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Morning News Brief: Signs Of Bipartisanship On Health Care, Corruption Vote In Brazil

Aug 2, 2017
Originally published on August 2, 2017 7:42 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At least some Republicans say they want to fix the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, that's just one of the ideas after a bunch of Obamacare replacement plans failed. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Patty Murray talked of this yesterday. Alexander says his committee will focus on improving the insurance marketplaces.

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LAMAR ALEXANDER: Unless Congress acts by September 27, millions of Americans with government subsidies in up to half our states may find themselves with zero options for buying health insurance on the exchanges in 2018.

CHANG: Some counties are now served by just one insurance company.

INSKEEP: We don't know that things are going to get as bad as Senator Alexander said. Note he said it may be that bad. But the options are limited for many. Some lawmakers still talk of replacing Obamacare while President Trump has talked of hurting insurance companies, which we're going to discuss with NPR congressional reporter Geoff Bennett. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Hey, are lawmakers ready for a bipartisan approach?

BENNETT: You know, there are certainly some Republicans who don't sound ready to close the door yet on repeal, but the GOP has really hit a wall on that front. There is no viable Republican health care plan that can get a simple majority of votes, as we've seen. And so what Senators Alexander and Murray are doing really is the most concrete, the most serious bipartisan effort to shore up the Affordable Care Act. Senator Alexander said...

INSKEEP: And this is about getting the marketplaces to work a little better now - getting more insurance options out there?

BENNETT: And that's right. And Senator Alexander says the goal is to come up with a short-term solution so that people can buy affordable insurance next year. And they've scheduled hearings to start September 4. And, you know, whereas the failed Senate health care bill was crafted entirely out of public view, they are making a promise to do this in public - with hearings, with markups, where lawmakers can then amend the bill in committee. It all sort of falls in line with the return to regular order that I'm sure people heard John McCain call for on the Senate floor.

CHANG: Right, so this is probably the most definitive signal we have now that any attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act are going to be put on hold for a while, yeah?

BENNETT: Yeah, because even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, laid out the Senate's August to-do list yesterday, and they also - you know, health care was nowhere on that agenda. And Senator John Thune - who, as you know, is the No. 3 Republican - he told reporters that we've got other things to do.

So you know, Republican leaders have expended a lot of political capital on a bill they weren't all that committed to in the first place. And despite all the political maneuvering, all the political drama that surrounded that collapse of that Senate health care bill, the fact remains that Congress has to do something to prop up the exchanges, particularly for people who live in rural areas where there is only one insurer or, in some cases, no insurer at all.

INSKEEP: Geoff, what enthusiasm - if any - is there in the Senate for the president's proposal to hurt insurance companies, as he phrased it, by maybe withholding funds from them that help prop up the insurance market?

BENNETT: There is zero enthusiasm for that because, if he does withhold those payments, it would send the health care system into a death spiral. So Democrats and Republicans are both together in hoping that he does not make good on his threat.

INSKEEP: Lack of enthusiasm for a death spiral - good to know.

BENNETT: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Geoff Bennett. Geoff, thanks very much, appreciate it.

BENNETT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Now some other news we're tracking this morning, President Trump's administration is said to be preparing a look at affirmative action policies at universities. The question on the table for the administration - it is said - is whether universities discriminate against white applicants. That's according to The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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INSKEEP: Brazil is voting on the fate of its president for a second year in a row.

CHANG: Brazilian lawmakers are voting today on corruption charges against President Michel Temer. And if there are enough votes, Temer could be suspended for 180 days and put on trial. It was just a year ago that Temer replaced Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president before him. She got impeached on corruption charges.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves has been following this story from Brazil, which must sound rather familiar to you, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It does indeed.

INSKEEP: So what exactly did this president do?

REEVES: He's accused of accepting very big bribes for helping out a giant meatpacking corporation. One of his closest aides was caught on video with $150,000 worth of cash stashed in a briefcase. The attorney general argues that that money was destined for Temer and part of a number of payments worth millions. Temer denies this and says he's the victim of a criminal conspiracy.

INSKEEP: You know, this is reminding me of a few instances in the United States. There was a period in Illinois, a few years ago, where three straight governors went to prison. But it's still a little surprising to hear about, like, two presidents of Brazil in a row accused of corruption. How deep is the corruption problem there?

