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News brief: Biden priorities, U.S. economic stats, parole challenges

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden is carrying some of his top priorities, such as climate and tax reform, to Europe.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Washington, of course, he's had trouble getting his own party to agree on those very things. Now, this is a five-day trip. Biden lands in Rome, the first stop, tonight. It is worth noting he was supposed to leave earlier this morning, but he delayed. A leadership aide says he's going to be meeting with House Democrats this morning instead.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is waiting for the president's arrival in Rome. Scott, the president, really, really wanted to arrive in Rome with a deal in hand on those top priorities. Where do things stand?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah, there seemed to be this burst of optimism that this thing could be finished by the time Biden hit the road, but he remains in this tough balancing act he's been in all along, trying to convince skeptical moderate senators to go along with a plan that is currently somewhere - we don't know exactly where - south of $2 trillion. In order to do that, he has to keep shrinking the bill and cutting out or limiting key parts of it. And of course, the more it shrinks, the more progressives who campaigned on this agenda are getting angrier and angrier, so Biden has a lot more selling to do. As mentioned, he's heading to Capitol Hill this morning. He'll speak from the White House, as well, before he flies to Rome. And we can expect the message to focus on what's still in the bill. Last night, he tweeted universal preschool, historic climate investments, lower health care costs - they're all within our reach. Let's bring these bills over the finish line, seeming to target that message directly to Democrats who may or may not vote on this plan in the coming days.

MARTINEZ: Now, one of the big Biden priorities that seems to have been dropped from the package, at least for now, is a paid family leave. What happened with that?

DETROW: Yeah, this is a really good example of the types of things that are hard for progressives to swallow here. Biden had campaigned on the idea of broad, progressive changes to the social safety net. You know, in the early months of his administration, he seemed to welcome these comparisons to the New Deal when it came to the scope of his ambition. And paid family leave was a high-profile example of that, something the U.S. trails the developed world on, something that was a major lifeline for people who had it during the pandemic. But the proposal went from 12 weeks down to four, and now, according to most reports, it is now dropped entirely from the bill. And that's all about getting Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two moderate senators with a lot of concerns about spending, to vote for this.

MARTINEZ: So if he doesn't have a deal at home, how might all of that affect his ability to get things done in Europe?

DETROW: Yeah, a lot of these policies tied to the big themes that Biden is meeting with world leaders on. The G-20, it's all about finances, trying to get a global minimum tax. And of course, the U.N. Climate Summit is all about reaching big, ambitious climate goals. Biden has talked up a lot about ambitious goals, but he needs to get something passed, especially after years of promises that the U.S. has made at these summits and hasn't quite delivered yet.

MARTINEZ: What are some of the highlights of the president's overseas agenda?

DETROW: Yeah, Biden has two big meetings tomorrow. The first is with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Biden is, of course, just the second Catholic American president. He and Francis have a lot of shared goals, including climate. That's one of the things they're going to talk about. Then, Biden has a second meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. It's kind of a makeup meeting of sorts. They seemed very happy to see each other when Biden met Macron this summer during his first trip to Europe - a lot of warm handshakes, Macron said he was glad to have an American president, quote, "back in the club."

Since then, though, Biden really upset the French president. There was a deal that he cut with Australia to share nuclear technology. There's complicated twists and turns, but it ended up really hurting France because Australia cancelled a major submarine contract with France. Macron was enraged to the point where he recalled France's ambassador to the U.S. Biden and Macron have since talked on the phone. This meeting will be a key step in repairing some real damage that was done to America's oldest alliance.

MARTINEZ: That's Scott Detrow in Rome. Scott, thanks a lot.

DETROW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Around the Fourth of July, forecasters predicted some of the fastest economic growth in the U.S. in decades.

KING: Yes. And then came the delta wave of coronavirus. Forecasters now expect we'll see much slower growth today when we get the Commerce Department's report on GDP for July, August and September.

MARTINEZ: From one Scott to another, we're joined now by NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, how much of a drag has the delta variant been on the economy?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's been a huge speed bump. When the quarter started back around the Fourth of July, forecasters thought we'd be seeing the economy grow at an annual rate of around 7%, as it had during the spring. Some thought we'd even see faster growth. And for a few weeks at least, things were going gangbusters. Employers added more than a million jobs between June and July. But as new infections, hospitalizations and deaths tied to the delta variant mounted, Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics says it really slammed the brakes on the economy.

MARK ZANDI: Delta did a lot of damage. I mean, it made consumers more cautious. Travel fell off. People went to restaurants less often. It rescrambled global supply chains. Delta did a real number on the economy, really hurt.

