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News Brief: Pandemic Relief, Nashville Bombing, Ga. Senate Runoffs

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hi.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hi.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

GREENE: You know, just another morning like any other morning.

MARTIN: But it's your last morning, David Greene. You're moving on, and I've been thinking about this basically nonstop.

GREENE: Oh, thank - that's very sweet. I have, too. You're the best.

MARTIN: You're the best. And I was trying to think of - oh, my gosh, I'm not going to get through this. No. I'm going to get through this. I was trying to think of a song that I could play for you, and I want it to be positive and not sad. And then it occurred to me. So now I'm going to play this. This is from a man who loves a good road trip as much as you do.

GREENE: Oh, I like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ROAD AGAIN")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) On the road again, going places that I've never been, seeing things that...

GREENE: Aw.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ROAD AGAIN")

NELSON: (Singing) ...I may never see again. I can't wait to get on the road again.

MARTIN: Right? That's so perfect.

GREENE: Willie.

MARTIN: Willie.

GREENE: That's really sweet.

MARTIN: You really are at your happiest when you're on the road - I feel confident in saying that - when you're out meeting people, when you're talking to strangers who then tell you their life story. And Willie, I mean, you got to actually talk to him in this job. You got to interview Willie, right?

GREENE: Yeah, like, a couple times. And it was interviewing a legend. I mean, it meant everything. Well, I'm going to miss - I'm going to miss doing this with you so much.

MARTIN: I know. Me, too. And I asked you earlier to go grab a nip of bourbon because I feel like this is what Willie would want us to do.

GREENE: Twist my arm.

MARTIN: Right? OK, let's - mine's, like, a big proper bottle here.

GREENE: I'm opening - yeah - there's...

MARTIN: All right. I'm going to clink this at the mic.

GREENE: Hit the microphone. Yeah, I will, too.

MARTIN: OK. One, two, three. Cheers to you, my friend.

GREENE: Oh, that was nice. Cheers, Rachel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Yeah (unintelligible).

GREENE: That's good.

MARTIN: Ooh, that was delicious. Why don't we do this all the time?

GREENE: That's a nice way to start the morning.

MARTIN: All right. You ready to do this?

GREENE: Let's do it.

MARTIN: Let's do it.

GREENE: It is now up to the U.S. Senate to decide how big a check many Americans will get soon.

MARTIN: The Democratic-led House passed a bill to increase direct COVID relief payments to $2,000. The path ahead is unclear. Republicans in the Senate have concerns about the national debt, but will they vote against much needed money for people struggling in a global pandemic? The House also voted to override Trump's veto of a huge defense policy bill. So the Senate has several decisions to make.

GREENE: And let's talk about them with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So those higher COVID direct payments, I mean, this is something we should say that President Trump had wanted changed in the COVID relief package, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. It's one of the reasons Trump blasted the spending package before ultimately signing it on Sunday. He came out against those payments, which are up to $600 per person, provided they qualify, but he wanted them boosted to $2,000. Democrats, though, were quick to take Trump up on that. It took two tries, but they passed it last night and more than 40 Republicans voted for it.

GREENE: OK, so Democrats were like, great idea, President Trump. That's what we wanted in the first place. Let's vote for it. But now we move to the Senate. What are the prospects of the vote going forward there?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, well, Senate Republican leaders opposed higher checks in the first place when negotiating the deal. So it's really tough to see them supporting it now. But Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said he would push for a vote. So the pressure is really on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This is really a tricky one for Republicans. And just to note where President-elect Biden stands on all this, he said yesterday that he supports $2,000 payments.

GREENE: OK. So we're watching that. We're also watching the other House action last night, the override of the president's veto of this defense bill. Can you just remind us what the whole story is here?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, this is the Defense Authorization Act, which had passed with bipartisan support for 60 straight years. It set spending for the military. It includes things like troop raises and benefits. But Trump had issues with it because he wanted to end legal protections for social media companies. He also opposed the bills calling for the renaming of military facilities named after Confederate figures, and he vetoed it. But, you know, Congress prepared for this, hence, you know, these scheduled votes.

GREENE: And so do we think the Senate is going to override the veto as well?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the Senate is controlled by Republicans, but it's considered likely members will also override the veto. There is no question the Senate has the votes to do so. But Republicans have proven repeatedly that they don't like to go against Trump. And this would actually be the first congressional override of a President Trump veto.

GREENE: Wow, coming at the end of the presidency. Let me just turn to President-elect Biden, Franco, if we can. He made some news yesterday with some pretty striking remarks about the transition.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, he spoke after meeting with his national security and foreign policy advisers. He talked about his goals, but he also criticized the Trump administration for holding back critical information from his team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: We have encountered roadblocks from the political leadership at the Department of Defense and the Office of Management and Budget. Right now, we just aren't getting all the information that we need for the ongoing - outgoing and - from the outgoing administration in key national security areas. It's nothing short, in my view, of irresponsibility.

ORDOÑEZ: So as you could hear, very strong language from the president elect. And this is not the first time that Biden has made such accusations against the Trump administration.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you, as always.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So authorities still don't know the motive behind that bombing in Nashville on Christmas Day.

MARTIN: The bomb was placed in an RV parked in front of the AT&T building downtown. The explosion injured three people and destroyed half a city block. Authorities have identified the apparent suicide bomber as 63-year-old Anthony Warner.

GREENE: So one big question - do we call this an act of terrorism? Well, this has all revived a debate over that. And we have NPR's Hannah Allam here. Hannah, good morning.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Let's start with the fact that we're just not hearing anything at this point about the suspected bomber's motive.

