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News Brief: High Court Vacancy, Pandemic's Effects, U.S. Climate Stance


Up until now, the debate over the Supreme Court vacancy has been a story of process and power.


The Senate Republican leader said he would move ahead with an election year confirmation, and Mitch McConnell is now believed to have the votes to do that. What we haven't had, though, is a specific nominee with a name, a face and a record. Now, that might change this weekend when the president is promising to announce his pick.

INSKEEP: That is where we start our coverage with NPR's Claudia Grisales. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And what are some of the names the president might send to the Senate?

GRISALES: We were hearing one name repeatedly from several Republican senators yesterday, a federal appellate judge, Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana. Some Republicans like Barrett because she's made clear her opposition to Roe v. Wade, and she's already been through a confirmation process, which could speed things up. I talked to Todd Young, the Indiana Republican senator, and he's very high on Barrett. Let's take a listen.

TODD YOUNG: She's a woman of strong faith. She's an accomplished jurist and one who is able to persuade other judges of the merits of her faithful constitutionalist jurisprudence. And I think she would be an exceptional nominee to the highest court in the land.

GRISALES: Another contender, Barbara Lagoa of Florida, is a favorite of the state's former governor and now senator, Rick Scott. But many Republicans seem to be coalescing behind Barrett. Also we know she recently met with Trump at the White House, and perhaps he sees her as a potential boost with his base.

INSKEEP: What made it clear that Mitch McConnell has the votes to move forward with Barrett or any nominee?

GRISALES: Some key Republican senators have signaled they're ready to move forward, including Utah Senator Mitt Romney. It's worth noting Romney's the only senator to have ever voted to remove a president of the same party from office. Now he says he's following the rule of law to allow this confirmation to move forward. Republicans can lose as many as three GOP members, and it's appearing likely they won't even lose that many. Only two senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they're against the plans. So Republicans appear to have the votes they need to get this done even before the election.

INSKEEP: Weren't there some Republicans facing hard reelection fights for whom this idea of an election year vote pushing ahead, even though Republicans had blocked that in the past, that that was seen as a hard choice for some Republicans?

GRISALES: Yes. Initially, it was. There are several Republicans really facing some tough matchups. And it was a hard choice perhaps, but in considering politics, they stuck with the Republican effort here. Vulnerable Republicans like Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina have said they're on board. So we've seen a lot of them coalesce once again, this time to move forward with this confirmation despite this difficult battle. And some say perhaps this could boost their base in their states.

INSKEEP: What are Democrats saying?

GRISALES: So they're resigned to this is what Republicans want to do, but they're going to make this a campaign message about what's at stake. For example, Elizabeth Warren spoke to reporters yesterday, and she said basically issues like health care are on the table once again. And she's talking about concerns about affordable care coming before the U.S. Supreme Court and perhaps someone like Barrett ruling against such an effort. So they're going to be focusing on that. They also have some options with some delay tactics that could slow this process down, but right now, they seem to be on track to get this done even before the election.

INSKEEP: Has this debate stopped Congress from addressing other issues?

GRISALES: Not quite. The House approved a measure last night, a bipartisan measure overwhelmingly in the House, to avert a government shutdown until December. If not, we would have been looking at some issues as soon as next week with the government keeping their lights on. But so far, they're on track to pass this as well in the Senate and send it to the president soon after.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thanks.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.


INSKEEP: OK. The United States has now exceeded 200,000 deaths from the pandemic.

KING: Yes. And beyond all those lives lost, millions of Americans are also in constant financial pain. We've reported before that almost half of Americans say they're having serious financial problems. Now we have some additional poll data from NPR that shows just how serious those problems are.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold is with us. Chris, good morning.


INSKEEP: What are you learning?

ARNOLD: Well, we knew already that lots of people were struggling in the economy right now. But this poll - we should say it was done by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It was done in July, so the CARES Act has passed. There were stimulus checks out the door, $600 a week in extra federal unemployment money that was flowing to people. So I think the expectation was that things weren't going to be that bad, that most people would be doing pretty well with all this extra support. But...


ARNOLD: ...That is not what the poll found. It found 46% of Americans saying they're facing serious financial problems. One in six households even reported missing or delaying major bills just so they could buy food.

INSKEEP: Wow. That was the news to me, millions of people having to put off big bills that they will still face just in order to put food on the table. So why has the government aid that we've heard so much about not alleviated that?

ARNOLD: Well, there's probably a couple things happening with this. So one is some people are having trouble accessing the help, and public health experts said, look, the government should be looking into where the biggest problems are there. I think also some of the people who responded to the poll weren't thinking like, OK, this day right now in July, am I in big financial trouble? You know, it's natural to look ahead. I talked to Linda Naranjo, who took part in the poll. She's in Phoenix, Ariz., lost her accounting job with a tow truck company. And she was getting that 600 bucks. She was doing OK at the time, but she knew that that was about to expire. She's got four kids, and she wasn't going to be able to make it on the state benefits alone. It's 240 bucks she gets a week in Arizona. And she was right. Now she's burned through almost all of her savings, and she's not going to be able to pay rent after next month.

