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News Brief: COVID-19 Relief Plan, Portland Protests, Remembering John Lewis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It turns out, a few trillion dollars may not be quite enough to tide over the country in the pandemic.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Congress has approved that much in relief, but a key provision is running out. It's the extra $600 many Americans have been receiving in their unemployment checks. Months ago, Democrats proposed an extension. After much delay, Republicans will unveil a plan today, but they don't like that unemployment provision. Some lawmakers did not like that some people were making more than they could by working. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tells ABC the Republican plan will be different.

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MARK MEADOWS: We are going to be prepared, on Monday, to provide unemployment insurance extension that would be 70% of whatever the wages you were prior to being unemployed.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is covering this story. Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did the Republicans come in about two months after the Democrats on this?

SNELL: Well, back two months ago, when Democrats passed their bill, the Heroes Act, Republicans said they had to kind of wait and see if the economy would rebound, but the economy is very much not rebounding right now. And now they're in this moment where they were planning to release a bill last week, but it didn't happen, in large part because of that unemployment provision. They simply can't agree. You know, this is not Republicans trying to come to an agreement with Democrats even. They can't agree amongst themselves. And they haven't even set a timeline to talk to Democrats. And it's not just unemployment, though that is a major portion of this. There's also some disagreement about the overall cost of this.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about some of these disagreements, including the one on unemployment. What is it the Democrats want to do and how does that compare with what we heard Mark Meadows say?

SNELL: Right. So we talked a lot about these special unemployment benefits from the CARES Act back in March that offered $600 a week on top of state unemployment benefits, which, you know, they vary from state to state. And they're about $378 on average. Now, they landed on a plan to give $600 because doing anything else was going to be too difficult. And they wanted to make sure that most people could maintain income close to what they were making before. Democrats want to extend that. And Republicans are saying the 70% of a person's wages would be more fair. But I reported over the weekend that the U.S. Department of Labor warned Congress back in May that it strongly opposed such a change because it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement. But the Trump administration says it's workable, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin just called it a technical fix.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Of course, that's the debate here because the situation is urgent. People need the money now, not next month or next year. Now, Secretary Mnuchin was talking on "Fox News Sunday" and talked of maybe getting this package passed by splitting it into pieces. Let's listen.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: Within the trillion-dollar package, there are certain things that have time frames that are a bigger priority. So we could look at doing an entire deal. We could also look at doing parts.

INSKEEP: What's the advantage of doing parts, as he says?

SNELL: Well, it would possibly appease some different parts of the Republican Party. Some people are worried about this big price tag, which is expected to be about a trillion dollars as the starting point from Republicans. And others are interested in just individual provisions like that money for unemployment or money for schools or liability protections. But breaking it up is not appealing to Democrats who would like some leverage to kind of encourage Republicans to get on board with broader changes and more protections for people in this bill. And Republicans know they need bipartisan support to pass this. So Democrats have some incentive to wait, to not agree to something that they think is not enough.

INSKEEP: And Democrats, of course, have been united on this. That's NPR's Kelsey Snell.

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INSKEEP: Of all the cities witnessing protests in recent months, the most sustained protests have come in Portland.

GREENE: And it is also in Portland that police tactics against protesters have come into sharp focus.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Whose streets?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Whose streets?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our streets.

GREENE: Portland is one of the cities where federal agents, not always identified, have arrested protesters. The tear gas and military uniforms have only intensified these protests.

INSKEEP: NPR's Vanessa Romo has been reporting on this from Portland, Ore. Hi there, Vanessa.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing?

ROMO: Well, thousands of protesters have been showing up every night in front of the federal courthouse. They're shouting and chanting and confronting federal agents. At the moment, we're monitoring reports of arrests that have been happening early this morning. Overall - overnight, Sunday, the crowd was significantly smaller. So that's something that's developing, and we'll be keeping an eye on. As far as the mood overall, it was much more subdued. There were several speakers, Black community leaders and even some young Black children who addressed the crowd and spoke about the role of white allies in the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a very different scene earlier than what I saw on Saturday night, which became incredibly violent.

