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News Brief: Trump's Tax Overhaul Push, Irma's Damage, Russia Goes After NGO


Well, there have been the Russia investigations that are still ongoing, hurricanes, North Korea, but the White House does seem now to be focusing on a big Republican agenda item.


Yeah. And that big agenda item, David, is overhauling the tax code. President Trump is going to meet with lawmakers about that today. Last night, he had dinner with a group of senators, including three Democrats, still talking about tax. So it does seem like the administration so far is taking a more aggressive approach on taxes than it did on health care. Here's White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president, I think, has demonstrated, both in his business world and as president, that he can make deals. And that's certainly what he's looking to do.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the president has Democrats to dinner, which makes me wonder, is this a big new bipartisan approach that we started to hear about when the president struck that deal with, you know, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi?

LIASSON: The White House says it is.


LIASSON: Three Democrats came to dinner last night, along with some Republicans. But this outreach to Democrats is different than the true bipartisan approaches on tax legislation in the past. In those efforts, you'd see the Republican and Democratic leaders of the tax writing committees working on a bill together from the beginning. But this time, Democrats have been pretty much shut out of the process so far.

It seems that what the administration wants to do is try to pick up a few Democratic votes, and they're targeting Democratic senators who are up for re-election next year in states that Trump won. And all three of the senators who were there last night fit that description.

GREENE: OK, so he wants their votes. Do we actually know what they'd be voting for at this point?

LIASSON: Good question. Only the broadest outlines of the tax plan have been revealed. The president wants to get corporate and individual rates down. He wants to get rid of some deductions. But there's still lots of divisions among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats on how to pay for the cuts, whether to pay for the cuts, who should get the biggest benefit from the cuts - the middle class or wealthy business owners.

Now, the White House and congressional leaders say details will be coming soon, possibly by the end of this week or month. They have to vote on a budget resolution first. And some House conservatives are saying they want to see the details of a tax plan before they vote on the budget. The reason they have to vote on the budget is that is the way that they can unleash something called reconciliation that will allow them to pass this with only 51 votes in the Senate instead of 60.

GREENE: OK, so a really complicated process, during which you would imagine the president is going to need to try and keep that Republican caucus together in Congress, which has been no certain thing so far. What is the White House relationship right now with Republicans on the Hill?

LIASSON: Well, Republicans - relationships with Republicans in Congress - a little shaky. It's not just that the president blindsided Republicans with his snap decision to make a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer last week, but also, looking ahead to 2018, the White House will not commit that the president will stay out of the primary process. In other words, he could get involved and support Republican primary challengers to Republican incumbents.

GREENE: You got a hint of that in Arizona, right? I mean, when he went there.

LIASSON: Yes, you certainly did. He's spoken out in favor of Kelly Ward, who wants to challenge Jeff Flake. That could have a big effect on decisions about retirements, - Republicans who are considering retirement. It could affect recruiting and fundraising.

GREENE: All right. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: Mary Louise, I think we're getting a sense for how long a process this is going to be cleaning up after Hurricane Irma.

KELLY: A very long process, David. And that is, in part, because there is so much infrastructure that's going to need to be repaired. We know that more than half of Florida lost power because of the storm. Danny Gonzales (ph) is among those still working without electricity.

DANNY GONZALES: It's been a struggle for everybody here, but you know what? We're going to make it. We're helping each other. But hopefully, we'll get electrical here quick because people run out of gas and generators.

KELLY: NPR's Martin Kaste ran into a crowd who were thrilled when a utility truck happened to show up in their neighborhood in Miami. Let's listen to a little bit of that reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: God bless you.

GERARD HOOVER: No problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Welcome to Miami.

HOOVER: We're glad to help you guys. We're going to try as hard as we can.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We really appreciate it.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: When do you think we'll get power back, like, this area?

HOOVER: I'm going to say maybe by tomorrow. OK?


KELLY: (Laughter) Maybe by tomorrow. And that is what is counting as progress right there in Miami today.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, Martin Kaste was there to hear all of that. Martin, it's amazing, I mean, the power guy is the most popular person in Florida right now it sounds like - if he brings good news.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: I should add, yeah, a power guy from Detroit.

GREENE: Oh, really? They're bringing in reinforcements?

KASTE: Oh, yeah. All these crews are from out of town, trying to help out, get this happening faster.

GREENE: That's amazing.

KASTE: Ring around a Detroit power company pickup truck.

GREENE: So does it feel like things are returning to normal in Miami right now?

