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News brief: bipartisan gun deal, Jan. 6 hearing, Russia gains in eastern Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

After decades of inaction, Congress could soon take action on gun safety legislation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On Sunday, a bipartisan group of senators announced that they had reached a deal on a possible bill that has support from 10 Republicans, which of course is the critical number needed to get any major bill through the 50-50, Democratic-controlled Senate. So this is actually not a done deal yet, though. President Biden praised the early agreement, though, as, quote, "important steps in the right direction."

MARTINEZ: Here to tell us about the next steps, NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, all right, no assault weapons ban. An 18-year-old can still buy an assault weapon. And there's no expanded background checks for all firearm sales. So what exactly did they agree to?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, this is definitely not as far as gun safety advocates would like to see. But it really is about as good as it can get in an evenly divided Senate. This is still a major breakthrough. It's been generations since Congress has even come close to passing laws that affect gun ownership. The most significant part of this proposal, based on the outline that was provided by the senators, is that it would make it harder by requiring a more thorough background check for someone under the age of 21 to buy any gun, including high-capacity weapons like a AR-15s. They couldn't get them fast. Senators say it would also incentivize states to pass things called red flag laws that allow members of your family or law enforcement to take away a weapon from someone who could be a danger to themselves or other people. It would also increase penalties for gun traffickers. And it would include more money for mental health services. But to be very clear, there is nothing in this bill that would affect how an otherwise law-abiding citizen can get a gun.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, even if all the details still need to get worked out, what do you make of the reaction?

DAVIS: It's a big deal. I mean, all of the major gun safety groups came out really quickly in favor of this bill. Any progress is good progress is how they see it. Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action. In a statement, she said the bill would break the logjam in Congress on the gun issue. This is a group that has been lobbying for action on this for more than a decade. And she said they are prepared to, quote, "fight like hell to get this historic deal over the finish line." Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the senators who negotiated the deal. But he did stop short of endorsing it until it's all put into writing.

MARTINEZ: All right. So tell us about that, because there's this framework. What has to happen now to turn that into law?

DAVIS: Well, they actually have to write the bill. And that can take several weeks to work out. The lead Democrat, Chris Murphy, he's from Connecticut. He told Reuters last night that aides are going to start working on that today. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already said he will bring it up for a vote as soon as it's ready. One thing to watch is how gun rights groups react. The NRA put out a statement last night basically saying they weren't going to weigh in on it until they see the full bill. But there's a lot of gun rights groups now. And one of them, the Gun Owners of America, attacked Republicans for signing on to this deal yesterday, so watching to see if groups like this can slow down or try to block this bill before it reaches the Senate floor. This is also a lot less than the House supports. They just passed a far more sweeping gun control bill. But if the Senate can pass this, it's going to be really hard for the House to reject it, especially with President Biden saying he will sign it even if it's not everything he wanted either.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Susan Davis. Susan, thanks a lot.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: All right. Lawmakers investigating the January 6 Capitol riot will hear from a former Trump campaign manager, a former Fox News political editor and others about what happened in the days surrounding the 2020 election.

MARTIN: The House committee will present evidence that shows that from the beginning, President Trump was told that his claims of election fraud were false. He was told this by his closest advisers. Here's Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin on CNN yesterday.

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JAMIE RASKIN: I think we can prove to any reasonable, open-minded person that Donald Trump absolutely knew because he was surrounded by lawyers, including the attorney general of the United States, William Barr, telling him in no uncertain terms, in terms that Donald Trump could understand, this is BS.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. So how will the House committee make their case?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning. Select committee aides previewed last night that the panel's members are going to walk through the decision by the former president to ignore the will of the voters and go ahead and declare victory. They're going to start with Election Day 2020 and election night. And they're going to present evidence from witnesses, both live witnesses and some from taped interviews, that prove that the claims about election irregularities in multiple states were false. They're going to show that people around Trump told him again and again that he lost. And even when the court cases his campaign pursued failed, he continued to ignore the facts and kept pushing the big lie. Unlike the first hearing, which was in prime time, this is a morning hearing today. It's at 10 a.m. It's taking the audience back to 2020 Election Day. And it will include testimony on the weeks leading up to January 6. So it will have less visual and emotional elements about the actual attack on the Capitol. Instead, it's really going to be a deep dive on the many people close to Trump who told him he lost, but he refused to accept that and kept pushing this misinformation.

MARTINEZ: All right. Who are we expected to hear from?

