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News brief: Build Back Better status, COVID boosters, Blinken speech

NOEL KING, HOST:

A debate in Congress over President Biden's spending agenda was supposed to finish up last night and then move to a vote. But then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy started talking.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

He talked and talked and talked for hours. Top leaders don't have limits on their speeches, so McCarthy deliberately delayed the vote on the $1.75 trillion package.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Never in American history has so much been spent at one time - at one time. Never in American history will so many taxes be raised and so much borrowing be needed to pay for all this reckless spending.

MARTINEZ: Democrats now plan to vote on it today and noted that they'll get a full day of news coverage from what is widely expected to be a win, mostly along party lines.

KING: NPR's Deirdre Walsh covers Congress. She's been following this very long story. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning. It is long.

KING: We are taping this just after 5 a.m. Kevin McCarthy is still going. What's he been saying, and when did he start?

WALSH: He started around 8:30 last night. And leaders have what's called the magic minute to talk about as much as they want about bills. He's in the hundreds of minutes, and he's been talking for hours. He's been talking about everything under the sun. He has been talking about the bill, but he's veered into a lot of random topics, like the fact that he knows Elon Musk, but he can't afford to drive a Tesla. Democrats have been tweeting along and mocking sort of the rambling nature of this speech. And last night, shortly before midnight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office called his speech, quote, "a temper tantrum." He can't stop the bill, but a lot of this is his own personal politics. McCarthy is trying to rally Republicans and show that he's fighting this bill. If Republicans take control of the House next year in the midterms, he does want to be elected speaker.

KING: OK. Last night, we got a report from the Congressional Budget Office on what this will all cost. Could that affect how the vote goes?

WALSH: Moderate Democrats in the House wanted an official cost from the Congressional Budget Office. Leaders have vowed that the bill would not add to the deficit. That report did come out last night. It showed the bill did indeed add to the deficit, but Democrats disputed some of their numbers. And many of those moderates announced they would vote for the bill. So it appears on track to pass.

KING: On track to pass in the House. What about the Senate?

WALSH: Well, it's a very different story in the Senate. I mean, there's a lot of support for this bill, but there are some provisions in it that are going to be changed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did add four weeks of paid family leave. We've talked about this before. This is something that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin already says he doesn't want in this package. And Democrats are using this package to avoid a Republican filibuster, so they need all 50 to stay together. There's also the chance some immigration provisions could change in the Senate and some tax provisions that are focused on states where there are high property and state and local taxes. Some Democrats want those tax changes. Others worry it could benefit the rich, and they've campaigned on making the wealthy Americans pay more. So there are definitely going to be some changes to this package.

KING: OK, NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

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KING: The Biden administration is laying out its approach to Africa today. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is using a speech in Nigeria to do that.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, Blinken's been in Africa this week, saying the U.S. wants to help Africans solve Africa's problems. He laid out the centerpiece messages for his trip today at the continent's leading security organization in Abuja. And he touched on that theme.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: The United States firmly believes that it's time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.

KING: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Blinken. She joins us from Nigeria now. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the scene of this speech, Nigeria, says something about what is going on on the African continent. Tell us about why this is taking place there.

KELEMEN: Right. So it was at the headquarters of ECOWAS, which is West Africa's regional security and trade organization. And it was in Nigeria, which is Africa's most populous nation. The pitch Blinken is making is that the world can't solve global challenges, things like climate change or the pandemic, without Africa and without countries like Nigeria, which he called the giant of Africa. The U.S. needs African countries to fight terrorism and to resolve some of the conflicts that are spinning out of control on the continent right now. You have a civil war in Ethiopia that's causing a famine and threatening to spill over into the Horn of Africa. And there's a military takeover in Sudan, which is a disaster for a country that had been on the path to democracy after decades of autocratic rule.

KING: Many challenges. How is Blinken talking about addressing them?

KELEMEN: Well, he didn't put forward any new ideas on Sudan, for instance, but he spoke broadly about his concerns about what he's calling a democratic recession. He said there's been four military takeovers on the continent in the past year alone, and that's not what people want. And I'd like you to hear a little bit more about how we put this in context and what he said on that theme. Take a listen.

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BLINKEN: I want to emphasize that democratic backsliding is not just an African problem. It's a global problem. My own country is struggling with threats to our democracy. And the solutions to those threats will come as much from Africa as from anywhere.

