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News Brief: Benjamin Netanyahu, Texas Voting Bill, Infrastructure Deadline

NOEL KING, HOST:

After 12 years, Israel could be nearing a change in leadership.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We said could be nearing a change. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly fallen short in a string of elections, but his divided opposition has failed to form a government to replace him. Now a coalition of opponents appears to be close. They're a mix of parties who agree on little except that Netanyahu should be replaced. It would seem the next prime minister would be another right-wing politician and former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin is with us now from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Let's talk about the man who could be prime minister. Naftali Bennett spoke last night. What did he say?

ESTRIN: It was remarkable. This is the first time he's really come out publicly against his longtime ally, Netanyahu. He painted a picture of chaos in Israel. Naftali Bennett said Israel is in a tailspin, an unprecedented political crisis - four inconclusive elections in the past two years while Netanyahu has hung on. And unable to form a government on his own, he said Netanyahu offered to share power with him, but that he cannot be trusted to keep his promises. And so now Bennett is saying he will try to form a unity government with centrists and with leftists. And if he succeeds, he would be prime minister and then later hand off the job to a centrist politician. They'd share power. Now, there are many ways that this could fail, but it's a major step toward the possibility of ending Netanyahu's rule.

KING: OK. This is really interesting. So Bennett is a right-wing politician like Netanyahu, but you said he's partnering with centrists and left-wing parties. How is he pulling it off?

ESTRIN: It's amazing. I mean, he - Bennett is a former settler leader in the West Bank. He's considered even more right wing than Netanyahu. He once told The New Yorker, I will do everything in my power to make sure Palestinians never get a state. And he comes from a small party. It only got about 6% of the vote in this last election. But he has become the consensus figure here. He is seen as being able to unite the right and left and centrist parties who all just cannot stand Netanyahu after a record 12 years in office. He faces a corruption trial now. So Bennett says if he succeeds in building this very ideologically diverse coalition, neither side, neither the left or the right, will act without the permission from the other side so that we won't expect any major policy changes, any changes on controversial issues like a Palestinian state.

KING: OK. And so what do people there think of Bennett?

ESTRIN: I hear a lot of support for him right now. He appeals to many young Israelis who - many of whom are right wing. And then on the other side of the spectrum - I mean, take a look at Haaretz, the most liberal progressive paper in Israel. They had an editorial actually supporting hard-right Bennett if it means getting rid of Netanyahu. And today we met a 77-year-old Israeli left-wing activist. He was at the dumpster emptying the kitty litter. He said he doesn't like Bennett's politics, but he still hopes he'll be the next prime minister. Let's listen.

RIMON LAVI: I am not supporting him. I need the change. Everyone who can bring a change in the political situation of Israel is welcome for a short time - I hope for a short time, not for long.

ESTRIN: He just hopes it's enough time to clear the political system of Netanyahu.

KING: And just very quickly - Netanyahu is trying to hang on?

ESTRIN: That's right. He says this alternative government would be dangerous to Israeli security. We could expect him to do everything he can to try to thwart this effort. And for him, the best scenario is new elections.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Late last night, Democrats in the Texas House walked out before a final vote on a new bill that would restrict voting.

INSKEEP: Republicans would like Texas to join 14 other states, including Georgia and Florida, that have passed new voting rules since the 2020 election.

KING: Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin is following this story. Good morning, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What did the walkout look like? How - was it dramatic?

LOPEZ: Yeah. Well, a little more than an hour before Texas' voting bill, which is Senate Bill 7, was coming up against a midnight deadline for final passage, a large group of Democrats in the Texas House just walked out en masse. They had tried a bunch of other stalling tactics throughout the night in the hopes of running out the clock. But in the end, they decided to break quorum. And that means the Texas House couldn't vote on anything. Democrats had complained the bill was being shoved down their throats, and they complained that they were left out of key parts of the legislative process. One Democratic lawmakers said that the walkout was basically the last tool in their toolbox to stop what they say could have been a catastrophic bill for Texas voters.

KING: So it's worth noting that it's not just Democrats in Texas. Right? This has gotten a lot of national attention. President Biden recently called this bill, quote, "an assault on democracy." Why has it gotten so much attention? What's in it?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, let's step back for a moment. In the middle of the pandemic, Houston and other major cities in Texas took a number of steps to make voting safer and more socially distant. Right? So Houston in particular created 24-hour voting centers and drive-through voting options. And these were options, by the way, that voters of color took advantage of. And fast-forward to the beginning of this year, and Texas Republicans said they wanted to outlaw these options.