REEVES: Actually three, because let's not forget that...

INSKEEP: Oh, thank you for reminding me.

REEVES: ...Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - Lula, as he's known. The giant of Brazilian politics the other day was not only found guilty of corruption, but he was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. He's still free because the prosecutor decided - the judge decided that he needed the opportunity to appeal, and he could remain free.

So yeah, this is massive Steve. It's a system. It's been going on for years. It's a system in which politicians get paid big bribes by big business in return for favors. The politicians that way have the resources to preserve their position and their party's position of dominance and power. And that way industry gets the kind of legislation it needs to preserve its position in power. It's a scheme that's not only confined to Brazil. It's been going on across much of Latin America, and it is huge.

INSKEEP: Does it mean the system is working, if president after president after president is getting caught?

REEVES: Well, it does. I mean, that's one of the points people here make - that actually this is a sign of a functional judicial system because they're now rolling this all up. And they've - the former speaker of the lower house is in prison and so is the CEO of, you know, a giant construction company and many others. So they would say that this is a sign of a system that's actually functional now.

But it's having a huge impact on the political class and a massive impact too, Steve, on the perception that people have of their politicians. I mean, I've had lots of conversations with people here, and not one of them hold their politicians in anything that could be described as a positive light - deep cynicism.

INSKEEP: I guess it's hard to think any other way if you're in Brazil at the moment. So who runs the country if the president is, in fact, today suspended for 180 days?

REEVES: He'd be suspended, and the speaker of the lower house would take over the duties of the president temporarily. It's worth pointing out, though, that Temer's people think they have the votes for him to survive. And it's possible that the vote won't go ahead because the opposition will say, we don't want to go ahead with this because we haven't got the votes. And we want to prolong the process.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves will be there - whatever happens. Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK, and now let's go to Germany, where an emergency diesel summit is today.

CHANG: Diesel summit - the chief executives of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW are meeting with ministers and state leaders. They say they're going to talk about reducing pollution. Of course, Volkswagen is the company that was caught faking emissions tests. And there are other automakers accused of colluding since the 1990s to fix prices on supplies and more. Now the industry would like to, I guess, clear the air - so to speak.

INSKEEP: So to speak - let's speak with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Berlin. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is this collusion for decades exactly?

NELSON: Well, Der Spiegel came out with a report that said VW, Daimler and BMW - as well as VW subsidiaries, Porsche and Audi - colluded to fix prices on supplies and technologies, including these controversial diesel emission systems. And there are also accusations that are - they've come up periodically, and they're up again - that people within Merkel's government - Chancellor Merkel's government are actually colluding with the auto industry.

So what's clear is that there's a growing perception here and abroad that the German government isn't balancing its obligations to consumers and the environment versus its obligations to Germany's automotive industry - which you have to remember, it accounts for every fifth job in Germany.

INSKEEP: Wow, and when you mention Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government being allegedly involved in some way, that catches my attention because I know she's up for re-election coming - coming right up. How strong is the evidence here?

NELSON: Well, in terms of the German government collusion with the auto industry, it's not really - I mean, the investigation at this stage, that the EU is doing, is focusing on whether German automakers colluded or collaborated to thwart competition. But it's important to remember that many top German officials here have also held top posts in the auto industry and vice versa. For example, the German foreign minister used to sit on the board of the directors at VW. And a key strategist in the re-election campaign for Chancellor Merkel recently was a top official at Opel.

INSKEEP: You have this in the United States. It's sometimes called the revolving door - people going in and out of government. And so now I have an image of a revolving car door. Is there such a thing as a revolving car door? Is that something German automakers do?

NELSON: (Laughter). Well, it certainly seems to be - that's the allegation. That seems to be the case. Politico had an interesting article that drew all these connections, if you will. But Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt, who's perhaps most in the hot seat at the moment - not because of his past collaborations or work but because he is someone who hasn't really been able to get this air pollution thing or the emissions scandal under control - the diesel emissions scandal. And he's publicly denied being a crony for the auto industry. He says what's important to remember, and what critics seem to forget, is that partnership between government industry is key to a successful market economy.

INSKEEP: OK, Soraya, thanks very much, really appreciate the update.

NELSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Berlin, the site of an emergency diesel summit today.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTS OUT ASIA'S "THE EYE OF ALL STORMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.