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News brief: gun legislation, Powell on Capitol Hill, 4th House Jan. 6 hearing


Legislation on gun violence leaves out just about everything Republicans and Democrats disagree on.


Universal background checks. The banning of military grade weapons. But the Senate has begun the process of passing what could be the first major gun legislation in decades with restrictions the two parties can agree on. It's a narrow set of measures, but the bill has support from Democrats and Republicans, including Mitch McConnell. Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut helped lead the negotiations.


CHRIS MURPHY: This bill will be too little for many. It'll be too much for others. But it isn't a box-checking exercise. This bill is not window dressing. This bill is going to save lives.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is covering the debate. Hey there, Kelsey.


INSKEEP: How did they decide what stays in this bill?

SNELL: Well, this was a compromise through and through. This was about whatever lawmakers thought they could get 60 votes in the Senate, and that meant that they had to leave a lot of things that maybe have wide bipartisan support in the country off the table. I should say, the lead Republican in these negotiations, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, was booed at his state party convention last week for taking part in these talks. So it wasn't surprising that he went to the floor yesterday to explain how the bill does not infringe on Second Amendment rights.


JOHN CORNYN: So unless a person is convicted of a crime or is adjudicated mentally ill, their ability to purchase a firearm will not be impacted by this legislation.

SNELL: And I should say, gun rights groups, including the NRA, oppose the legislation as it exists.

INSKEEP: Even though it's very narrow, as we said. So how, if at all, would it limit access to guns?

SNELL: The bill includes more extensive background checks for prospective gun-buyers between the ages of 18 and 21, and it gives states incentives to provide access to previously sealed juvenile records for those checks. The legislation also uses crisis intervention grants to encourage states to enact so-called red flag laws that would form a core process to remove guns from a person deemed to be a threat to themselves or to others. But the money would still be available to states who choose to pass other forms of crisis intervention.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, as you're talking, I can hear the compromise. It's not a ban on weapons for people under 21, but the background checks change. It's not requiring states to enact red flag laws or follow red flag laws, but it is encouraging them to do so.

SNELL: Yeah. And another compromise here is the way that they approach the rules for people who have been convicted of domestic abuse. Democrats have tried for years to expand the definition of who qualifies for a ban after that conviction to include dating partners rather than just spouses or former spouses. Now, this bill does that, but it also includes a new section to allow people who are restricted from gun access under the bill to have their gun rights restored if their record remains clean for five years.

INSKEEP: How is mental health addressed here?

SNELL: Well, this bill includes funding for telehealth programs to allow expanded access to mental health care across the country, and there's money for school safety and training and community-based mental health programs. Cornyn called this the single largest investment in community-based mental health in U.S. history.

INSKEEP: Now, we've had two different announcements - that they agreed on a framework, that they've agreed on text of legislation. But isn't it never too late for the Senate to have an additional delay? Could this really get derailed?

SNELL: Well, this does have wide bipartisan support in the Senate. Ten Republicans and 10 Democrats wrote the bill, and 16 Republicans voted to get started on it. President Biden has urged Congress to pass a bill without delay, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she will bring it up for a vote swiftly.

INSKEEP: OK. Kelsey, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell.


INSKEEP: All right, Jerome Powell has some explaining to do.

FADEL: The Federal Reserve chairman leads an agency with two jobs - keep unemployment and inflation low. Unemployment is low, but inflation has been climbing. One of the Fed's tools against inflation is interest rates, and it raised them sharply last week. But that can bring its own economic pain. Starting today, Powell faces questions in Congress.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Scott Horsley will be listening. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hasn't Powell been much admired up to now?

HORSLEY: Yeah, he certainly has. He was confirmed to a second term as Fed chairman just last month on a vote of 80 to 19, which shows a rare level of bipartisan backing. That said, inflation is very high, and Americans are not happy about it. And so the Fed chairman's likely to get an earful from lawmakers who've been hearing plenty of complaints themselves from their constituents. The Fed has begun moving aggressively to fight inflation, and Powell says he thinks there's a chance the central bank can bring it down without triggering a recession or a big jump in unemployment. But he acknowledges there are no guarantees.


JEROME POWELL: Our objective really is to bring inflation down to 2% while the labor market remains strong. Many factors that we don't control are going to play a very significant role in deciding whether that's possible or not. There's a path for us to get there. It's not getting easier.

HORSLEY: Powell says a lot is going to depend on how things like the war in Ukraine play out - the war has driven up the price of gasoline and groceries - and, of course, the pandemic, which continues to throw curveballs at the economy.

INSKEEP: Are the higher interest rates, even though this is all very recent, already affecting the economy?