James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told me ahead of last night's vote that Republicans were trying to make voting harder in a state where it's already pretty hard to vote.

JAMES SLATTERY: But it will also make voting scarier because there are a number of new crimes being created in this law that target both voters and election officials with serious felony offenses.

LOPEZ: Yeah. So Slattery says these provisions were a big concern because they would basically criminalize simple mistakes people make while voting.

KING: OK. So the Democrats walk out. And then, is this over?

LOPEZ: No, this is far from over. Governor Greg Abbott already said he's going to call a special session forcing lawmakers to basically come back to Austin and pass a voting bill. Remember, this is, like, a big priority for Republicans, including in Texas. They say they want to make it harder for people to cheat and commit voter fraud in the state. That's even though there's no evidence that there's a widespread problem with voter fraud in the state of Texas or elsewhere.

KING: If the governor is going to force lawmakers to come back for a special session, why did the Democrats bother doing this? What's the point of stalling?

LOPEZ: Well, they say their priority, first and foremost, is to do whatever they can to stop any legislation in Texas that they think makes it harder to vote. But during a press conference last night, members of the group say they hope this would also inspire Congress to pass a federal law protecting voting rights. They say federal protections that are currently waiting to be heard in the U.S. Senate would go a long way in shielding Texas voters from what Democrats see as laws that could make it harder for them to vote. Texas has been tightening access to the ballot for several years now, and Texas Republicans are looking to further tighten those voting rights now in the name of unsubstantiated concerns about voter fraud. And basically, Texas Democrats just, you know, reached their limit, and they took to drastic measures.

KING: Lastly, real quick, do you know when the special session will be? When does everyone come back?

LOPEZ: We don't know yet, but it's largely expected it'll be in short order.

KING: OK. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin. Thanks, Ashley.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: There is no deal yet on President Biden's infrastructure plan.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the White House had set today as a deadline to reach agreement with Senate Republicans on a plan to fix up the nation's roads and rails and bridges and possibly do a lot more things. So far, they cannot agree on how much to spend or where the money should come from. Other than all the details, they're set. But the two sides are still talking.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is following this one. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK. So where do things stand right now?

DETROW: Well, you both put it pretty well, pretty far apart. Biden wants to spend $1.7 trillion. That latest Senate Republican proposal was for a little less than a trillion. But they're really talking about a little more than a quarter of that in actual new spending. The rest is already planned for spending. And, you know, there are major disagreements over how to pay for the spending as well. But despite a lot of skepticism, particularly from Democrats ready to cut bait here, this group of Senate Republicans is still taking talks seriously. And the White House is, too. Biden is going to hold another meeting this week with Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia senator who's been the main negotiator here. Here's Capito yesterday on "Fox News Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: He told me on the phone just day before yesterday, let's get this done. And I think that means that he has - his heart is in this. We have had some back-and-forth with the staff, who've sort of pulled back a little bit. But I think we're smoothing out those edges.

DETROW: And some context here, that mention of staff - this is an ongoing criticism you hear from a lot of Hill Republicans that they think the president is ready to cut a deal, but that much of his broader administration wants to keep these proposals as large as possible.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. So how much longer do we expect these talks to go on?

DETROW: Probably not too much longer. And I say that on the day that had initially been set as the deadline for these talks, and the talks are still going. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg did the talk show rounds yesterday, as well. He said the White House really thinks these talks need to be close to a deal in about a week when Congress returns. Here he was on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: We believe in this process, but also very much agree that this can't go on forever. The American people want results.

DETROW: And according to a White House adviser, this mirrors how Biden is looking at things. You know, these proposals are going to start being turned into an actual bill in House committees in about a week. So while Biden definitely sees political value in a deal and even in trying for a deal, he may be ready to ultimately try and do this along partisan lines again, if talks are not any closer this time next week.

KING: And that's a real evolution because the president has always talked about how important bipartisanship is to him.

DETROW: He has. But, you know, reality check - so far, there's not been much bipartisanship in Washington at all. Let's remember Biden's big legislative achievement - the COVID relief legislation was passed without any Republican support. Even areas where there is a big agreement are stalling. There was a major bill last week in the Senate on research spending and tech investment, something that there's broad support for. That got tied up in partisan politics. And remember, over everything else, late last week, a bill creating an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the deadly January 6 attack on the Capitol - that was not passed because enough Senate Republicans blocked it. It's not going to go forward as of right now. That is the state of things in the Capitol.

KING: OK. The state of things is not much in the way of bipartisanship.

NPR's Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.

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