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News brief: GOP abortion strategy, Nebraska primary, Sri Lanka protests

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

If the Supreme Court should change or overturn Roe v. Wade, it would lead to legislative battles on abortion rights all across the country.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The biggest action would be in states, not Congress. No abortion legislation is likely to pass the divided U.S. Senate just now. But that would not stop the parties from trying. Senate Democrats already plan a vote that would codify abortion rights. And Senate Republicans have begun talking of a nationwide ban if they should regain control. This underlines a challenge for Republicans because such a ban is one of their core positions, and it's also very unpopular.

MARTINEZ: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here with the latest on the Republican playbook. Domenico, politicians often gain a lot more by fighting over an issue than actually getting the solution that they keep saying that they're seeking. Is that part of the challenge here for Republicans?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, look; it's been an issue that's been the culture war issue for Republicans in this country, firing up their base, for the better part of 50 years, you know? There's a real open question now about what the party does nationally if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, which made abortion legal in this country. About two-thirds of people say, in survey after survey, that they want Roe to be upheld and for abortion to be legal in this country but with restrictions. That's where Republicans are trying to deflect the conversation and push Democrats, on restrictions instead of overturning Roe. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had this to say on the Senate floor yesterday.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Today's Democratic Party is profoundly out of step with the American people on this issue. Their extreme position ignores modern science and public opinion. Leader Schumer wants the Senate to vote again on a Democratic bill that would effectively legalize abortion on demand through all nine months.

MARTINEZ: All right. So is that true?

MONTANARO: Well, the Democratic bill doesn't really say that it would allow abortion in the third trimester in all or even most cases. What the bill says is that after viability, which is about 23 to 24 weeks, that a pregnant person would be allowed to get an abortion if there is a, quote, "good faith medical judgment" of the treating health care provider that the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient's life or health. Now, what health means isn't exactly spelled out. And that's something conservatives have dug in on. But it's pretty much what's in the Roe decision itself, which says that states can, quote, "proscribe or forbid," quote, "abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."

We should note, though, that 9 in 10 abortions take place in the first 12 weeks. More than half are by pill. And yet, what gets most of the attention and what's used in political talking points on the right are extreme examples that are exceedingly rare. The energy right now, we know, is - in Republican-led states, what they're trying to implement are more restrictions. And that's what's before the court. And the leaked court draft opinion shows a conservative majority would overturn Roe, which, as we noted, is unpopular.

MARTINEZ: Now, over the weekend, Mitch McConnell said it's possible Republicans would try to pass a national ban on abortion if they got power. But that's a very unpopular position. So why would he say something like that?

MONTANARO: Well, I think the thing that we need to understand is that Mitch McConnell really only cares about one thing, winning the Senate. Fifty-one seats is his top concern. He's making a base play. And he's really threatening Democrats with just how far he might go if he has the power in the Senate as a way to warn them of not going too far in getting rid of the filibuster, for example, so a bit of a game of chicken, you know? And it's not really clear Republicans have a plan nationally. If Roe is overturned, the fight would really, probably, most likely be state by state, with very different laws, depending on which party is in charge.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Voters in Nebraska cast ballots today to decide who will be their Republican candidate for governor.

INSKEEP: This race is the latest test of former President Trump's influence. He's backing a wealthy political outsider named Charles Herbster.

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DONALD TRUMP: We've made it very prosperous. And I really think he's going to do just a fantastic job. And if I didn't feel that, I wouldn't be here.

INSKEEP: The latest polls show Mr. Herbster and Jim Pillen in a dead heat, with the third candidate close behind.

MARTINEZ: With us now to discuss all this is Will Bauer of Nebraska Public Media in Lincoln. Will, so tell us about this race. Who are the leading candidates?

WILL BAUER, BYLINE: Yeah. So Republican Governor Pete Ricketts is on his second term here in Nebraska, so he can't run again. His pick to carry on his legacy is University of Nebraska regent Jim Pillen. He's a traditional GOP candidate. He'll tell you right away he's a conservative Christian. Pillen is also a pig farmer and a veterinarian. So those kinds of credentials resonate well here in Nebraska, where agriculture is one of the state's top industries. There's also agricultural businessman and major GOP donor Charles Herbster. He hasn't raised a lot of money for this race. Instead, he's donated $11.5 million of his own money. And he's hoping Trump's endorsement will win support from Nebraskans. There's also this third GOP candidate in the primary, who's polling at roughly the same numbers as the other two. That's State Senator Brett Lindstrom of Omaha. And he's only 41 years old but has the most state government experience in the primary. He's also slightly a more moderate candidate.