On Saturday, protesters breached the fence that has been erected around the courthouse, and that prompted federal agents to fire several rounds of flash grenades and tear gas into the crowd. The thing is that protesters now expect federal agents to do this, so they bring leaf blowers to blow the canisters and the smoke back toward the building. And that's what they did Saturday night. Another interesting thing that happened is that they took a page from the protesters in Hong Kong. So a lot of people are wearing gas masks. And on Saturday after the fence was torn down, the feds were firing gas into the crowd. And so they kneeled down and held up shields and umbrellas and formed a wall against the onslaught.

INSKEEP: Wow. All of this is happening after a curfew. Is that correct?

ROMO: Exactly. The violence happens during a really small window of time, very late at night, very early in the morning. During the days, things have an almost festive feel. There are speakers that are blasting music. There were volunteers that are barbecuing ribs and feeding them to anybody who drops by.

INSKEEP: OK. That sounds like quite a scene. Is it clear what it is the protesters want by targeting the courthouse?

ROMO: Well, during one of these quiet moments, I spoke to a protester named Melissa Guerrerro, who says that things have gotten really out of control since President Trump sent in the federal forces.

MELISSA GUERRERRO: We want the feds out. And we want the police to take accountability and start stepping back from their role as, like, murdering people, basically.

ROMO: Just to be clear, the murdering that she's talking about there is the police killing of Black people like George Floyd. But she also told me that she worries that the struggle against the presence of federal agents is distracting from the Black Lives Matter mission, which is to hold Portland police accountable for brutality against Black, Latino and Native communities.

INSKEEP: How do the developments in Portland fit in with others around the country?

ROMO: It's sparked similar protests around the country in solidarity. Most of these have been nonviolent, but there have been some clashes. So in Seattle on Saturday night, officials arrested 45 people, and they said that some protesters tried to set fire to a juvenile detention complex. In Aurora, Colo., a Jeep plowed into a crowd of protesters, and one of the protesters fired a gun at the car but hit another protester, who's in stable condition in the hospital.

INSKEEP: OK. There'll be more to report on that story. Vanessa, thank you very much.

ROMO: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Vanessa Romo.

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INSKEEP: Fifty-five years later, an old black-and-white video of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is still shocking. Police attacked unarmed marchers demanding the right to vote in Alabama. That day in 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday. And a leading marcher, John Lewis, became an icon of the civil rights movement.

GREENE: This past Sunday, a wagon carried Lewis over that bridge a final time. He died last week at the age of 80. The son of sharecroppers went into politics and served 30 years in Congress. His body returns to Washington today to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott has been watching the proceedings in Alabama. Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: What's it been like to be there?

ELLIOTT: You know, it's been both somber and a bit of a celebration as well. You know, people here call it John Lewis' homegoing. A lot of people turned out in Selma yesterday to witness, you know, that final crossing across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for John Lewis. It was something to behold. These beautiful white flower arrangements were at the foot of the bridge. Red rose petals had been scattered along that path where he and others had been beaten at one time. And then this horse-drawn caisson carried John Lewis' casket, which was draped in an American flag, up over that iconic bridge across the Alabama River. People were cheering. Someone in the crowd yelled, goodbye, soldier. Others saluted the procession, I might add, including Alabama state troopers, which was rather chilling to watch, you know, a far cry from 1965 during the voting rights march when state troopers were cracking open John Lewis' head.

INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely. Well, what have people been telling you as they watched all this?

ELLIOTT: You know, I stood next to a man who raised his hand in salute as Lewis passed, and his name is Frank Cunningham. He's from Potter Station just about five miles from Selma. He's a construction worker. And here's what he said.

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FRANK CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. I just want to salute a soldier that's going home. But he laid a road plan for all of us and let us know that it's a better way. And then, you know, the better way is nonviolence, love one another and try to get along with everybody. That's what the world ought to be about.

ELLIOTT: You know, most of the people I spoke with talked about how Lewis was this person who never gave up, no matter what happened. He was getting beat up at every turn in the '60s. He never gave up the hope that the nation could be a better place and live up to its promise for all people.

INSKEEP: And it was a sign of change in America that he went from the outside to the inside, from being a protester to being a member of Congress for decades.

ELLIOTT: Where he also kept making good trouble, even in the Congress, right?

INSKEEP: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely, that's true, kept raising his voice. How will people remember him in Washington?

ELLIOTT: You know, there's a special ceremony at the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol today. They're going to honor the conscience of the Congress, as he was called. Then he'll lie in state on the steps of the Capitol through tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.