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Morning News Brief: GOP Health Care Plan, Trump Eases Religious Group Restrictions


Here's your first word on the day's news, starting with Republicans trying one more time.


On Capitol Hill, House leaders plan to vote today to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. They backed out of a vote on this before because they didn't have the votes. This time, they say they're really going to do it. They're trying to scale back Obamacare enough to satisfy the most conservative lawmakers without rolling it back so much that they lose more mainstream Republicans. Just yesterday, two Republicans visited President Trump and proposed adding more money to help cover insurance costs for people with pre-existing conditions. One of them is Congressman Billy Long.


BILLY LONG: We're here announcing that with this addition that we brought to the president and sold him on in over an hour meeting in here with him, that we're both yeses on the bill.

INSKEEP: And Republicans need every yes they can get. NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro has been keeping us up to date on this story. Hi, Domenico.


INSKEEP: OK, bottom line, do Republicans now have a bill that keeps the most popular parts of Obamacare, including the part about pre-existing conditions?

MONTANARO: That's actually kind of up for debate. You know, it creates high-risk pools, which have sort of a spotty history. And what happened yesterday was that there was an amendment that adds $8 billion to subsidize these high-risk pools because one of the criticisms of them has been that they were underfunded and that they're pretty expensive because it takes out the sickest people and puts them in their own grouping. You know, that was one of the very points of Obamacare - spread out the costs so that if you become very sick, you not only get health care, but you can afford it.

INSKEEP: So the fear here is that people with pre-existing conditions might be offered insurance but at a price that it's, like, not being offered insurance at all. They can't possibly afford it, and they're trying to subsidize it a little more.

MONTANARO: That's exactly right. And I should also say that Republicans wrote in an exemption in this bill for members of Congress and their own staff. They say they'll close this loophole after it was reported on, but the exemption will stay and still be in this bill for the vote so far.

INSKEEP: OK, so a lot of questions about what this bill really does. It might be nice to have an independent, outside analysis of it...

MONTANARO: You would think, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Safe from the Congressional Budget Office. Will they have one before voting?

MONTANARO: No. The Congressional Budget Office, the CBO, is the nonpartisan scorekeeper for how much these bills would cost and what they would do. You know, you might remember when the CBO weighed in the last time on this bill, it said it would save money, but 24 million people or so could be left without insurance. That was a major stumbling block with public relations to pass that last version. It was already unpopular. The CBO score made it even more so, and they don't have that political complication this time. But we don't have a measure of what this bill would mean then.

INSKEEP: Domenico, I'm remembering that one of the last times House Republicans tried and failed to vote on this repeal and replace act, Senate Republicans said don't do this because we're not going to pass this through the Senate. Is the Senate going to pass this version if it gets to?

MONTANARO: I mean, this is the big part of this. No. I mean, you know, this law is never going to become law in this iteration. It's going to be Groundhog's Day all over again. The Senate is going to have to pass this with the same kind of warring factions. They only have 52 - a 52-seat majority. We're going to be back here again talking about how the House has to pass that version.

MARTIN: So to paraphrase President Trump, health care is hard, as we are understanding every time we talk about this. So it will be interesting, as Domenico notes. Let's watch the vote today and then watch how senators start coming out and talking about this, revealing a little bit more about just how much steeper a climb it's going to be there.

INSKEEP: A Groundhog Day - well, Domenico, we'll be back with you tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that.

MONTANARO: All right. Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.


INSKEEP: President Trump has an executive order that he's expected to sign today.

MARTIN: The president's is going to host some religious leaders over at the White House for the National Day of Prayer, which is a tradition. Some of these religious leaders have been pushing the president for a change, which involves something called the Johnson Amendment. This is a law that restricts the political activity of churches, synagogues, all faith-based organizations. Basically, if a faith-based group took a stand on a particular candidate, say, their tax-exempt status could be threatened. President Trump has pledged for some time to do away with this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that. Remember.


INSKEEP: NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten has been covering this story. He's in our studios. Tom, good morning.


INSKEEP: Just a basic question here - can the president of the United States change this law by himself?

GJELTEN: Of course not. Only Congress can do that. What the president can do - and this is what we understand from the White House at a late-night background briefing - he can tell the IRS to back off enforcing it. But the truth is, Steve, the IRS is basically not enforcing this law as it is right now.

INSKEEP: Really? Because you have different churches and other organizations that get involved in politics in so many different ways.

GJELTEN: Yeah. African-American churches, for example, were quite outspoken in support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Nothing happened to them.