ALLAM: That's right. I mean, the shortest and most accurate answer is we have no solid information yet from authorities about motivation. They've acknowledged that they're looking into the possibility that Warner was a believer in conspiracy theories related to 5G networks. That's usually paranoia about spying or baseless claims that say, for example, 5G technology is causing COVID-related deaths. But in the absence of a public manifesto, what we have is lots of speculation on motives, on ideology. But no, no conclusive answer yet. This is a big multiagency investigation, and it's still only a few days old.

GREENE: We do know some things, though. I mean, the FBI is saying that this RV exploded after a recording was warning people to evacuate the area. And, you know, given this attempt seemingly to avoid casualties, that that's leading to some debate about whether to call this terrorism, which is, you know, a debate that's been revived, as I said. What are the arguments here?

ALLAM: Yeah. And, you know, this is a debate that follows just about every high-profile attack involving a white man involved in a violent act that seemingly meets the threshold of terrorism. Now, why isn't a guy like Warner immediately labeled a terrorist the way, let's be honest, he likely would be if the suicide bomber were Muslim? So for some, the argument is about the legal definition. The authorities require an ideological component to violence to label it terrorism. And as we said, we don't know anything solid yet about Warner's beliefs. But others are saying, you know, on its face, it's an act of terrorism, a Christmas Day suicide bombing in downtown Nashville. So, you know, why the hand-wringing over semantics? I talked about this with extremism researcher Amy Cooter. She teaches at Vanderbilt, actually lives in Nashville. And she says much of the misunderstanding lies in this gap between the lofty legal definitions of terrorism and then just the horror of seeing part of your town blown up.

AMY COOTER: So for me, that kind of captures the tension of terrorism - what it is, is it really about the motive? Is it really about how it's felt or the potential that was with that underlying act or what?

GREENE: So she's sort of saying that our vocabulary for events like this hasn't really caught up to the moment.

ALLAM: Yeah, she and others are calling for a rethinking of how we apply that terrorism label. And, you know, it is well documented by now that the response from politicians, from prosecutors and from the press is different when a case is framed as jihadist-style terrorism rather than, say, a far-right extremist. And we don't know yet whether the Nashville bombing fits into any kind of ideological framework. And we may never know. But, yes, it has revived this debate over who gets the terrorism treatment. I spoke to Ramzi Kassem, a professor at City University of New York Law School. He advocates dropping the terror framework altogether because, in his argument, it mainly serves to justify government policies like mass surveillance.

RAMZI KASSEM: The concept of terrorism, you know, performs valuable political work. But it isn't the work that people think it's doing. It's not making people safer. It isn't helping people understand what drives someone to commit that sort of act of violence, nor is it helping to prevent that violence.

ALLAM: So he's saying it's the concept of terrorism that's flawed and subjective. And the answer to that isn't to expand it in the name of evenhandedness.

GREENE: All so interesting. NPR's Hannah Allam. Hannah, thanks so much.

ALLAM: We'll miss you, David.

GREENE: Oh, thank you for saying that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So we are a week out from - well, I don't even know what to call it - either the last election of 2020 or the first election of 2021.

MARTIN: Right. So there's a crucial runoff for two U.S. Senate seats happening in Georgia soon. And it's going to determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Voting has been underway in those runoffs for weeks. And there are signs that the record turnout that swept Joe Biden to victory in that state may not have been a fluke.

GREENE: And we turn to Stephen Fowler with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Hi, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what do we know at this point about who has already voted in Georgia in these races?

FOWLER: Well, what we do know so far is about 2.3 million Georgians have cast a ballot, either returning an absentee-by-mail ballot or showing up to the polls for in-person early voting. We know that looking at the absentee data that it is an electorate that is slightly younger and more diverse than the general election. And we know that it's mainly being concentrated in the large metro areas. Looking at it, you can see that more people are voting in places like metro Atlanta and big cities like Savannah and Macon, and fewer of the rural voters that typically vote Republican are casting their ballot so far.

GREENE: I mean, during the November election, we saw Democrats just dominate the early and absentee voting while Republicans really focused on Election Day voting. I mean, are we seeing that pattern really repeat itself here?

FOWLER: Well, yes and no. It's really interesting because when the - came down to it, Republicans actually slightly had more people vote early in person, and Democrats won absentee by mail. And that's what made the difference for Joe Biden. But what we're seeing now is that there aren't as many Republicans voting through either early voting method or at least Republican-leaning counties. And even I've heard anecdotes of strong Republican counties in the north Georgia mountains. It's the Democrats in those counties that are early voting that are accounting for the numbers there. And so it's got President Trump worried, which is why he's coming next Monday to rally in northwest Georgia, the 14th Congressional District, where Marjorie Taylor Greene is set to take office, and that district is dead last in turnout.

GREENE: Let me ask you the question that's fascinating me about these races since the presidential election. You have President Trump and Republicans hoping that they can turn out votes at the same time that President Trump has made these baseless claims that the election was stolen from him, which in theory is undermining confidence in voting. How is that playing out here in terms of what voters are doing in Georgia?

FOWLER: It's definitely a unique dynamic to try to understand because, on the one hand, you obviously have Republican voters that say the election was rigged - it was stolen from President Trump, I don't trust the system - that are still voting in the system for the runoff. But on the other hand, President Trump has told people not to vote by mail in Georgia. And now you have supporters of President Trump saying don't use the voting machines. Well, David, that's the only two ways to vote in Georgia. So it could be the fatal blow for Republicans trying to hold onto these seats.

GREENE: All right, Stephen, thank you as always. And you and your team have done such a fabulous job covering this election season in Georgia. We really appreciate it.

FOWLER: Thank you.

GREENE: Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting. He also hosts the "Battleground: Ballot Box" podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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