MARTINEZ: Now, we've mentioned President Trump. What role is the former president playing in this race?

BAUER: Well, Trump and Herbster made a stop last week together in Nebraska. And a few thousand Nebraskans watched. Herbster is someone who supported Trump for a long time now. He was actually in Washington at the January 6 rally that preceded the insurrection. Herbster is someone who models himself after Trump. In the last few weeks, he's referenced a conspiracy theory linking China, the coronavirus pandemic and 2020 election results. A few weeks ago, eight women, including a state senator, alleged Herbster inappropriately touched or forcibly kissed them. Women have also accused Trump of various inappropriate behaviors over the years. Both men, of course, deny the charges. Herbster is suing the state senator, who's accused him of groping, for slander. She's filed a countersuit. And now, John Hibbing is a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He's a longtime observer of state politics. I spoke with him about just how impactful the allegations will be on voters here.

JOHN HIBBING: The question is, are these Nebraska Republicans really going to stick with the Trump candidate even in the face of all these allegations? Or will they cut their losses and go with somebody who is kind of like Trump but not endorsed by Trump?

MARTINEZ: Will, why is there so much attention on this primary?

BAUER: Well, one of the reasons could be that thousands of voters who were registered as Democrats or Independents have joined the Republican Party over the last two months. Hibbing, the political science professor, says most of them will likely be voting for Lindstrom. He says Pillen could be an option, too, but Herbster less so. About 24% of voters are undecided headed into the polls today, according to surveys by all three of the candidates. And one of the main reasons people may be switching is because the winner of today's Republican primary is widely expected to go on to win the general election. The last time a Democrat was elected governor here in Nebraska was 1995.

MARTINEZ: That's Nebraska Public Media's Will Bauer. Will, thanks a lot.

BAUER: You bet.

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MARTINEZ: Sri Lanka has endured months of food and fuel shortages, then weeks of anti-government protests and now violence.

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INSKEEP: We are listening as supporters and critics of the government clash. This happened overnight in the capital, Colombo. There were other incidents across the country. At least seven people have been killed. Hundreds were wounded. And the prime minister of Sri Lanka has now resigned.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Lauren Frayer covers Sri Lanka and has been monitoring these events from our bureau in Mumbai. Lauren, what's the situation right now in Sri Lanka?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Well, at first, this morning, there was sort of an eerie calm after this night of horrible violence. Even the highway toll booths were just empty, deserted. Trade unions have called a nationwide strike. But protesters are now amassing again in the capital, Colombo. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa - or I should call him ex-prime minister now. He and his family have been evacuated from their Colombo home in a pre-dawn special forces operation. Their ancestral home, meanwhile, in another part of the island was set on fire by protesters. Here's the thing. The prime minister's brother is still the democratically elected president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya. Rajapaksa And the Rajapaksa brothers have been the focus of weeks of protests by some of their countrymen, who blame them for mismanaging this economic crisis. Protesters are now lining routes to the airport. They suspect that the Rajapaksa brothers may try to flee the country. They don't want that to happen. Opposition leaders are calling for them to face charges. So there's a real political crisis here on top of a very dire economic one as well.

MARTINEZ: How did things get so bad in Sri Lanka?

FRAYER: Yeah. So the Rajapaksa brothers are accused of mismanaging the economic crisis. But they're not solely the cause of it. Sri Lanka's just had some bad luck in recent years. The economy relies on tourism and remittances from abroad. Both of those things were really hard hit by the pandemic. And tourism was hurt even before that by those horrific 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. Sri Lanka was victim of these terrible terror attacks that killed more than 200 people on Easter 2019. So the country was low on foreign currency reserves to begin with. And that's what the government uses, basically U.S. dollars to buy fuel. And so the country has suffered shortages of cooking gas and fuel for power plants. Then what happened to the world? The Ukraine war sent oil and coal prices through the roof and exacerbated everything. So Sri Lanka right now is suffering inflation of upwards of 20%, rolling blackouts, shortages of food and fuel, as I mentioned. And it's a real scene of desperation. And now we've got a heat wave on top of it. So...

MARTINEZ: Wow.

FRAYER: ...Sri Lanka shows us how societies can explode and come apart when climate and economic crises come together and make people very uncomfortable.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. That's a lot happening all at once. Lauren, what's next there?

FRAYER: Well, the prime minister's resignation means that the cabinet is dissolved. And that means there is no finance minister whose job it is to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund on bailout loans. And that's an international bailout package that Sri Lanka just desperately needs right now.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thank you very much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Thank you. 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.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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