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News Brief: Government Shutdown, HUD Secretary, Venezuela Politics


Members of the Senate sometimes like to refer to themselves as the world's greatest deliberative body.


In modern times, the speeches in the Senate debate draw limited attention. But Senator Michael Bennet was an exception yesterday. The Colorado Democrat is usually a pretty reserved guy. But yesterday, the Senate failed to advance two plans to end a partial government shutdown, and Bennet wasn't having it.


MICHAEL BENNET: How ludicrous it is that this government is shut down over a promise the president of the United States couldn't keep and that America is not interested in having him keep.

MARTIN: Republicans for their port - for their part reportedly lashed out at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the impasse at a private lunch.

INSKEEP: So what now? NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here. Tamara, good morning.


INSKEEP: Have Senators come up with anything that maybe could pass?

KEITH: Well, not necessarily...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

KEITH: But they're talking. And that's the thing. There were these two test votes yesterday, and they failed. But taking a test that fails has a purpose. And it really kickstarted conversations. I think part of why it kickstarted conversations is that six Senate Republicans crossed party lines and voted in favor of the Democratic bill to reopen the government and fund the government without funding a wall...

INSKEEP: Which is the big - the big dividing line here, the president's demand for funding for a wall on the Mexican border. OK.

KEITH: Right. And so that prompted the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, to go huddle and talk about what was possible. And then they didn't really come up with anything fully, but they're talking, which is a new development.

INSKEEP: OK. And I guess they've talked about possibly a temporary reopening of the government while they negotiate. Of course, Democrats have demanded, open the government first; we'll talk about the wall later. Republicans have largely - with the exceptions you mentioned - obeyed the president in the Senate and voted the way that he wants, only to - only to have reopening the government with wall funding. Would the president approve of some kind of temporary - temporary movement?

KEITH: It's not 100 percent clear. He was asked about it yesterday. He said, you know, McConnell and Schumer, they're working on something. Let's see what they come up with. But, you know, maybe - maybe he said, he might support it.

INSKEEP: Let's listen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One of the ideas suggested is they open it - they pay a - sort of a pro-rated downpayment for the wall, which I think people will agree that you need.

KEITH: So Senator Schumer's spokesman put out a statement after that saying, Democrats are a hard no on the wall, pro-rated or otherwise. President Trump was asked, well, what if they come up with something that doesn't have wall funding in it? And the president was a little squishy on it and then said, you know, I've got other options too.

INSKEEP: Oh, which would be a reference, I suppose, to the possibility of declaring a state of emergency, which is something the White House has discussed but dismissed up to now.

KEITH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: The idea of a down payment on the wall would go against the Democratic position here. They've said they don't want to continuously have the president threatening to shut the government down to get things that he wants. Giving him a little bit of what he wants for a temporary reopening of the government would go against that position, wouldn't it?

KEITH: Indeed, it would, which is why Democrats are not open to that idea.

INSKEEP: Do you have any insight as to what the president is thinking now beyond what he has said in public?

KEITH: Well, he has - he had this meeting with conservatives earlier this week. They came away thinking that he was going to hold firm and that he wasn't going to fold. They said they're used to Republicans folding in shutdowns. But they feel like the president is pretty strong on wanting wall funding.

INSKEEP: OK, Tam, thanks for the update.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith.

Now, today federal workers miss their second paycheck.

MARTIN: Right, and crucial programs to help Americans pay rent or buy food are actually running out of money at this point. On TV yesterday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he was baffled by this. He said it should be simple for federal workers to take out loans. Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told NPR's Brockton Booker - Brakkton Booker, rather, that's not so simple.

BEN CARSON: I mean, yes, I know we're going to give them back pay. But that doesn't take care of the interest if they borrow money. It doesn't make them whole again.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Brakkton Booker is in our studios. Brakkton, good morning.


INSKEEP: Where did you run into Ben Carson?

BOOKER: So we were at an event in D.C. It was a late-night event. We were actually - he was out there talking with members of the homeless population. He was getting basic information about their health and about their general circumstances, about how they became homeless. And we were chatting in between these interviews that he was conducting. And Carson is typically low-key, doesn't get riled up about things. But you could tell he was getting very frustrated about how long the shutdown had lasted. And here's what he had to say.

CARSON: We can continue to hope that our leaders will recognize that this is an easy problem to solve. Just take your ego out of it.

BOOKER: So there, you hear him say, our leaders and, take your ego out of it. So, you know, at first glance I was like, well, does he mean Nancy Pelosi? Does he mean Senator Mitch McConnell? And does - does he mean President Trump? And I - I checked with the staff, and they insist that he was only talking about congressional leaders.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK, although when you think about ego, there is a person who comes to mind. What are the secretary's concerns as this shutdown goes on? What makes it so bothersome to him?

