News Brief: Afghan Evacuations, Asylum-Seekers Ruling, House Passes Budget Plan
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
At the international airport in Kabul, flights are now leaving every 45 minutes.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The U.S. and its allies are now moving out tens of thousands of people each day. The goal is to fly out all U.S. citizens who want to go along with many Afghans who assisted the U.S. and would be in danger if they remained. One enemy is the clock. President Biden says he wants to keep an August 31 deadline. The Taliban have insisted. And some U.S. troops have already started going home.
INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Greg, good morning.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What does it take to pack up the airport and leave by August 31?
MYRE: Well, a fair bit. There's a real race on now to get the remaining U.S. citizens and the at-risk Afghans out. And the number of U.S. citizens evacuated has remained a little bit fuzzy, and we're not quite sure how many remain. President Biden has said his administration will provide some numbers today. Now, overall, more than 70,000 people have been evacuated since August 14, and this airlift keeps gaining momentum. So at this pace, we could approach or top 100,000. But this deadline next Tuesday is deceptive because you probably can't be flying out these civilians right up to the last moment.
INSKEEP: Yeah, I suppose in the last days, you're folding up some of those five, six thousand troops and putting them on to planes. How much time does the military need to wrap it all up?
MYRE: Well, it says it needs a couple days. A few hundred have already left. And as you mentioned, there were almost 6,000 troops that have to pack up. And this includes a lot of heavy equipment, armored vehicles, helicopters. And President Biden says every day they're there, it adds to the risk.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Taliban have been taking steps to work with us so we can get our people out. But it's a tenuous situation. We already had some gunfighting break out. We run a serious risk of it breaking down as time goes on.
MYRE: And the Taliban have said that this August 31 date is a hard deadline. There's no extension. And Biden is specifically mentioning a risk of attack by an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K, a group that has, in fact, carried out attacks in Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: A lot of U.S. officials have been sounding warnings about that possibility, saying they expect something before they go. At the same time, U.S. officials have been working out arrangements with the Taliban on the ground, including a meeting between the CIA director, William Burns, and a top Taliban leader. Is this expected to be the kind of contact they'll continue?
MYRE: You know, I'd have to say right now it's sort of shaping up that way. The U.S. will have leftover business in Afghanistan. The U.S. will have to decide if it wants to recognize the Taliban government. The U.S. will have to decide if it wants to keep open this huge embassy that it has in Kabul. And Biden says there should be unfettered humanitarian access to Afghanistan. Now, perhaps that will go mostly through the United Nations rather than directly through the U.S. But the U.S. would be a major donor and will continue to have leverage and be a player in Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: What incentive does the Taliban have to continue friendly relations with the United States?
MYRE: Well, the Taliban face a real contradiction here. They want the Americans out. This has been their enemy for 20 years. They're recognizing it's kind of hard to form a new government and take control with all these U.S. troops still at the airport. But the Taliban were shunned by the international community during their previous reign from 1996 to 2001. They want international legitimacy this time, and they know they can't rule alone. They want other countries to stay, keep their embassies open, provide assistance. But if they're pushing the U.S. and its allies out the door, it may leave them isolated again.
INSKEEP: Greg, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.
MYRE: My pleasure, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre.
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INSKEEP: The Supreme Court is disrupting President Biden's immigration plans.
FADEL: It issued an order that could force the White House to restart a controversial Trump-era program. That program required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases were decided.
INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett covers the border. He is in Austin. John, good morning.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did the court do here?
BURNETT: Well, it told the Homeland Security Department that it may have to restart one of the signature programs of the Trump administration, a program Biden's people wanted to bury on day one. Trump wanted to keep migrants who were asking for asylum out of the U.S., reasoning that once they got here, they would just stay. So in early 2019, he instituted what became known as Remain in Mexico. Nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers were told to wait in Mexico until their cases were decided. When Biden cancelled the program, Republican statehouses in Texas and Missouri sued, warning that they'd be overrun with migrants. A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas ruled earlier this month that Biden had illegally cancelled the program. He ruled the administration did not follow the right procedure to undo an official policy, that it was arbitrary and capricious. The judge also said letting large numbers of asylum applicants into the country may violate federal law. Biden asked for an emergency stay from the Supremes. They refused, and the three liberal justices dissented.
INSKEEP: What made Remain in Mexico a program that Biden wanted, as you said, to bury on day one?
