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News Brief: Accusations Against Franken, House Tax Overhaul Win

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The national conversation about sexual misconduct is reaching a fever pitch here in Washington, D.C., particularly on Capitol Hill.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. Several organizations, including NPR, have fired or suspended male executives accused of sexual harassment. Now there are these allegations against a sitting senator. We're talking about Minnesota Democrat Al Franken. Leeann Tweeden, who is a Los Angeles radio broadcaster, says that the Minnesota lawmaker forcibly kissed her and groped her back in 2006. Here she is describing this on CNN.

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LEEANN TWEEDEN: He mashed his face against - I mean, it happened so fast. And he just mashed his lips against my face, and he stuck his tongue in my mouth so fast.

MARTIN: Senator Franken has issued an apology, which Tweeden has accepted.

GREENE: All right, we have NPR's Susan Davis here in the studio this morning. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So what happens now with Senator Franken? He has apologized. He says he welcomes an ethics investigation. So what happens now?

DAVIS: It's hard to predict how that investigation will go. And this is why. The ethics committee in Congress does not generally investigate allegations to things related to something a lawmaker did before they served in Congress. It's about conduct when you're serving as a lawmaker.

GREENE: That's why it was set up. I mean...

DAVIS: Right. So there isn't much precedent for how this would proceed. They certainly have the ability to do it. It's also important to know that this is a panel that's equally divided, 3-3, among Republicans and Democrats. It's intended to be - not nonpartisan but at least require bipartisan consensus to move forward.

MARTIN: Plus, can I ask what's an investigation going to reveal? He's admitted he did it. He issued an apology, and she accepted it.

GREENE: I mean, it seems like we might...

MARTIN: There's a photo.

GREENE: ...Know everything that happened.

MARTIN: Right.

DAVIS: It also gave lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly Democrats, something to point to to say they were responding to this - right? - that they're calling for an investigation. And these investigations also tend to take a long time. So there's no way to know how long it would take and how it would proceed.

GREENE: So President Trump weighed in on this - tweeting the photo of Franken with his accuser and saying that it speaks a thousand words. This is a really different tone from the president compared to responding to allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

DAVIS: It's a different tone because he's taking a tone. Right? You know, the president has remained completely silent, particularly on Twitter, against the Roy Moore allegations. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president believes it's up to the people of Alabama to make a decision in this, even though so many Republicans wanted the president to weigh in on Roy Moore and to ask him to step aside. They were hoping he would do that. He's chosen not to.

This is also, obviously, complicated by the fact that the president has also faced similar allegations. It was famously caught during the campaign in those Access Hollywood tapes where he bragged about groping and kissing women. Letting voters decide seems to be the standard he thinks applies to himself and Roy Moore but not to Democrats like Al Franken.

GREENE: This, as we mentioned, is a national conversation right now. It seems like Congress has been focusing a lot on the issue of harassment this week. There was a hearing. There are bipartisan talks about overhauling congressional rules and their sexual harassment policy. Could lawmakers, in theory, take a leading role here and help guide the country through this moment?

DAVIS: Yes, and there are already actions taken. The Senate has already approved a new rule that mandates sexual harassment training at the start of every Congress. The House is likely to follow suit. And they're also working on bipartisan legislation that would change the way sexual harassment claims are filed on Capitol Hill. I think if they have more weeks like this one, there's going to be even more pressure to act on legislation like that.

GREENE: NPR's Sue Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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GREENE: All right, this morning, we're talking about movement on overhauling the tax code. House Republicans seem to be taking a victory lap.

MARTIN: Yeah, this was a big deal. The House passed its massive $1.5 trillion tax overhaul yesterday. This cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent starting next year and cuts individual tax rates temporarily. Here's House Speaker Paul Ryan.

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PAUL RYAN: The average family at every income level gets a tax cut.

MARTIN: It also gets rid of several popular tax deductions. The Senate Finance Committee also passed their own version of a tax bill last night.

GREENE: All right, Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post has been covering all of this, and he's in our studio this morning.

Hey there, Mike.

MIKE DEBONIS: Hey, thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming in.

OK, so where are we? The House has passed a bill. The Senate Finance Committee has passed a bill. But the whole Senate actually passing something and working this all out and getting something to President Trump's desk still seems uncertain.

DEBONIS: Right. We're about to enter basically the most precarious moment of this entire process. Yesterday was really probably the best day Republicans on Capitol Hill have had legislatively all year. They passed it through the House. The Senate Finance Committee wrapped up their consideration of the bill. But now that it goes to the House floor, a whole new set of political considerations comes into play. You've got a much narrower margin in the Senate than you do in the House. Any two senators - three senators, if they are concerned, they can hold up this bill - and - as far as changes to it.

