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News brief: Capitol Hill agenda, Florida school shooting, school board elections

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What happens when you wrap what seems like a president's whole agenda into just one bill in Congress?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Well, we now know the answer is frustration. Now, we don't know that that will be the final answer. Democrats are so focused on a budget measure right now because it's likely the only other substantive bill that they can pass this year against Republican opposition. They've been negotiating among themselves about how much to spend on climate change, health care, child care, college tuition and more.

INSKEEP: We've talked about this legislation a lot, but we've come back to it this morning because NPR's Deirdre Walsh has found some progress. Deirdre, good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are they getting closer to an agreement here then?

WALSH: Well, Democrats I talked to last night believe there is actually some new momentum. They're actually talking about the policies now, not just the price tag. California Democrat Ro Khanna - he's a member of the Progressive Caucus - he met with President Biden yesterday in the Oval Office for almost two hours. Here's what he said last night.

RO KHANNA: I felt that we're closer to a deal than I ever, ever felt before. I felt the president is engaged in the details of the negotiation in a way that he hasn't been before.

WALSH: Khanna and other Democrats say the framework that is now emerging is one that keeps the bulk of the policy priorities that Democrats have been talking about for some time, things like paid family leave, universal pre-K, expanding Medicare to cover vision and hearing, elder care. But the package is going to be significantly scaled back. It's going to be down from the $3.5 trillion they originally set for this proposal to now around $2 trillion. So in order to keep this wide range of policies they still want to do, they're going to keep them - keep various policies in for shorter amounts of time. One example they talked about was extending the child tax credit for just one year through 2023. But on the climate agenda, Biden's centerpiece program...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

WALSH: ...This program that creates incentives for utilities to use greener technologies, that's not going to be in the final deal. So Democrats are now looking at alternatives to try to meet those same targets that he set to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Another item that's not expected to be in the final deal is the president's proposal for two years of free community college. And as we've talked about on this program many times, it's really all coming down to those two moderate Senate Democrats, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, about what they'll accept. And Democrats are now even saying that they have their own parking spots at the White House.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Well, you know, you got to be ready to have talks with the two of them because it's come down to that. Democrats need every single vote to get to 50, plus the vice president being 51. It is interesting to hear Ro Khanna say there that Joe Biden is engaged in the details in a way that he wasn't before because there was a time when Democrats thought they'd pass this bill in September. There's a time now they think they're going to pass it in October. But is that really going to happen?

WALSH: Right. It's really hard to see that's - that happening. I mean, they're now setting sort of a new deadline, this goal of having a framework for the scaled-down proposal by the end of this week. But members are really frustrated and feeling really like time is running out. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders is really frustrated about the holdouts in his caucus, and he said senators recognize they really need to set the final details soon. Here's Senator Sanders.

BERNIE SANDERS: There have been, quote-unquote, "negotiations" month after month after month and that it is now time to fish or cut bait.

WALSH: I mean, the other goal the Democrats are talking about is trying to get this framework together before the president and congressional Democrats head to a climate summit at the end of the month. But this is still going to be a really heavy lift for Democrats to come together.

INSKEEP: Just got a few seconds here, but the House panel investigating the January 6 attack seems to be moving ahead with contempt charges or a contempt referral against Steve Bannon. Where are they going with that?

WALSH: Yeah, this will be on the House floor tomorrow. It's expected to pass, and then it will be referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office here in Washington. And then the attorney general decides whether or not he's going to charge Bannon with criminal contempt, and that could mean jail time.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thanks for the update.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The gunman charged with killing 17 people and wounding others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is expected in court in Florida today.

DETROW: His lawyers say he will plead guilty to all charges, although whether he'll face the death penalty or life in prison is still in question. Today's hearing comes more than 3 1/2 years after the shooting in Parkland, and it is happening as the Broward County School District closes in on an agreement to pay $25 million to the victims' families.

INSKEEP: So we have criminal proceedings and then also civil proceedings when we talk about paying a settlement. A lot to catch up on - and NPR's Greg Allen is on this story. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who does the settlement affect?

ALLEN: Well, all of our information about this so far comes from a lawyer who's representing some of the families. There are a few details, and the school district isn't commenting until the agreement is finalized. But according to the lawyer David Brill, the largest payments will go to the families of the 17 people killed. The agreement will also settle claims of all but one of those who were injured in the shooting. One of the most severely injured, student Anthony Borges, is seeking his own settlement with the school district. It also includes payments to 19 people who suffered trauma in the shootings.

INSKEEP: OK. So $25 million split many ways - the families satisfied?

ALLEN: Well, David Brill, who represents five of the families, says that the settlement, in his words, provides a measure of justice and accountability. He called it fair and, frankly, remarkable. Many of the families who've spoken out really are more focused now on the hearing of the former student who's charged in the school shooting, which is happening today.