KELEMEN: It's interesting, Noel, because, you know, he talks about democratic backsliding, but he didn't mention that here in Nigeria, the country quashed a protest movement last year. And U.S. officials have said there's a strong civil society here in Nigeria that is holding the government to account. But Blinken himself didn't criticize Nigeria publicly at all in this speech.

KING: And what's also interesting is that he is stressing that the U.S. wants African leaders to come up with answers to their problems. But we should note Washington also has its own goals on the African continent. What are some of those?

KELEMEN: Well, a big thing is competing with China. But it's interesting because the secretary didn't even mention China by name in his speech. He just alluded to it, saying that often, big infrastructure deals on the continent are opaque and leave countries saddled with debt. That was a clear nod to China. He said the U.S. approach is going to be more sustainable. We want to create local jobs, protect workers' rights and the environment, he said. And Nigeria's foreign minister was pretty funny about this topic yesterday. He seems to like this U.S.-China competition, saying that Nigeria is kind of like a beautiful bride who gets lots of offers.

KING: (Laughter). NPR's Michele Kelemen in Abuja, Nigeria. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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KING: All right. COVID booster shots for all American adults could get the green light today.

MARTINEZ: The FDA plans to authorize boosters for everyone 18 and older. And the CDC, which has the final say, expects its advisers to weigh in today.

KING: NPR's Will Stone is following this one. Good morning, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Why does the FDA say it wants all adults to be eligible for another shot?

STONE: Basically, the goal is to shore up immunity as much as we can. It's become clear that protection from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines does wear off to some degree over time. The biggest concern with this waning immunity is obviously to keep people from being hospitalized and dying. And the people who are at highest risk for that, you know, those over 65 or with underlying medical conditions - they already qualify for a booster. The younger and healthy people who aren't yet eligible - they're much less likely to end up in the hospital with a serious breakthrough case, but they still can benefit from a booster. I spoke to Dr. Peter Hotez about this. He's at Baylor College of Medicine, and he's a vocal proponent of boosters.

PETER HOTEZ: And now we have data from Israel showing by giving that third immunization, you not only can prevent waning immunity in terms of hospitalizations but actually even halt infection and potentially transmission, as well. So this is a welcome development.

STONE: Hotez says the data from Israel supports giving boosters to the broader adult population here in the U.S. And there are also the results of a Pfizer study that show a strong response to the booster, and that's across all age groups.

KING: So it sounds like the takeaway is not every adult absolutely needs a booster, but they're not going to hurt, and they can be beneficial.

STONE: Exactly. I mean, let's be clear. Most people who are landing in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated, but we are definitely having more breakthrough infections in the U.S. It's hard to say how many because this isn't tracked well on a national level. In states that do follow this, like Michigan and Washington, it's about 30% of recent infections. And experts like Anne Rimoin, who's at UCLA, are also looking at the surge in Europe, where countries tend to be better-vaccinated than the U.S.

ANNE RIMOIN: We have to throw everything at this that we can. People are going indoors. It's the holiday season. These are all things that really lead to increasing cases. And all we have to do is look to Europe to see what's in store for us.

STONE: So Rimoin's point is that getting a booster is not only about whether you are vulnerable. It's also about protecting those around you.

KING: And we know that cases in this country are rising again, at least in some parts. The Midwest is seeing another surge. Is the idea that boosters will slow that down?

STONE: Yeah, some epidemiologists think it can make a big difference. Now, that doesn't mean boosters alone can stop a surge in the U.S. We still have tens of millions of people who don't want to be vaccinated at all. I spoke to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia at Boston University about this.

NAHID BHADELIA: The biggest public health impact is still going to be first doses. However, just because first doses are more useful than boosters, I don't think that's the case against boosters. It is more that we need to be realistic about what we're expecting boosters to do.

STONE: She says what's different now is that we do have more safety data on boosters for younger people, and that looks reassuring. One issue that will come up at today's hearing, probably, is myocarditis. That's a heart inflammation, which is rare, and it's worth pointing out that the risk of heart problems with COVID is much higher than from a vaccination.

KING: So what's the timeline for the CDC to make a formal decision on this, Will?

STONE: Well, after the CDC advisers make their recommendation, then it's up to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to make the final decision. And that could happen later today.

KING: NPR's Will Stone. Thanks for this, Will.

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