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News Brief: Relief Package, Cuomo Comments, Myanmar Protester Deaths

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Senate considers COVID relief this week.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. It counts as the first big legislation of Joe Biden's presidency. It passed the House this weekend, although with no Republican support.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have no time to waste. If we act now decisively, quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus.

KING: Democrats want it signed before the latest round of unemployment benefits expires in two weeks. It now moves to the Senate under a procedure that allows it to pass there, if necessary, with no Republican support.

INSKEEP: But that procedure does not allow passage of the entire bill, which is why a higher minimum wage is out of it. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe joins us this morning. Hey, good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What happened to the minimum wage increase?

RASCOE: So the bill has been labeled as a budget bill. And the reason why Democrats went with that is so that they don't need 60 votes - votes to get it passed - and so they don't have to worry about a filibuster. But the Senate parliamentarian says the minimum wage doesn't count as a part of a budget bill. Biden did say he was disappointed at the parliamentarian's ruling, but the White House signaled that it didn't want to go against that ruling. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had proposed imposing tax penalties on big companies that don't raise their minimum wage. But our colleague Susan Davis is reporting that Senate Democrats are abandoning that effort after facing some resistance. Stripping out that $15 minimum wage may actually make the rescue package easier to pass, given how slim the majority is, because some more conservative Democrats have voiced opposition to that level of a hike in the minimum wage. Of course, progressive Democrats have said that raising the minimum wage should be a top priority and that arcane Senate rules should not stand in the way.

INSKEEP: OK. And in any case, they are going to stand in the way. But the rest of the measure is there - $1.9 trillion in aid to Americans, help with COVID. How important is this to the president?

RASCOE: I mean, it's totally important. He has really centered his whole first 100 days around it. The White House has been pushing hard to get something done. What they're stressing is that even though it doesn't have Republican support in Congress, polling has found it to be very popular, including among Republicans. You know, Biden celebrated the House passage on Sunday and urged the Senate to act quickly, saying if we act quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus. There is a deadline. Extended federal unemployment benefits expire mid-March. And Senate Democrats have pledged to get this done before that. So they have two weeks.

INSKEEP: Now, even as they're doing this, Republicans are pondering their future and heard from the former president, Donald Trump, over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He attempted to overturn a democratic election but was still welcome at this conference. And what did he say?

RASCOE: Well, he went after Biden's policies, arguing that his first month has been disastrous. Trump talked a lot about immigration. Biden has taken steps to reverse several of Trump's hard-line immigration policies, and he also focused on schools. This is something that Republicans and Trump have seized on, saying that Biden is catering to teachers unions and not pushing enough for schools to reopen. He did call out Republicans who voted to impeach him by name, but he also said that he's not going to try to start a third party. So there was some unity there.

INSKEEP: Is he running again?

RASCOE: He teased it, but it's not exactly clear.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks for the update.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: The governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, has asked for an independent investigation into allegations of harassment.

KING: A second woman now says Cuomo made inappropriate advances toward her. She says he asked about her sex life and her dating habits. Cuomo is under a lot of pressure right now. He's being criticized also for his leadership style and the way he's handled the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio joins us now. Good morning.

KAREN DEWITT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly do the women allege?

DEWITT: Well, the second woman who came forward on Saturday is Charlotte Bennett. She's 25. She worked as an executive assistant and health policy adviser to the governor. Her account was first reported in The New York Times. She says last spring during the height of the pandemic in New York, the governor made several unwelcome advances towards her. According to Barnett, the governor, who's single and 63 years old, also asked her about whether she would consider sleeping with older men. Now, Bennett found that talk pretty unsettling. She did complain about the incident at the time to two female supervisors. They agreed to place her in a new job at the opposite end of the state Capitol building from where the governor's office is located. She later left that job. Her account comes just days after Lindsey Boylan, another former aide, accused the governor of kissing her without her permission during another private meeting in his office and of asking her during a business trip on his private plane whether she wanted to play strip poker with him.

INSKEEP: How has the governor responded to that?