GREENE: As we've seen when talking about the Affordable Care Act. We've seen votes that were held up.

DEBONIS: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, that's a whole factor that has yet to be resolved. It's in the bill that came out of the committee. But there are still senators who basically view this as inviting the skunk into the garden party. And they're now going to have to deal with, do we really want to insert the health care and all the politics around that into this tax bill that we all agree we really have to pass?

GREENE: I want to make sure our listeners understand what you're talking about because - I was mentioning the Affordable Care Act because Republicans had those close votes that failed to repeal and replace. But now in this Senate bill, there is language that would basically end part of the Affordable Care Act.

DEBONIS: That's right.

GREENE: And so that's what you're talking about with the skunk being in the garden. That's putting tougher politics into this tax conversation.

DEBONIS: Absolutely. And, you know, what they did - you know, they repealed the mandate that people have to buy insurance, the most unpopular part of Obamacare. But, you know, there is a cost in terms of insurance coverage associated with that. And, you know - but on the other hand, it generates a lot of revenue that they can use to do other things in this tax plan that they want to do in this tax plan - including getting that corporate rate down, including getting individuals some of the benefits of this plan. And that's the trade-off they got to work through.

GREENE: You used the term precarious. And I think even many Republicans would say that this is a precarious moment because there's a lot at stake here to get some kind of legislative victory. I mean, how much do you see at stake here for the Republican Party?

DEBONIS: Well, you know, every strategist you talk to say - we have to do something. We have to do something. We have to show Americans we can govern. We need something to go into an election year to talk about that's not Donald Trump and a referendum on Donald Trump. And that's absolutely what is on the minds of Republicans right now. Democrats, meanwhile, look at the actual content of this bill, and they salivate. They see that, you know - at least for the House bill, more than 80 percent of this tax cut goes to corporations and wealthy individuals. They're very happy to talk about it in those terms. And - but Republicans aren't thinking in those terms. All they're thinking is - we need to do something.

GREENE: Change the conversation as we go into election time.

Mike DeBonis, of The Washington Post, thanks a lot for your reporting. We appreciate it.

DEBONIS: Yeah, my pleasure.

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GREENE: So Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, is making his first public appearance this morning since the military took over.

MARTIN: He's giving a speech at a university graduation ceremony. He's also been seen smiling in photos and meeting with military and religious leaders. This morning, Harare streets are quiet. And a man named Evison (ph), who doesn't want us to use his last name, is sitting repairing bicycles by the side of the road while a few cars pass by. And this is what he said.

EVISON: Since I was born, we never experienced such a change like this, you know. I think it's going to be better because the current thing - the current government, we are not happy with it, you know. We are not happy.

MARTIN: So not happy with the current situation, wanting change, unsure what that would be. We should note he didn't want to give his first name - or his full name, rather, for fear of reprisals.

GREENE: OK, we have journalist Jeffrey Barbee on the line in Zimbabwe.

Hi there, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BARBEE: Hi, David. How are you guys this morning?

GREENE: We're good. Thank you. So you were speaking to that man. Right?

BARBEE: Yes, I spoke to Evison. And he and many others that I spoke to in the last couple of days that I'd been here in the country basically all had the same thing to say. Any change is good change. And this is what we need to take the country forward.

GREENE: Mugabe has been in power for - what? - more than three decades, right? I mean, this is...

BARBEE: Yeah, 37 years. That's correct.

GREENE: Well, so if a lot of people want change, is change coming? It looks like Mugabe's not going to step down on his own accord. But, you know, he's doing a graduation ceremony. So what's happening? Who's running the country?

BARBEE: Well, at the moment, those are all very good questions. You know, this place has been surviving for the last three or four days strictly on rumors. You know, driving around town over the last number of years that I've been working here, you'd often see police everywhere. I haven't seen a policeman or policewoman in uniform for the last three days. There's almost no security in the streets. There's large, you know, armored personnel carriers that are camped out on the big street corners near the government buildings. But by and large, everything is quiet, and there is virtually no information.

GREENE: Could this turn ugly, I mean, if Mugabe does not step down and the military keeps pressuring him?

BARBEE: Well, I think the good question here is that, you know. I think what it comes down to is a question of whether or not the generals are willing to go the extra mile. And just in the last hour, we've had some information that actually comes straight towards us. And this is information about very...

GREENE: The military might actually make a move to get them out - is that what you're saying?

BARBEE: That's correct.

GREENE: OK, all right.

BARBEE: That's - we're actually...

GREENE: We'll have to stop there, sadly. That's journalist Jeffrey Barbee on the line from Zimbabwe. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "BRANCH LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.