BURNETT: Yeah. Well, the formal name is Migrant Protection Protocols, but the title was a mockery of the program's reality because what it really did was endanger them, Steve. I reported on this a lot, as you recall. You had migrants living in a public park in Matamoros with mud, mosquitoes, rats and surrounded by criminals. When migrants would leave to go to the store - some menial job in town, they would often get kidnapped and held for ransom. And it was a nightmare for Mexico. These border cities couldn't protect them. They couldn't feed them. They couldn't provide health care. To think that now Washington is somehow going to call Mexico City and say, hey, we want to send you thousands more migrants, Edna Yang with the immigrant advocacy group American Gateways in Austin says that's just totally unrealistic.
EDNA YANG: And kind of shoving people into a border in a bunch of tents and saying, you're just going to have to survive and Mexico will just have to take care of you, is not something that works. And it's not something that I think the Mexican government is going to look kindly upon.
INSKEEP: And I guess that's why we're saying the Supreme Court says Biden may have to reinstate this program. Biden is not being ordered to do that. He has to go back and follow the proper procedures, though, if he wants to cancel the program. So there's some complexity. And as that plays out, what's actually happening on the border you cover?
BURNETT: Well, I can tell you that DHS has a hot mess on the Texas border these days. Last week, I was in the Rio Grande Valley where the Border Patrol is encountering 20,000 migrants a week coming across the Rio Grande without authorization. And COVID complicates everything. Hidalgo County has opened a sort of refugee camp in a riverside park where a county commissioner told me they're sheltering some 2,000 migrants who've tested positive for the coronavirus. And even Democratic county officials down there want to tell the White House that this is unsustainable, that the answer is for Democrats and Republicans to get together, stop all this cat fighting and fix this immigrant problem once for all.
INSKEEP: John, thanks so much.
BURNETT: You bet, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett.
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INSKEEP: A Democratic Party stalemate ended after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cut a deal with some moderates.
FADEL: It took a lot of haggling, but House Democrats advanced the party's $3.5 trillion budget framework. How much of the Biden administration's priorities will remain in the final bill, though, is far from a lock. Pelosi herself suggested it will be an uphill fight.
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NANCY PELOSI: This legislation will be the biggest and perhaps most controversial initiatives that any of us have ever undertaken in our official lives.
INSKEEP: It was controversial even among Democrats. And we'll discuss that with NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, who's back. Good morning.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Just yesterday, you were telling us about the big divide among Democrats. How did Pelosi get them all together?
SNELL: Well, she has been saying since June that there would be no vote on that bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passed a separate $3.5 trillion spending package, not just a budget outline but the actual spending. So centrists were unwilling to sign on to that, and they did successfully lobby to get a specific date for the vote. They say that they will get a vote on the bipartisan bill by September 27 with or without the partisan bill. But leaders say they're still on plan to pursue a dual track. And if we take leaders at their word, they want to finish that other bill by October 1, which really means that the moderates bought themselves about three days. So it was a lot of haggling over, you know, separating these two issues.
But, you know, they used a lot of political capital and long negotiations to do that, which means Pelosi now has to turn around and satisfy progressives who say that, you know, they need things in this bigger, broader spending bill. And, you know, that may make it even more complicated in this next round of negotiations.
INSKEEP: Wow. Complicated game of chess here. We're getting a little lost in the weeds. And yet I want to emphasize this is a matter of power and ultimately a matter of spending, right? This determines what priorities get funded and what don't.
SNELL: Right. I mean, it does seem a little bit, you know, part of the process right now, but the process really could determine how they move forward because Pelosi's walking a narrow line here. She has to make sure that the moderates vote for this bill. But she also has to make sure progressives vote for the future bills. You know, they have a very narrow majority here. And some moderates are just betting that progressives will just get on board with whatever happens with the infrastructure bills, regardless of how much spending actually gets packed into that next part that they haven't even written yet. You know, complicating matters further, the Senate is planning to play a really key role in drafting the partisan $3.5 trillion bill, which brings in a whole other political dynamic and a whole other cast of characters, including moderate senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. So September is going to be interesting and a real test of Democrats' willingness to unify and Biden's ability to bridge differences in his own party.
INSKEEP: Yeah, you need a bill that would satisfy Joe Manchin and the most progressive House Democrat perhaps.
SNELL: That's right.
INSKEEP: At the same time, the House passed voting rights legislation. Any chance that'll actually become law?
SNELL: Well, it is a bill named for the late congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis. It's meant to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act following two big Supreme Court rulings that gutted two key sections of the act and made it hard - it's supposed to make it harder for states to restrict future voting rights access. Prospects beyond the House are pretty dim. Republicans already blocked a different voting rights bill known as the For the People Act. And Democrats are certain to try to pass it again in the Senate even if it means only voting to prove that Republicans will block it.
INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the update.
SNELL: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.
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