WALSH: Well, there are going to be two panels today. The first one includes Bill Stepien. He's Trump's former campaign manager. And Chris Stirewalt, he's the former Fox News political editor. Stirewalt was fired after Fox News accurately projected Joe Biden was the winner of Arizona on election night. We know that he and others at Fox News came under intense pressure after that call from people at the White House. The second panel includes Ben Ginsberg. He's a longtime Republican election lawyer. People may remember him from the 2000 recount in Florida. He represented the George W. Bush campaign. The other two witnesses are BJay Pak - he's a former U.S. attorney from the Northern District of Georgia - and Al Schmidt, a former city commissioner from Philadelphia. Pak resigned reportedly when he came under pressure to investigate claims of voter fraud in Georgia, which were false. Schmidt had threats against his security after he defended the election results in Philadelphia.

MARTINEZ: What about the structure of the hearing?

WALSH: Select committee aides said last night that the chairman, Bennie Thompson, and the vice chair, Liz Cheney, are going to give opening statements, sort of similar to what they did on Thursday night's hearing. But another member of the panel, Zoe Lofgren of California, is going to play a key role in the presentation of the evidence. Like the first hearing, we're going to see multi-media elements, you know, clips of some witnesses who cooperated with on-camera, on-the-record interviews. We could see more of interviews with people like Ivanka Trump and Trump campaign aide Jason Miller.

MARTINEZ: What can we expect for the other hearings this week?

WALSH: There's two more this week. On Wednesday, we're going to hear about the effort to try and install Trump loyalists at the Department of Justice. We know Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen is going to appear with two other former DOJ officials. And on Thursday, the committee is really going to drill down on the pressure campaign that was going on for weeks around Vice President Mike Pence. They were trying to get him to refuse to certify the election results.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thanks a lot.

WALSH: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Russia continues to make gains in eastern Ukraine.

MARTIN: Yeah. Ukrainian officials are warning that the next few days could be critical in the fight for a key city in the eastern part of the country called Severodonetsk.

MARTINEZ: Joining us to talk about the situation there is NPR's Nathan Rott, who is in Dnipro, Ukraine. All right. So let's start on the situation in that town, Severodonetsk. What's going on there?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yeah. So last night, the Luhansk region's governor said on Telegram that Russia is doing everything it can to cut the city off. Ukraine has been using a series of three bridges to bring in troops, arms and supplies across a river and into the city. And the Luhansk Oblast governor says Russia has now destroyed two of those and was aiming at the third.

MARTINEZ: Why is this city so important to the larger war?

ROTT: Well, it's the last major city in the Luhansk region that's at least still partially in Ukrainian control. But, I think, more importantly is what the fight there in the broader Donbas region says about the larger state of the war. Ukraine is now losing ground. They're short on ammunition. They're short on weapons. They still don't have the number of anti-air systems they've been asking for for months. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy drove that point about anti-air systems home in his nightly briefing last night.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "Did we get them? No. Do we need them? Yes," he said. "There have already been 2,606 affirmative answers to this question," he said, "in the form of various Russian cruise missiles that have hit Ukrainian cities." And I should say, that includes a missile strike over the weekend in western Ukraine that injured almost two-dozen civilians.

MARTINEZ: Now, the U.S. and Western allies have provided Ukraine with arms. What else do they need? And actually, maybe, what is - what do they need that's maybe not reaching them?

ROTT: Well, I mean, obviously, they'd like to get the anti-air systems that Zelenskyy was just talking about. And, yeah, I mean, they have received heavy artillery, anti-tank weapons. And certainly, a lot of that has made it to the front line. But the bigger issue we're hearing about is ammunition shortages. Ukraine is becoming more and more dependent on Western arms because they've gone through most of their Soviet-era munitions. That's something that's certainly going to come up later this week in Brussels when NATO defense ministers meet on Wednesday because there is an immediate need. At the beginning of this war, Ukraine was very coy in revealing their losses on the battlefield. Just a couple of weeks ago, Zelenskyy said they were losing 50 to 100 soldiers a day. Now they are saying it is double that. And that does not include the wounded. So there's a bigger question of whether both sides can continue to sustain those types of losses in the long term.

MARTINEZ: And are the Ukrainians worried that as this war grinds on, especially in the east, that foreign interest and backing might wane?

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. It's no secret here in Ukraine that the U.S., for example, has other issues it's dealing with - gun policy, inflation, election season. That's why a lot of the reporting that I've been trying to do over the last couple of weeks here has been focused on Ukraine's economy. This has already become a war of attrition. And for Ukraine to keep its war effort going in the long term, especially if support starts to drop off, it's going to need a functioning economy. And that fact is not lost on people here.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Nathan Rott in Dnipro, Ukraine. Nathan, thanks.

ROTT: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of 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.