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News Brief: Politics Of Relief, Ariz. COVID-19 Surge, Census Delay

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The brief hope for more COVID relief appears to have faded.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We've been following some elaborate posturing in recent days. Congress passed a relief bill with limited aid, and at the last minute, President Trump suddenly demanded more money, which he never pushed for before and which his party didn't want. House Democrats cheerfully approved, daring Senate Republicans to kill it. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has effectively done that. He said he won't allow a standalone vote on the extra money because he says a check to everyone is not what people need.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: What they will need is smart, targeted aid, not another fire hose of borrowed money.

INSKEEP: So what's all of this add up to as the year ends? NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been covering a year of events in Congress. Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's this mean for the average person?

SNELL: You know, basically, it means that the $2,000 direct aid that we've been talking about for so long is more or less dead in Congress. You know, McConnell described it as having no realistic path or quick approval. And quick approval is basically what they need because this Congress ends on Sunday. So many people will still get smaller checks. That's $600 per adult and $600 for each dependent for those who qualify. The larger checks were, in the end, a demand from President Trump that Republicans felt they had to reject.

And McConnell successfully killed the plan by pairing the checks with other totally unrelated demands from Trump, one to look into unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and one to repeal a decades-old law that provided certain liability protections used by social media companies.

INSKEEP: The kinds of things you might not ever get approved or certainly wouldn't get approved quickly.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: So can Democrats try again here at all?

SNELL: This bill just disappears when Congress ends on Sunday morning, like all bills do. They have to be done all over again with a new Congress. So the House would have to try again if they wanted to move with this specific proposal, but it's not really clear that they'd want to do that. Or, you know, they might want to wait for the incoming Biden administration to announce their plans. President-elect Biden has said that he sees what they have done so far as a down payment on a larger plan for relief. So they may want to work out some bigger, broader plan.

And, you know, a lot of economists, not just conservatives, say that passing a more robust unemployment package would actually be better for people who are struggling than these blanket checks.

INSKEEP: OK, so for the moment, we should say people are getting $600, or a lot of people will be getting $600 checks in days and weeks to come.

Now, let me ask about another story that we're following, Kelsey. Of course, the election is over. Joe Biden won. But there's one more step in the formal process, which is presenting the results to Congress, which is normally a formality, happens January 6. But Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said yesterday he's going to use his right to object. He's going to take the chance to repeat and amplify President Trump's false claims about the election. Does that affect the process at all?

SNELL: Well, it slows down the process, but really, ultimately, it doesn't change the result, which is that President-elect Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes and Trump received 232, making Biden the president-elect. You know, the rules state that for an objection to be considered, a member from the House and Senate must both lodge an objection in writing. And Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama has already said he'll do that in the House.

Hawley told a pool of Capitol Hill reporters that he feels like he needs to speak up for people who felt like they were wronged in the election. You'll have to bear with the sound a little bit since this was in the halls of the Capitol.

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JOSH HAWLEY: January 6 is the only opportunity that I've got to speak up for my constituents in this process. This is it.

SNELL: There's no evidence of widespread election fraud, and that's been confirmed by multiple agencies, including Attorney General William Barr. So the House and Senate will debate, and it'll take about two hours longer than you would expect.

INSKEEP: OK, so an extra couple of hours added to the process. Kelsey, thanks so much for your reporting all year long.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell.

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INSKEEP: One of the highest coronavirus infection rates in this country belongs to Arizona.

FADEL: Many hospitals in Phoenix face a backlog of sick people. Some have even had to turn away ambulances. State health director Dr. Cara Christ says Arizona is recruiting out-of-state nurses to address the surging infection rate.

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CARA CHRIST: The barrier now is staffing. And so trying to get those additional staff in so that we can continue to take care of Arizonans is really important.

INSKEEP: Scott Bourque of member station KJZZ is covering this story from Phoenix. Good morning, sir.

SCOTT BOURQUE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How bad is it where you are?

BOURQUE: So things are pretty bad here right now. They reported about 5,000 new cases yesterday. Hospitals are almost full. As you said, they're turning away ambulances.

I've spoken to a handful of nurses and medical workers in the hospitals who are struggling. They're working eight, nine, 10 days in a row, 12 hours a day. And when they are working, they're dealing with more patients than they can safely handle. You know, typically, an ICU nurse handles about two patients, and some of the ones I've spoken to are taking three or four patients at a time. So they're doing more work than they can safely handle.

INSKEEP: Doubling the safe workload in some cases, you're saying.

BOURQUE: Yes, absolutely.