INSKEEP: Nikolas Cruz is his name. He's expected to change his plea to guilty on all counts. Any idea why?

ALLEN: Well, the defense isn't saying. For years, Cruz's lawyers have sought a plea deal where he would plead guilty to all charges if he could avoid the death penalty and instead get consecutive life sentences, which would mean he'd die in prison. There's little question Cruz is the person who went on the shooting spree at the school in 2018. Numerous witnesses identified him. There's surveillance video. There's recordings he made himself before the shooting. And he reportedly confessed to authorities afterwards. Prosecutors and many of the families, though, have been adamant that they will only be satisfied with a death sentence. Here's Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was one of those killed. He spoke yesterday on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

FRED GUTTENBERG: I hope this person pays the price with his life. I do. The penalty phase for me is a really important part of our ability to move forward as families.

ALLEN: If Cruz pleads guilty on all counts, the trial will move immediately then to the sentencing phase.

INSKEEP: And how does that work? Is that just the judge, or is there a jury deciding on a death penalty, for example?

ALLEN: Well, it's up to the defense, but it does seem likely they'll look for a jury to come up with the sentence. The judge has said jury selection will begin next month with a sentencing phase of the trial getting underway perhaps in January. There are lots of issues, though, here. It may take some time to seat an impartial jury in an area that was hit hard by the trauma of the school shooting and still recovering. The defense may be hoping that in changing his plea, Cruz will show he's acknowledging his guilt and avoid the death penalty.

The defense will probably offer testimony about Cruz's well-documented mental health issues, but the jury's also likely to hear extensive testimony by victims and their families. In the end, you know, the decision by the jury to sentence him in Florida now has to be unanimous, and so that'll be the key thing that the defense will be resting on.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen with an update on many things having to do with the shooting. Thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK. Fights over masks and vaccine mandates and parental rights and history lessons have been turning school board meetings into political battlefields.

DETROW: And that means that school board elections around the country this fall will become an early test for whether that outrage actually motivates votes.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith traveled to Ohio last week to look at how it plays out in one district. Hey there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Where'd you go?

KEITH: So I went to Centerville. It's a suburb of Dayton. This November, residents will vote in a school board race that is turning neighbors against each other in a way that they say even the 2020 presidential election did not.

INSKEEP: Wow.

KEITH: It's - yeah, I was surprised. It's a good example of how national issues have crept into even the most local of races. This spring, dozens of people started showing up at school board meetings that normally would only attract a handful, and they were outraged about kids having to wear face masks. Now there is a slate of three candidates who label themselves as conservatives. They're challenging the incumbents, trying to take control of the five-member board. Here's Heather Schultz, one of the challengers.

HEATHER SCHULTZ: We absolutely respect a parent's right to put a mask on their child or not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Absolutely.

SCHULTZ: If you want to send your kid in a mask or if you want to have them get any vaccine of any kind, that is absolutely your decision. And as a board member, we will not make those decisions for you. We will respect yours.

KEITH: They weren't involved in school board issues before, but the pandemic changed that. And Schultz says they just felt like they had to run because the school board wasn't listening to them on things like masks, which they don't want their kids to have to wear; vaccines, which they call experimental, and diversity education, which they say is discriminatory.

INSKEEP: What do the incumbents say about all that?

KEITH: They are bewildered and even scared. At one meeting in August, they had security at every door and planned out a safe room to get to because of how heated things were getting. I talked to David Roer. He's served on the board for 28 years, and he told me about one incident.

DAVID ROER: On a Saturday night in the dark, starts ringing the doorbell, starts yelling and screaming at us, you're what makes America bad. I had to call the police.

KEITH: The challengers say they don't condone violence or threats, and they're shocked by how heated the race has become.

INSKEEP: I'm glad for your focus on this one race because this is a story that could be multiplied across the country. There have been disputes in my own hometown in Indiana. They're in Virginia. They're all over the place. If people are that worked up about local school board races, could that affect more national races to come, like for Congress in 2022?

KEITH: Yeah, the outcomes in these school board races will probably give us a sense of whether there is a real uprising among parents or whether this is a lot of noise. But Republicans who lost a lot of ground in the suburbs over the past eight years are hoping that schools will provide a winning issue for them. Christine Matthews is a Republican pollster. She's not convinced. She spends a lot of time doing focus groups with suburban women.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: This is not something that's going to bring a swing suburban mom into the fold. In fact, what swing women tell me that they hate almost more than anything right now is the division between people in our country, the fights.

KEITH: She says there could actually be a backlash to the chaos. But Republican politicians see opportunity there, and you're seeing this play out in the Virginia governor's race right now.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And we'll have a result on that coming right up next month. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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