HORSLEY: Yes, you're seeing a squeeze, for example, in the housing market, and that's by design. Mortgage rates have climbed to around 6%, roughly double what they were a year ago, in anticipation of the Fed's move. And as a result, we've seen a drop in home sales and new home construction. Over time, you could see a similar slowdown in other parts of the economy. That's what it means for the Fed to tamp down demand and try to bring prices under control. Powell acknowledged knowing when to stop raising interest rates can be tricky.


POWELL: It's going to be a very difficult judgment to make or maybe not; maybe it'll be really clear. The worst mistake we could make would be to fail, which - it's not an option, you know? We have to restore price stability.

HORSLEY: Now, so far, both the president and Congress have given the Fed plenty of latitude to crack down on inflation. That means borrowing costs are likely to keep going up for anyone who has a credit card balance or who's shopping for a home or car loan.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about some other news here, Scott. The Biden administration wants to do something about gas prices. What's their idea?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the president's asking Congress to temporarily suspend the $0.18 a gallon federal tax on gasoline and the $0.24 a gallon tax on diesel fuel through September in hopes that would cut prices at the pump. In economic terms, this doesn't make a lot of sense. The gas tax hasn't increased since 1993, so it's certainly not fueling inflation, and it's possible that little of the savings from such a tax cut would actually be passed on to consumers. So this could amount to a $10 billion subsidy for the gasoline business. You'd be better off subsidizing bicycles or electric scooters or just about anything else. As a matter of political signaling, though, this proposal does show how desperate the White House is to look as though it's doing something about high gasoline prices, which, by the way, have already fallen about $0.06 a gallon in the last week.

INSKEEP: OK. Happy to pocket that $0.06. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley.


INSKEEP: It is getting harder by the day to frame the January 6 hearings as partisan.

FADEL: At each hearing, the strongest testimony comes from Republicans. Some say openly that defeated President Donald Trump had no evidence of election fraud. Many resisted his effort to overturn his 2020 defeat, and that got them death threats and harassment. Yesterday's witnesses included the conservative Republican speaker of the Arizona House. He says he considers the Constitution is divinely inspired, and he says Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, asked him to break it because he's Republican. Here's how he answered.


RUSTY BOWERS: You're asking me to do something against my oath, and I will not break my oath.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening to the hearing. Hey there, Mara.


INSKEEP: What do some of these witnesses have in common?

LIASSON: Well, they're all the rare Republicans who stood up to Trump publicly instead of merely criticizing him behind closed doors. We had familiar faces like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy, Gabriel Sterling. But the standout witness was the person you just heard from, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers. He hasn't been heard from a lot, but he detailed how Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tried to get him to call the state Legislature in Arizona into session to overturn Biden's win and retract the electors chosen in Arizona to vote for him. He also recalled at one point how Giuliani said that they had a lot of theories about election fraud but no evidence, an admission that seemed to have stopped Bowers in his tracks.

But in terms of public perception, I think Trump would say that Bowers was right from central casting. He was ramrod straight. He was a rock-ribbed conservative. He saw his duty to the Constitution in religious terms. He said the Constitution was divinely inspired. And he spoke very emotionally about how he wouldn't violate his oath. He was asked to read a passage from his personal journal from 2020. Here he is.


BOWERS: I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to with any contrived desire towards deflection of my deep, foundational desire to follow God's will as I believe he led my conscience to embrace.

LIASSON: And he went on to say, how could I ever approach him, God, only to show myself a coward?

INSKEEP: What happened to officials like him and election workers who did their jobs?

LIASSON: They got a lot of death threats. The committee heard from two Georgia election workers in 2020, Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman. They dealt with an onslaught of violent racialized threats, including one that said, you're lucky it's 2020, not 1920. That was a clear reference to lynching. But they had to go into hiding. And Shaye Moss talked in really vivid terms about how their lives have been ruined.


SHAYE MOSS: I don't want anyone knowing my name. I don't go to the grocery store at all. I haven't been anywhere at all. I've gained about 60 pounds. I just don't do nothing anymore. I don't want to go anywhere.

LIASSON: And even more significantly, Moss said that no election officials who worked with her is still on the job, and of course, she isn't either. They've all been driven away. And this is really at the heart of the threat to democracy that the committee is trying to lay out. They're saying that what Trump and his allies set out to do has mostly succeeded in a lot of states, which is to drive out the people who are nonpartisan civil servants, who work controlling the voting apparatus, who count votes and certify votes, and Trump and his allies are working to replace them with their own loyalists.

INSKEEP: Are we seeing different kind of people coming in?

LIASSON: What we are seeing is about a hundred candidates who embrace Trump's election lies, have already won their primaries for offices like governor, secretary of state, AG, people who oversee elections.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, as always.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: We also have news this morning of an earthquake. It struck eastern Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Afghanistan's state news agency says hundreds of people have been killed or injured.

FADEL: It was not possible to immediately confirm exact numbers because the earthquake hit remote areas. Authorities had to dispatch rescue workers by helicopter to dig people out. We'll bring you updates throughout the day as we learn more at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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