HORSLEY: The virus also kept millions of would-be workers on the sidelines. You know, some people got sick. Some people stayed home to avoid getting sick. Some were looking after other people who were sick. So job growth also slowed sharply in August and September, and that was another drag on the broader economy.

MARTINEZ: Scott Zandi mentioned supply chains. We've been hearing a lot about supply chains in recent months. How are those bottlenecks and delivery delays cutting into growth?

HORSLEY: They've taken a big bite. I mean, just think about all the stuff that didn't get bought or sold during the quarter because it was out of stock or waiting for a missing part or stuck on a cargo ship or a truck someplace. I talked to Sereta Stephens. She runs the Tackle Box 2 restaurant in Fremont, Ohio. She was pretty happy with the crowd she got over the summer. They were about double what they were last year, but she said keeping all those customers fed was not easy.

SERETA STEPHENS: We're having trouble getting food - onion rings, cheese sticks. There's just stuff I can't get. And if I order it today, it might be here next week, or it might be in two weeks.

HORSLEY: All sorts of businesses have been wrestling with that kind of challenge. And that makes this slowdown unusual. Typically when economic growth slows, it's because demand dries up. In this case, the United States has plenty of demand. People have money in their pockets, thanks in part to all that federal aid that went out during the pandemic. But they sometimes can't find ways to spend it, and that is keeping a lid on growth. Stephens also told me that when the COVID case numbers were at their peak, some of her older customers opted for takeout rather than eating in. And you could just imagine how that cuts down on tips and the bar tab.

MARTINEZ: Got to have onion rings - cheese sticks, eh - onion rings a must. Today's GDP report, Scott, covers July, August and September, but we're almost done with October now. So what does the rest of the year look like?

HORSLEY: Forecasters do expect to see stronger growth in the last three months of the year. You know, delta cases have dropped sharply since the beginning of September. Vaccinations are going up. Pretty soon, younger kids may be eligible for the vaccine. And all that should make people more comfortable about going out, spending money. You can already see signs that's happening. People also might feel more comfortable going back to work if they've been on the sidelines. So if Labor Day was a big letdown after all the excitement around the Fourth of July, maybe Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas will be a bit better. Of course, as we have said so many times, a lot will depend on the path of the pandemic.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, it will. NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Longtime prisoners who want to win release in the nation's capital find themselves in a unique situation.

KING: That's right. Parole in Washington, D.C., is adjudicated by a federal commission. That arrangement started 20 years ago when D.C. was having severe financial problems, and then it just stuck and has been creating problems in the meantime.

MARTINEZ: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been looking at some of those challenges for a series she calls Hard Time. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, A.

MARTINEZ: So what does this federal parole commission do?

JOHNSON: It has two big jobs. It decides whether hundreds of people serving long prison sentences should be released into supervision. Then it decides whether to send people back to prison if they make mistakes once they're freed. Now, critics say the panel's too tough on the people it oversees, mostly Black men from Washington, D.C. One of them is Robert Davis. He's 45 years old. He spent 21 years in prison for second-degree murder. Robert Davis followed all the rules once he got parole, but he still had a hard time.

ROBERT DAVIS: I think returning citizens are really viewed like, OK, come home; now get yourself together. And it's like, you just said this so easily. That is, like, the hardest thing in the world.

MARTINEZ: How is Robert doing now?

JOHNSON: I spoke with a prosecutor who worked on this case in the 1990s. He still remembers it because he says it was a brutal crime. But the prosecutor says he's really glad if Robert Davis is doing well. It's been a hard road, but Davis has a really good job. He's working with other people leaving jail and prison, helping them to re-enter the community in D.C.

MARTINEZ: So what's so hard about the parole system for the people who deal with it every day?

JOHNSON: Well, they say that there are just lots of conditions - visits at work, visits at home that can disrupt the employers and co-workers or disturb family members. There's drug tests, needing permission to travel outside of Washington, D.C. Robert Davis told me early in his experience he was supposed to go to a class, but instead his mom was rushed to the ER. He really wanted to go see her in the hospital, but he risked being sent back to prison because no one was around to give him permission to go to the ER. He also ran into a lot of trouble winning release from supervision because of some paperwork mistakes last year.

MARTINEZ: Now, Carrie, your reporting on this story focused on Washington, D.C. What does the parole picture look like around the country?

JOHNSON: There's been a lot of criticism about parole boards - that they don't grant parole often enough, they send people back to prison for making mistakes like failed drug tests or missed meetings rather than committing new crimes. This federal parole commission has been on the chopping block for decades now, but it got new life when it was put in charge of people from Washington, D.C. The federal commission is supposed to expire in November 2022, and the D.C. government is now racing to create a local parole council before then to take over this big responsibility.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. The rest of Carrie's reporting on people serving hard time can be found on npr.org. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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