LINDA NARANJO: It's extremely difficult to sleep at night. I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I just have - my mind's just racing, just constantly racing. And then I'm having to get up in the morning and sit with my two younger children, but I'm so focused on, you know, bills and money and jobs.

ARNOLD: And she's looking for work but without any luck, and she doesn't have any family who can help her either. That's a big part of this.

INSKEEP: I know every kind of person is suffering in this pandemic, but haven't we been hearing that Black and Latino families statistically are doing worse?

ARNOLD: Yeah. We saw big disparate impact here. Black and Latino households, twice as likely to be behind on the rent versus white families. I talked to David Williams, a Harvard professor on race and sociology. Here's what he had to say about that.

DAVID WILLIAMS: For every dollar of wealth white households have, African American households have 10 pennies and Latino households have 12 pennies. So it's really not surprising that they are really being hurt badly in the context of the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Chris, we've heard about a congressional fight over a Supreme Court nomination, averting a government shutdown. Any chance Congress would also get around to passing another relief bill?

ARNOLD: I mean, Congress has been tangled up over this for months. It's deadlocked. And there's worry that this Supreme Court fight makes it even harder for lawmakers to send any big aid package to help. And it's a bit mind-blowing. I mean, there was another poll out this week found that about 90% of Americans support Congress sending more pandemic assistance to help people. There's just so much need. But Congress was deadlocked for months already even before this Supreme Court fight. So there's a lot of worry that, you know, that's just going to make this even harder for Congress to pull off. Meanwhile, more and more people are having trouble paying their rents and their other bills, and a lot of them are in really big trouble.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold, thanks.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: The day after November's presidential election, no matter who wins, the United States will formally exit the Paris climate accord.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: Four years later, the long, long, long list of countries that have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement remains one.

KING: That's Christiana Figueres, the former U.N. climate chief talking a little archly about how the U.S. is the only country to have pulled out. Almost 200 other countries signed in 2015, and the pledge that they made was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So what does it mean that the U.S. has exited?

INSKEEP: Let's put that question to Rebecca Hersher of NPR's climate team. Good morning.


INSKEEP: There's the formality of the agreement and the practicality of carbon emissions and what the United States does about them. Where do we stand as a country?

HERSHER: Exactly. So if you look at the hard numbers that scientists look at, it's really bad. So global emissions are still going up, which is really a nightmare if you study global warming because the Earth is already 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was last century. So humans are on track for catastrophic warming in the next few decades. And I really think that's important when you think about the U.S. because when you add up all the CO2 and other carbon that countries have spouted since industrialization, the U.S. has admitted the most. But U.S. emissions have been going down slightly for a while. They've never fallen really dramatically, though. And that's different from European countries, which also emitted a lot of carbon historically but have slashed their emissions in the last few decades.

INSKEEP: Have you been able to see a significant change in the last few years when the Trump administration has said they're going to withdraw from this agreement, but, of course, there was a process, they couldn't do it that instant?

HERSHER: You know, probably there's an effect. It's hard to be definitive, the experts that I talked to say. But here's what people who model this will tell you - the U.S. promised under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by about 25% by 2025. Most analysts say that if the policies of the Obama administration, like limits on emissions from cars and trucks and power plants, if those had continued the last four years, we'd probably be about on track for that goal. Instead, we're looking more like 16% or 17% decrease in emissions, so less.

INSKEEP: OK, but at least going down. What is causing that if the Trump administration is not remotely interested in doing so?

HERSHER: Right. I think that's a really interesting question. So one thing is that the global economy is changing. Renewable energy is getting cheaper. The market for electric vehicles is growing. So that gets some emissions gone right off the bat. But also more than half of U.S. states say they're trying to meet that 25% goal. And there's a huge movement by corporations promising to decarbonize their operations. So that could be a main driver of emissions reductions in the next 10 years. And that's something that scientists are looking at.

INSKEEP: Is it possible the United States after November 4 could re-enter the Paris climate accord if, say, Joe Biden won and wanted to get back in?

HERSHER: Yes, yes. So as we said, we'll be formally out the day after the election. If President Trump wins a second term, the U.S. will remain out of the agreement. U.S. emissions will fall slowly. If Joe Biden wins, he has said he will re-enter. He can do that as soon as he takes office if he wins. The bigger thing would be trying to work with Congress to pass new renewable energy and transportation policies. And that would have to happen pretty quickly to avoid the most catastrophic warming.

INSKEEP: Rebecca, thanks for the update.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.