with inflation.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, apart from making the case that the bill could help with inflation down the line, what is the president doing about inflation and supply chain problems right now?

RASCOE: The White House has announced a plan of action to improve the nation's ports already. They're going to make some investments over the next three months. This is before the bill is even signed. Or it'll be signed next week, but they already had this plan. They also reached a deal with workers at two of the largest ports in America, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, so that those ports will be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Biden says that the deal has already reduced some congestion at those ports. And now the administration is turning its force - its focused to some of the ports on the East Coast.

MARTINEZ: About the infrastructure bill - I mean, how did he pitch it?

RASCOE: He touted its benefits - billions for roads, bridges, broadbands, you know, and ports like the one he was visiting in Baltimore. He stressed to union workers there that it would bring good-paying jobs. He said, not $12, not $15 an hour, but $45 an hour jobs that he said would boost the middle class. And he also stressed that it would help America compete in the 21st century, especially against China.

MARTINEZ: So what does this all mean for him politically?

RASCOE: You know, at this point, he has said that Democrats really have to deliver. Biden's numbers have fallen, and he has to get out there and show people that Democrats can accomplish things ahead of next year's midterm elections. The bill was held up in Congress for months, so now it's time for Biden to get out there and really do a sales pitch and sell it to the American people.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, thanks a lot.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Texas schools can set their own face mask rules again.

MARTIN: A federal judge has overruled an order from the state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, that had banned any school district from asking students and teachers to mask up. An advocacy group had filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texas families in late August. They argued that the governor's rule could rob children with disabilities of access to public education because those students are at high risk of illness and death from COVID-19. Late yesterday, a judge agreed.

MARTINEZ: Brian Lopez is the public education reporter for the Texas Tribune. He joins us now from San Antonio. Brian, let's go back to the summer, when the governor told schools they could not impose requirements for masks. What did he say was his reasoning then?

BRIAN LOPEZ: You know, back then, Governor Abbott - and still now - his reasoning was that the path forward was to rely on personal responsibility rather than government mandates, especially with the vaccine being available to most Texan residents. At the same time, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton were under a lot of political pressure from a hard-right conservative groups and politicians to really hammer down on local mask mandates, as that does not sit well with hard-right Republicans.

MARTINEZ: What were the arguments against the governor's mask ban?

LOPEZ: Arguments against, you know, included making sure that local officials had control over their jurisdiction. Since these officials, whether it be school districts, county judges, mayors, city councils, they knew their communities the best. They knew the data of coronavirus cases and vaccination rates happening in their own communities. They had a better sense if, you know, their community needed a mask mandate. And you know, Texas is so big that most people don't believe that a blanket approach works for every corner. So those were the two kind of main arguments against the governor's mask ban.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, local control was a big argument, for sure. Now, the judge agreed with this organization, Disability Rights Texas, when they called it a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What exactly did the judge have to say on that?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So the federal judge, he said that schools cannot possibly comply with the - Governor Abbott's order and at the same time comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That's because, you know, it forbids students with disabilities the equal opportunity to a public education. You know, they - if there isn't a mask mandate in place, a child, even if - a child with disabilities, even if they're in virtual schooling and they are getting their education, they might not be able to, you know, go to a public - to go to their school library or attend extracurriculars and do other activities maybe their peers can do because they're not at high risk for the virus. So that was the main argument from the organization. And like you guys said, the judge agreed.

MARTINEZ: And quickly, what's expected next from the state and the state's attorney general?

LOPEZ: So right now, we don't really know. He tweeted late last night that his team is going to look at all options. What we've seen before, though, is they usually go straight to the Fifth Circuit appeals court, like they've done with the past. We've seen that with the abortion law.

MARTINEZ: Brian Lopez is the public education reporter with Texas Tribune. Brian, thanks a lot.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand in his own defense yesterday.

MARTIN: The 18-year-old testified for the first time about the night he shot three men during anti-police protests late August in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse cried in front of the jury and said he feared for his life when he aimed and fired his rifle.

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KYLE RITTENHOUSE: I didn't do anything wrong. I defended myself.

MARTIN: Two of the men were killed. A third was wounded.

MARTINEZ: Chuck Quirmbach of NPR member station WUWM has been following the trial. He joins us now. Chuck, Kyle Rittenhouse was on the stand for most of the day. Can you describe for us what defense attorneys were trying to convey?

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Well, throughout the trial, the defense has really tried to paint a picture of the young man - he was 17 at the time of the shootings - who was a good guy caught up in bad circumstances. Rittenhouse talked about his work in the fields that focus on helping people. He was a lifeguard both in Illinois and in Wisconsin, just outside Kenosha. He carried a medical bag that night, was trained in CPR and had been part of a youth trainee program in the - at the fire department where he lived in Antioch, Ill.

MARTINEZ: Now, a lot of the questioning focused on the events leading up to the shooting. What did Rittenhouse say about that?

QUIRMBACH: Right. When questioned by one of his attorneys, Rittenhouse claimed - talked about meeting up with other civilians, many of them armed, to help protect buildings that night, particularly used car lots that had been damaged the previous nights during the protests. After law enforcement forced protesters away from where Rittenhouse was stationed, he said he and another man went back among the protesters, they said to offer more medical aid.

The two became separated. Rittenhouse said he was walking to another car lot where there was a report of a fire when he encountered Joseph Rosenbaum. He said Rosenbaum began yelling at him, chasing him. Rittenhouse said he became more fearful. The situation deteriorated. He described the crowd at the car lot as encircling him just before he shot Rosenbaum. Rittenhouse said he feared for his life during encounters with Rosenbaum and the other men he later shot, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz. Rosenbaum and Huber died. Grosskreutz was wounded.

MARTINEZ: Now, on that argument that Rittenhouse said - mentioned there to protect property and buildings, how did the prosecutors challenge that?

QUIRMBACH: Well, in a long cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger really tried to pick apart Rittenhouse's intent that night. Binger focused on the AR-15-style rifle that Rittenhouse used in the shootings, how it was purchased for Rittenhouse by his friend because Rittenhouse couldn't legally buy it on his own in Wisconsin. Binger also focused on Rittenhouse's actions leading up to the shootings, saying it was Rittenhouse, not the men he shot, who posed a threat. Rittenhouse seemed to become emotional when Binger asked about the moment the defendant turned around, aimed his rifle and fired on Rosenbaum.

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THOMAS BINGER: Why'd you point it at him if you didn't have any intention of shooting?

RITTENHOUSE: He was chasing me. I was alone. He'd threatened to kill me earlier in that night. (Crying) I didn't want to have to shoot him.

QUIRMBACH: Now, the testimony from Rittenhouse ended in late afternoon. The defense's case is expected to resume this morning with testimony from their video expert, who's likely to talk about some of the footage we've seen during the trial. And...

MARTINEZ: That's Chuck - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

QUIRMBACH: Oh, just going to say, Judge Bruce Schroeder has told the jury they may hear closing arguments early next week.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's Chuck Quirmbach with member station WUWM. Chuck, thank you.

QUIRMBACH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.