BOOKER: Well, he's certainly got the federal workforce on his mind, including many of his staff at HUD, who are, again, missing their second paychecks today. There is another concern, though, that obviously HUD provides rental assistance to many millions of low-income Americans. So his real concern, too, are evictions. Now, Carson pointed out that, you know, no tenant has ever been evicted as a result of a shutdown. But then again, no shutdown has ever lasted this long.

INSKEEP: OK, are there safety - safety net programs here that are going to run out if this goes, like, another month or so?

BOOKER: Well, it looks like a lot of programs, including housing choice voucher programs and project-based programs that HUD organizes, there are - there's food stamps, SNAP benefits that is run out of USDA. Most of these programs are going - it appears to be they're going to be running out of money by mid-February, certainly by early March. And that is giving a lot of concern to a lot of Americans.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking if you're a tenant, it's going to be stressful not to be able to pay your rent and embarrassing not to be able to pay your rent. But you probably won't be evicted right away. The person who really ends up short there is the landlord.

BOOKER: Right. And the landlord - I talked to one landlord who does have Section 8 housing. Her name is Jennifer McQueary (ph). Here's what she had to say.

JENNIFER MCQUEARY: No, I'm not a tenant in jeopardy of losing my home. However, I am a landlord in jeopardy of losing everything.

INSKEEP: Everything?

BOOKER: Everything. I mean, she owns 10 properties, all of them with Section 8 housing vouchers. And she says if she misses one payment, she is very close to losing it all. And she's hoping to not have to evict anybody. But, you know, times are tough right now.

INSKEEP: Oh, because she borrowed money to own the buildings.

BOOKER: Right.

INSKEEP: And some people have really strict terms on those loans.

BOOKER: And she's also - yes. She has mortgages to pay. And she's expecting money from HUD to supplement the mortgage there.

INSKEEP: Brakkton, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

BOOKER: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brakkton Booker.


INSKEEP: Some other news now. How is a crisis in Venezuela evolving?

MARTIN: Some but not all Americans are moving out of harm's way. The State Department ordered non-emergency U.S. government employees to leave Venezuela. But key personnel remain in defiance of an order from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The U.S. says it's not going to follow the president's demand to evacuate because the U.S. recognizes not President Maduro, but instead, the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as his replacement.

INSKEEP: Reporter John Otis has been following the situation closely. He joins us now. Hi there, John.


INSKEEP: How is each rival president moving to consolidate power?

OTIS: Well, it's a pretty bizarre situation. Maduro claims, you know, that he is the legitimate president because he took power through an election that was held last year. But that election, most international observers say it was a sham, that he basically stole the election. Nonetheless, he was sworn in for another six-year term just this month. And that's kind of what set off all these protests.

Juan Guaido is Venezuela's - the head of the congress. And under the constitution, if there's a vancancy in the presidency, you know, the head of congress takes over. And that's his claim to legitimacy. He wants to lead a transitional government and hold new elections. And he's been recognized by the U.S. and most Latin American countries.

But for now, Maduro would seem to have the upper hand because he pounced on the backing of Venezuela's powerful military. So, you know, it's kind of a situation where Maduro has lots of power but not much legitimacy. And Guaido has a lot of legitimacy but no real power.

INSKEEP: You said Maduro counts on the backing of the military. Is it clear that he has it and will continue to have it?

OTIS: Well, Steve, the military is sort of a black box. You never really know what's going on. But on the surface, his support would - would appear to be holding. Yesterday, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino came out and said the armed forces continues to recognize Maduro as Venezuela's only legitimate president.


VLADIMIR PADRINO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Now, Steve, one reason for this support is that Maduro's given officers a lot of perks. He's put them in charge of government ministries and even the vital oil industry. Also, some top officers have been accused of drug trafficking and human rights abuses. And so they fear that if the opposition and if Guaido actually take power, that they could go to jail or be extradited.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they've got money on the line and their own futures on the line. And yet, they must understand the instability of the situation. And this is a military that once produced Hugo Chavez, the guy who established the socialist government, didn't it?

OTIS: That's correct, Steve. And, you know, the military, you know, they've been involved in a lot of rebellions over the years. And there are a lot of disgruntled officers. And there have been a lot of coup plots. But at the same time, Cuban intelligence agents are working very closely with the top brass in Venezuela to snuff out any conspiracies. So that's why all the rebellions that we have seen have all been quite small. You may remember that attack on Maduro last year. It wasn't carried out by army battalions. It was carried out by a couple of drones.

INSKEEP: OK. John Otis, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

OTIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's reporter John Otis, who is based in South America, has been following this situation in Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.