KASTE: Yeah. I mean, normal is not here yet, but you can kind of see it off on the horizon. You know, this is a city that you start to feel the pulse sort of of everyday life quickening around you. There's more traffic. There's, you know, little traffic jams. I was in Little Havana yesterday...

GREENE: And people were probably celebrating that (laughter).

KASTE: Well, yeah, yes and no. I mean, you also have a lot to do - a lot to do - to try recover their normal life. And people are running around, trying to get some of that done, those who are here. So a lot of people aren't back yet, too. You know, Little Havana, there were all these neat piles of debris on the curb. A couple of kids had a table set up on the side of the street selling avocados that had blown off trees, you know, two for a dollar, that kind of thing. So, you know, it's - you see life coming back for sure.

GREENE: And what about the electricity? I mean, how long could this be for people who still don't have power?

KASTE: Well, you know, as I say, they've got crews from out of state here. They're hitting this pretty hard. But the real problem is, you know, the neighborhoods that have, you know, those leafy aspects, places like Coral Gables, where that tape came from, with lots of trees, lots of big, old trees. You know, it's a real, real mess.

You know, there's streets you can't even drive down yet still. The chainsaws are going everywhere, a lot of trees down on the wires. And so that could take a lot longer in some of those places, especially to kind of get that last mile or that last block. So that's kind of going to be tough for some sections of town for a while.

GREENE: And what about security? Are people feeling safe in the city right now?

KASTE: Well, we've heard about some attempts at looting. The police were talking about that yesterday, some people trying to be opportunistic. But there is, I think, probably a sense here that, you know, when you step back, crime itself probably isn't up and may even be down, given how many people are not around.

It's eerie if you're in a neighborhood without any lights right now. You know, it gets dark. It gets, you know, it's just you and maybe the lights of the police car going by and then darkness again. But there's a sense, I think, that it's not so much dangerous as it's kind of creepy. And people want some of that light and some of that normalcy to come back.

GREENE: Well, hopefully it'll be coming back soon for the people of Miami. NPR's Martin Kaste giving us an update from that city after the hurricane. Thanks a lot, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome.


GREENE: We're trying to figure out this morning why Russia is cracking down on a hate crime watchdog group.

KELLY: This is a group called the SOVA Center. And they are being scrutinized for having once had ties to two American organizations, organizations considered undesirable in Russia. They are the National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros Foundation - think billionaire financier George Soros. The director of SOVA is named Alexander Verkhovsky, and he says these charges have wider implications.

ALEXANDER VERKHOVSKY: It's about everything. If you put a link to something which isn't illegal and you may be punished for that, it's opened the Pandora box.

GREENE: Well, let's go to Moscow now and our correspondent there, Lucian Kim, who caught up with Verkhovsky and is going to help us understand this. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what does this organization do? And what are they being accused of here?

KIM: Well, the word sova in Russian means owl. And this group sees itself as a think tank, as a research group that monitors hate crimes and xenophobia. But like a lot of other NGOs, they receive significant foreign funding, and that makes them vulnerable in the current political climate. In this specific case, they're being accused of publishing hyperlinks, as you mentioned, to past donors. So this has actually happened several years ago.

The Russian government now considers those organizations undesirable. And it's illegal to disseminate information about those groups. Verkhovsky, for his part, just compares those hyperlinks to, you know, footnotes in an academic research paper. He says they have nothing to hide. It's something that happened in the past, and they're just being transparent. He says they removed links immediately, but still, both his organization and he personally now face charges.

GREENE: So what could happen now, if we're talking about charges?

KIM: Well, right now, they're just waiting to go before a judge. They're waiting for the court date. He told me that the worst that could happen to them are fines. They could add up to $3,000. For a small NGO in Russia, that's a lot of money. You know, they work out of a couple of rooms in a basement, where I went yesterday.

And moreover, what Verkhovsky told me was the problem is they're going to be spending scarce resources in preparing their legal case instead of doing their real work. And so after the entire appeal process, they could end up, you know, in six separate court cases.

GREENE: Is this a part of a bigger crackdown on civil society right now in Russia?

KIM: Well, Russian NGOs have been saying for the past five years, since massive anti-government protests, that it's already become a lot more difficult for them to work because of new legislation. I did put it to Verkhovsky. I asked him if he thinks this is a new crackdown. He says he's still not sure. He doesn't know if this is directed exactly against his organization or if this is the beginning of a bigger campaign, you know, against anyone and any group that happens to post a hyperlink to a so-called undesirable organization. And that's why, you know, he called it in the quote that you just played, you know, opening a Pandora's box.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Lucian Kim, NPR's Moscow correspondent. Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "MIGHTY JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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