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Regional Interests

News Brief: Infrastructure Package, Military Vaccinations, Taliban Strategy

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It took weeks of discussion, debate and negotiations, but the Senate today is set to finally sign off on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. This was one of President Biden's biggest priorities, and Democrats say it's just the beginning. Their plan is to go straight from this bipartisan endeavor and then start working on an entirely partisan spending plan that'll cost about $3.5 trillion.

ELLIOTT: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following this and joins us now. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: We have been anticipating this bipartisan deal on infrastructure for some time now. Remind us the kind of government projects we're talking about here.

SNELL: Yeah. As was mentioned, it's about a trillion dollars. About half of it - around 500 billion - is new spending. You know, that is spending on top of what Congress was already planning to spend on investments in infrastructure. Now, these this new money, which Republicans and Democrats agree was necessary to bring the country's infrastructure up to speed, largely is looking at doing things with hard infrastructure - roads, bridges, airports, ports and waterways - things that people typically think of when they think of getting around and selling goods to the rest of the world. But it also includes some other things like broadband, some water reserves for drought-prone areas and some money for enhancing electric vehicle investments.

ELLIOTT: So a bipartisan bill feels like a big surprise in this...

SNELL: Right (laughter).

ELLIOTT: ...Bitter political environment. Right? Does this mean that the two parties are finally finding some common ground?

SNELL: On some things - you know, it is important to note that there were some Democrats who criticized President Biden for even trying to do a bipartisan bill. And this is really a fraction of the size of what his initial infrastructure proposal was. But this group worked together over the course of months to come up with a deal. But Democrats are still divided on what happens now, and Republicans aren't exactly in love with this bill either. You do have a good number of them voting for it in the Senate, but former President Trump put out a statement calling it the beginning of the Green New Deal. So there aren't all the Republicans in the Senate on board.

ELLIOTT: Now, Democrats say they're ready to move ahead with a $3.5 trillion budget bill. How is that fitting into this infrastructure plan?

SNELL: So basically, this is Democrats deciding they are going to leave Republicans behind and finish the work that they say needs to be done to fulfill the rest of President Biden's promises. Their basic message is that the road someone takes to work is just as much an infrastructure issue as knowing that, if they have kids, that they're cared for in an affordable way while they're working or that the elderly people in their family are cared for or the systems of education that bring someone into the economy are accessible for most people. They also say climate change is part of infrastructure and needs to be addressed. Here's Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders.

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BERNIE SANDERS: ...In my view, will be the most consequential and comprehensive piece of legislation for working people, for the elderly, for the children, for the sick and for the poor that this body has addressed since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal in the 1930s.

SNELL: The idea is that once they vote on this $3.5 trillion framework, committees will get to work writing legislation to spend money and meet the goals that President Biden set out. And they want it done by September 15. And they're using that pretty familiar process of budget reconciliation that we've been talking about for some time now. Basically, they're using the budget process to pass spending and deficit-related programs without the threat of a Republican filibuster, assuming all the Democrats in the Senate agree.

ELLIOTT: So Kelsey, what happens next?

SNELL: It's a lot of wait-and-see. You know, moderate Democrats are really skeptical of the topline spending numbers in this bill. And there are also some concerns that things like instructions to address illegal immigration would violate budget rules and would have to be eliminated from the upcoming spending package. They'll have to figure it out if they want the House to vote, though, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she won't hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes that bigger partisan bill. That's much harder and will likely take months to be resolved, so I'm not expecting either of these bills getting on Biden's desk anytime soon.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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ELLIOTT: The Pentagon is ready to open a new front on the war on COVID-19.

KING: That's right. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says he's going to ask President Biden for permission to make all members of the U.S. military get vaccinated. He's expected to officially ask the president by mid-September. Because of the delta variant, infections are rising in the military, along with much of the rest of the country.

ELLIOTT: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us now. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Why now? The vaccine has been available for some time now. Why hasn't the military ordered this already?

MYRE: Well, the military can give its troops all kinds of orders, but it can't force them to take a vaccine that is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA hasn't fully approved any of the COVID vaccines. That could happen soon. But for now, they have emergency authorization. So to make it mandatory for military members, President Biden will have to issue a waiver on national security grounds. And Defense Secretary Austin said in his memo yesterday, that's exactly what he's going to do, is to ask the president.

ELLIOTT: If this just needs a presidential waiver, something that could have come sooner, why wait till now?