DEWITT: Well, he's denying that he did anything wrong, but he did issue a lengthy statement Sunday evening saying that while he never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm, he admits that he's teased people who he works with about their personal lives and relationships. And the governor goes on in his statement to say that he now understands that some of the things he said were misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation and that he's truly sorry about that. But he says he never inappropriately propositioned or touched anyone.

INSKEEP: What do New York state lawmakers have to say about the governor at this point?

DEWITT: Well, nearly every top Democratic and Republican office holder, state and federal, say the allegations need to be taken very seriously. They've been calling for an independent investigation. The state's attorney general, Letitia James, immediately wanted to appoint a special investigator with full subpoena powers. After some initial attempts to conduct a less formal investigation, the governor finally agreed. He now says he and his staff are going to cooperate fully.

INSKEEP: This is a governor, I guess we should remember, who for a moment on the national stage was extremely popular for his handling of the pandemic early on. He now faces these allegations at a moment of increasing criticism of his handling of the pandemic and suppressing the real number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19. Where does that stand?

DEWITT: Yes, that's right. And it was the same attorney general who issued a report in last January that found the governor's administration had undercounted the nursing home deaths by 50% because he didn't release the number of deaths of residents who became sick with COVID, were transferred to a hospital and passed away there. That set off a firestorm of criticism. He's now under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office of eastern New York. And remember, this was the governor who became sort of a folk hero for his widely watched daily briefings during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, where he calmly offered facts and science and told stories about his family. He even won an Emmy for his performance.

INSKEEP: Now in a different situation. Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio, thanks so much.

DEWITT: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: Myanmar has seen its most violent day since the February 1 coup that deposed the country's civilian leader and reinstalled military rule.

KING: The UN says at least 18 people were killed yesterday throughout the country. The military opened fire on protesters. These are peaceful demonstrators who've been in the streets since the coup.

INSKEEP: Reporter Michael Sullivan has been following events in Myanmar and joins us now. He's in Thailand. Hey there, Michael.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are things like today?

SULLIVAN: Well, things look a little more quiet. Yesterday morning, things started going sideways in a hurry when the police and in some cases soldiers came after the protesters hard, as you mentioned, not just in the biggest city, Yangon, but in a second city, Mandalay, and many other cities and towns all over the country. And the message from the military was pretty clear - we've been restrained up till now, but that's over. Today, the protesters are back but apparently not as many as yesterday. And, of course, the police are back in force - so far, though, no reports of any serious violence.

INSKEEP: When you study the video that has come out of Myanmar, what do the protests look like? And how were the confrontations going with police and troops?

SULLIVAN: Up until yesterday, they've been pretty quiet in terms of the protesters provoking the military or provoking the police. And it's always been the police who have instigated any of the violence that's occurred.

INSKEEP: Well, is there any sign after yesterday that the protesters will back down?

SULLIVAN: No, not at all, and, you know, that's part of the problem - right? - because in terms of a peaceful resolution, there doesn't seem to be any room for compromise here. The military isn't going to suddenly cave and say, right, our bad, here's your government back. And the protesters say they'll accept nothing less. So there's a foreign ministers meeting tomorrow, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, to discuss the situation. Maybe they can come up with something, but I think that's a big ask.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk through the situation here. Aung San Suu Kyi was the elected leader of the country for a number of years after leading a pro-democracy movement for many years. She then was ousted at the start of February in this coup. She was taken into custody and faced various charges. And now she's turned up at least virtually in court. What happened?

SULLIVAN: We haven't seen her in public since the coup, and today, she was seen via video link, according to her lawyer, in court in the capital, Naypyidaw, where the military hit her with another charge, the third now, for allegedly inciting unrest. And it's pretty clear, Steve, that the military is trying to figure out ways it can convict her of something, get her off the stage, so she's unable to run for public office again when and if this thing gets sorted.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that if she were to be convicted, they could then say she is ineligible for office in the future, which would then put the military in a position to rerun some sort of election as they promised to do - is that the plan?

SULLIVAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And what are the odds of that coming off?

SULLIVAN: Wait and see.

INSKEEP: OK. Michael, thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Michael Sullivan reporting on the latest from Myanmar.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-SIDE'S "JUST DON'T CARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.