INSKEEP: OK. So you mentioned the White House has been talking about what they're going to do. What, if anything, do you have that shows what this executive order will actually say?

GJELTEN: Well, I can tell you this - as of 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon, nobody knew, and apparently the White House didn't know either. We talked to somebody who was following this minute by minute and was told at that time that the White House hadn't even written the executive order yet.


GJELTEN: But then last night, we got this background briefing - very brief, three lines. First one is - it declares...

INSKEEP: There's a lot of white space on that piece of paper you're holding up, Tom.

GJELTEN: Let me read the first one, Steve.


GJELTEN: It is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty - period.



INSKEEP: All right, good, good to know.

GJELTEN: And it's got this point about the Johnson Amendment and also, third, it will - and this is actually important, and this is the most specific thing. The president is instructing agencies that write the regulations for how to implement Obamacare to rewrite them to take some of the burden off employers to provide women with contraceptive services. So that could be rewritten.

INSKEEP: OK. So there is or is not a little bit of leeway then for the president to act on this. Well, how do you read all of this? How much can the president really change?

GJELTEN: You know, this is well short of what the liberals feared the president would say and well short of what conservatives wanted the president to say. Now, he could come out later this morning with much more detail and either anger the liberals or anger the conservatives. So far, we don't know what he's going to say. There was a draft - a executive order that came out in February that was far more sweeping that really upset the liberals. And yesterday, my phones were lighting up with calls from liberal groups saying they're worried about this. We don't know if it's going to happen.

INSKEEP: OK. So we don't know what the text is but to the maximum extent permitted by law the president wants to change the law.

MARTIN: Evangelicals helped Donald Trump win.


MARTIN: I mean, it was a pivotal part of that vote. Many of them voted for Donald Trump because Mike Pence was on the ticket.


MARTIN: So now they voted for him. And clearly, he wants to now give them something in return.


MARTIN: It's going to be interesting to see the response from religious leaders who were in that National Day of Prayer Breakfast but also those who were not invited.

INSKEEP: This was a part of his campaign, even in his convention speech. NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.


INSKEEP: One other story - Facebook is changing the way that it will monitor live video.

MARTIN: This change, we should say, came after a gruesome incident that happened last week. A man in Thailand murdered his infant daughter. He posted a video of it on Facebook, and then he later killed himself. That incident raised all kinds of questions about how hard Facebook really tries to block videos like that. Yesterday, Facebook announced that it's hiring 3,000 new employees to help police the site

INSKEEP: Three thousand - so let's talk about that with Aarti Shahani. She's NPR's technology reporter. She's on the line. Hi, Aarti.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi, how are you doing?

INSKEEP: So what will the 3,000 people do?

SHAHANI: Well, their job is to go ahead and when a user flags content that may be offensive, violate terms, they have to decide does it or doesn't it and take it down. And I'd note that this 3,000, they're not actually - we don't know if they're actually Facebook employees. It could be that this 3,000 is part of this sprawling global network of subcontractors that Facebook has to basically go through posts very quickly and flag content. And while it might sound like a very big number, you know, Facebook also announced yesterday they have nearly 2 billion users, so, you know, 3,000 is not a whole lot of people. It's kind of a tiny digital army for that many users.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I mean, I'm just thinking this through, not that all 2 billion people are posting videos but surely millions and millions of people are, and the idea that you would catch anything quickly seems a little improbable.

SHAHANI: Yeah. And the point is that when you have that many users, the way that anything gets flagged and put on the radar is that the users are the ones who say, hey, this is offensive, hey, this doesn't belong here. So, you know, while not all 2 billion are doing that, the capacity to do that is there, and, you know, the platform is scaling up, I think, at a rate that they just didn't anticipate. And they lowballed what kind of force they would need to police it.

INSKEEP: Is Facebook still uncomfortable policing content at all?

SHAHANI: Well, I don't know that they're uncomfortable about it because they're doing it very, very regularly. I just think that the way that they describe it publicly and the way they think about their role is a bit muddled, right? So, for example, in a newsroom, if we exercised the kind of judgment that Facebook does, we would call it editorial judgment.


SHAHANI: But they're not comfortable with that term because they like to stick to, hey, we're a platform. You know, the users decide what's there.

INSKEEP: They don't actually want to be editing content, and I suppose some of us may not want them to be editing content in certain ways anyway.

SHAHANI: Right on both fronts.

INSKEEP: OK, there we go. Well, Aarti, thanks very much.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani reporting to us on this day when Facebook says it's going to add 3,000 workers to help police the site.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "COMFORT ZONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.