MYRE: Seems there were several factors. The military really does want the troops to buy in, so it's emphasized persuasion up to this point. And there was also some thinking the FDA approval was just around the corner, which would remove the need for a waiver, also took some time to review some of the legal issues here. But with the delta variant surging, the military seems to be saying it just can't wait and risk a new wave of COVID cases. And we should note - the military backs the vaccination rate is very much in line with the overall rate among the U.S. population. In both cases, a little over 60% are fully vaccinated. The military says this just isn't good enough. More troops need to get the shots.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described Austin's memo in this way.

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JOHN KIRBY: What he's asking for in this message to the force today is don't wait. They're safe. They're effective. They work. They make us a more ready force, a more lethal force. And there's no reason to wait for the mandate.

MYRE: So we would expect the troops to face some sort of penalty if they don't get the vaccine, but Kirby didn't say what that might be. He did stress the sort of unique risk that the military has. Troops work and live side by side. The virus can spread very quickly in that environment. Space is tight on a ship, a submarine, an airplane. And so it's just virtually impossible to train or deploy without being in such close quarters.

ELLIOTT: So Greg, you know, talking about the circumstances that would put troops at risk, how has the military done so far in terms of combating COVID?

MYRE: Well, Debbie, it's actually done quite well. You may recall early on, way back in March of 2020, there was a big scare on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt that had more than a thousand cases. But the military really did jump into action and set up protocols. And they do have extensive authority to control behavior. But despite this vaccination rate that isn't where the military wants it to be, there's been fewer than 30 deaths among the 1.3 million active-duty forces. They seem to really have benefited from a young, healthy force, so most contracting the illness have recovered.

ELLIOTT: Well, that's good. Thank you so much. NPR's Greg Myre.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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ELLIOTT: President Biden's top envoy for Afghanistan is in Doha today for a series of urgent meetings.

KING: Zalmay Khalilzad wants to gin up international support and pressure to stop the Taliban's military offensive. In just the past few days, Taliban fighters have overrun key cities in Afghanistan, and Afghan security forces haven't been able to stop them.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Jackie Northam is following this for us. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: What is the Taliban's strategy here?

NORTHAM: It appears that the Taliban are trying to capture as many cities and towns as they can while the U.S. is winding up its operations in Afghanistan. And, you know, that includes many areas in the north, which were always considered an anti-Taliban region. And the resistance to this advance has not been a stiff as one might have hoped from the Afghan security forces. You know, to those who have been watching this stuff carefully, the speed that the Taliban are making these advances have caught many by surprise.

In the backdrop to all this, Debbie, is there are peace negotiations supposed to be going on between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but they've stalled. I spoke with Brian Katulis, and he's a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. And he says part of the problem is that the Taliban are not seriously engaged in the negotiations.

BRIAN KATULIS: I think what the Taliban has planned here is to just get as many games on the ground. And then they've repeatedly said they'll negotiate, be at the table, but they're just simply trying to strengthen their hand.

NORTHAM: And Katulis says this security collapse is happening in a political vacuum and that the Taliban, warlords and other insurgent groups are going to use violence rather than elections or diplomacy to settle their differences in the coming months.

ELLIOTT: How have they been able to make gains so quickly?

NORTHAM: Well, one factor is the Afghan security forces have been inadequate in the fight, you know, just unable to hold off the Taliban. But, you know, there have been chronic problems with the Afghan military's capabilities right from the get-go, despite nearly two decades of training by the U.S. and NATO allies. The other problem is the Afghan military has relied on the U.S. for intelligence and air and logistical support. And now that's gone. And it leaves them with a weaker hand in pushing back against the Taliban. And even many of the contractors who were in Afghanistan to help the military maintain their planes and other equipment are pulling out.

ELLIOTT: So what should we be looking for today from the talks in Doha?

NORTHAM: Well, the talks today will be with the U.S., some of Afghanistan's regional neighbors and Russia, and the Taliban might have some representatives there, but no major breakthroughs are expected. You know, the Biden administration has put its chips on these negotiations as a way to prevent the sort of violence that we're seeing right now. But so far, it hasn't worked. I spoke with Weeda Mehran from the University of Exeter, and she says at least some of the blame lies with the administration.

WEEDA MEHRAN: The U.S.'s strategy has been pretty hands-off, and the Biden administration hasn't been living up to expectations in Afghanistan to handle the peace process in a more manageable way that it would not lead to so much bloodshed in Afghanistan.

NORTHAM: And Mehran said it'd be better if the U.S. put more pressure on the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government. But there's just no sign of that right now.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Jackie Northam, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.