INSKEEP: Now, why would this be happening in Arizona? Of course, the surge is just about everywhere, but Arizona is almost the worst.

BOURQUE: So there's no statewide mask mandate here. Many cities have mask mandates, but a lot of them don't. So there's no broad mask mandate consensus here. And things just kind of feel normal. If you walk around to bars or restaurants, a lot of them are packed.

One of the ICU nurses I spoke to drives through a busy entertainment district on his way home from work most days, and he says it's packed with people. His name's Eric Sartori.

ERIC SARTORI: I go and I see everything that's happening all day long, and football season is still going on. They've normalized complacency with this. If they're going to keep the economy open, I think they really need to keep that in mind.

BOURQUE: The state of Arizona basically made some unannounced changes to benchmarks for business closures, making it so that there's no real level of spread that would lead to business closures. It used to be moderate transmission led to closures. Now it's substantial transmission. But essentially, the changes make it so that there's no difference now and there's no real reason that they would close businesses.

INSKEEP: So the economy just keeps going right on. Does Arizona have any plan to contain things?

BOURQUE: Nothing really solid at the moment that I have heard. Right now, it really just looks like they're going to be doing vaccine distribution. So far, the state's distributed 46,000 doses of both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine to health care workers and to people living in nursing homes, but that is the lowest rate in the western U.S. Only 0.63% of the population have been vaccinated here, according to Bloomberg, and they've only used about 17% of their doses.

Just yesterday, Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order basically encouraging state agencies to speed up how fast they vaccinate people, increasing that to adults over the age of 75, shifting some people around into different vaccine groups. In the executive order, he basically said vaccines don't do any good sitting in a freezer.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks. Be safe.

BOURQUE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Scott Bourque of KJZZ in Arizona.

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INSKEEP: Today was supposed to be the day that the 2020 census began translating into political power.

FADEL: The Census Bureau has a deadline to begin turning in census results. It says it will miss that deadline today, with some of those results not ready until early 2021. That delay will have big implications for how many Electoral College votes and seats in Congress each state gets for the next decade.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related and is with us once again. Good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was this specific deadline? I know there are lots of different sets of numbers coming from the census. What was this one about?

WANG: This was about new state population counts from the census. They're supposed to be reported to the president by the commerce secretary, who oversees the Census Bureau. And these are the numbers that are used to determine each state's share of seats in the House of Representatives, as well as electoral votes for the next 10 years. And federal law says today is the last day to report those numbers.

But this year, the Census Bureau is missing this reporting deadline for the first time since this deadline was put in place more than 40 years ago. There's no penalty for missing this legal deadline, but that does further complicate an already messy census process.

INSKEEP: Why is the deadline being missed?

WANG: COVID-19, to begin with...

INSKEEP: Sure.

WANG: ...As well as the Trump administration's last-minute schedule changes that cut the census schedule short. You know, and the main problem right now is the Census Bureau has found irregularities in the census records, and it needs more time to make sure no one is counted twice and in the wrong place. And, you know, right now, the Census Bureau is scrambling to try to figure that out. It takes these deadlines very seriously because major delays could throw off all the other steps that are involved in getting House seats reallocated and voting districts redrawn eventually.

INSKEEP: So I'm trying to figure this out. We are, of course, at a moment when administrations are changing. President Trump, if I can just check my watch here, has about 21 days left and wanted to present the census numbers in a certain way. How does the delay affect what the president is trying to do?

WANG: Well, what President Trump is trying to do is exclude unauthorized immigrants from those state population counts, despite the Constitution's requirement to include the, quote, "whole number of persons in each state." And a delay in getting out the census results - these first set of results - could mean that President-elect Joe Biden ends up receiving the numbers Trump wants to alter.

So the big question right now is how long it will take the Census Bureau to finish fixing these irregularities they found in the records. There's also worry that maybe the Trump administration would cut short the quality checks the Census Bureau's trying to do right now and force out inaccurate, incomplete numbers. If they do that, if the administration does that, the clerk of the House of Representatives, who certifies each state's new number of House seats, may refuse to accept altered numbers, and that could spark a flurry of more lawsuits.

INSKEEP: Wow. So what are you following, then, for the next three weeks here?

WANG: I'm watching to see what happens around January 9. A source within the Census Bureau tells me that is when the bureau is internally setting a check-in date to see when the bureau will start the last steps in processing, reviewing the census records. And that may be when we find out when those first set of results eventually come out.

INSKEEP: Coming down to the wire if we already know it's going to be at least January 9 or after. Hansi, thank you very much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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