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News brief: Arizona midterms, Biden at climate summit, student debt relief blocked


There's so much attention on Arizona right now. Election officials there are methodically counting votes while they fight off criticism about how long it is taking. It's one of three states with undecided Senate races, the outcomes of which will determine which party controls the chamber in the next Congress. There are other close races in Arizona, too, some House seats, a governor's race that has gotten national attention and a few other statewide offices, including secretary of state, which will oversee the next election. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is in Phoenix and joins us now. Thanks so much for being here.


MARTIN: Just give us the latest, Ximena.

BUSTILLO: Sure. Maricopa County, the county with the largest share of voters that also encompasses Phoenix, closed out on Thursday with more than 300,000 ballots left to count. Here's what happened. A lot of people voted. And a lot of people did so by taking the ballot mailed to them and dropping it off at a polling location on Election Day instead of mailing it in or dropping it off earlier. Those are many of the ballots left to be counted. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot - 290,000, in fact. And this is a historic number of those Election Day drop-offs - 100,000 more ballots than Election Day 2020, which held the previous record. Now, those ballots go through a multi-step process until they can be counted. And that all just takes time.

MARTIN: Right. But that opens the door to conspiracy theories, right?

BUSTILLO: Well, election officials have been working even since before Election Day to ward off concerns of election tampering or fraud. Election deniers performed well in the GOP primary. And the top statewide candidates for Senate, governor and secretary of state all echo false claims of election fraud in 2020. Because it's been a major theme of the election this time around, it's no surprise that some candidates, like Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, have accused officials of delaying and stalling the results right now. Bill Gates, the top Maricopa County election official, told reporters that the long wait for final tallies is not new. And he is tired of the criticism.


BILL GATES: And quite frankly, it is offensive for Kari Lake to say that these people behind me are slow-rolling this when they're working 14 to 18 hours. So I really hope this is the end of that now, we can be patient and respect the results when they come out.

BUSTILLO: And it is true that counting ballots, which is different than calling an election, usually bleeds into the week after Election Day. Even then, in 2018, the Associated Press called the race for Senator Kyrsten Sinema nearly a week later.

MARTIN: So given that all this is going as it normally should go, what can we expect over the next few days?

BUSTILLO: We can expect to keep waiting. County officials have not given an estimate for when all the ballots will be done. They are releasing one batch of ballot counts each evening. So that is why you may be seeing updates come slowly. Plus, even though Maricopa is the biggest county, Pima County, where Tucson is, also has more than 100,000 outstanding ballots. Election officials are urging everyone to be patient. So far, there haven't been any signs of unrest, as some had feared. Still, though, election workers are taking some heat. Here's Gates again talking about threats they've faced.


GATES: And that threat level is continuing. And that is now a part of life for me and my colleagues. And it shouldn't be. And it shouldn't be for all the elections workers and election officials across the country. But that's now a way of life.

BUSTILLO: As for why this is taking this long, look; officials made a point to name other states that are still tabulating results. And there are several outstanding House races anyways.

MARTIN: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.


MARTIN: OK. President Biden is speaking to the annual U.N. climate conference today in Egypt. Around 100 world leaders have traveled to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. At the start of the conference early this week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave a very grim warning, saying, quote, "we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator." So will President Biden make real commitments to put on the brakes? NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Sharm el-Sheikh and joins us now. Hey, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So the U.S. is the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, second only to China. President Biden's remarks are going to be heavily scrutinized, I imagine.

SHERLOCK: Yep. That's right. And he's expected to talk about how America wants to lead the transition to cleaner energy in what he thinks of as a decisive decade for climate change. You know, he's likely to talk about the recent Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. That's that massive piece of climate legislation that, if properly implemented, would help the U.S. hit its goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions by half from a 2005 baseline.

And he's likely to make a raft of new announcements here about U.S. spending that's designed to help developing countries adapt to the consequences of climate change, like floodings and drought. And there's also more money to help develop the renewable energy sector in these countries. And then, Rachel, there's the administration's big focus, which is, how to get businesses in the global north more involved in financing projects that tackle climate change in developing countries, which some businesses see as risky?

MARTIN: Yeah. But also, it's those countries in the global south that are saying, we are experiencing the worst effects of climate change. And you need to help us. And this is something that the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, has talked about, this financing program, right?

SHERLOCK: That's right. So he spoke about one specific proposal within that broader category, which is related to carbon credits. Under this new U.S. proposal, private companies in the U.S. and abroad would buy these so-called carbon credits, which represent a set amount of emissions that were reduced or removed from the atmosphere, but not necessarily by those same companies. So it's kind of like an exchange.

And under this idea, companies would pay developing countries to move away from coal as a way of making up their own emissions. The announcement is kind of controversial. You know, critics note that the carbon offset market is fairly poorly regulated and plagued by accounting problems. Critics say some of the offset projects could amount to greenwashing. Kerry said the U.N. secretary-general, though, Antonio Guterres, was supportive of a U.S.-led carbon market plan so long as there were safeguards to it.

MARTIN: But I understand President Biden's there, of course. But there are also other U.S. lawmakers there. What are they doing?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. Well, it does seem that U.S. politics has come to Sharm el-Sheikh here in Egypt. You know, we've got Democrats and Republicans here. And they're each holding press conferences to announce their own agendas and criticize each other. So Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, said longstanding divisions between Republicans and Democrats on climate change has to end. But then she accused Republicans of believing that climate change is a hoax. There is a delegation of Republican lawmakers, like John Curtis of Utah, Debbie Lesko of Arizona and others. And their point is that U.S. energy is efficient and leads the world. And they say they want to address global warming while keeping the U.S. economy strong and preserve the U.S. quality of life.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.


MARTIN: President Biden's plan to cancel some or all federal debt for students - for 40 million borrowers, actually, this plan ran into a wall late yesterday. Two disgruntled borrowers filed a lawsuit challenging Biden's plan. And a U.S. district court judge in Texas has now declared that the debt relief program is unlawful and vacated it. For more on what happens next, we've got NPR's Cory Turner with us. Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: So this is sort of a big deal. Before we get to the implications, can you walk us through the basics of this case?

TURNER: Yeah. So as you said, it was brought by two borrowers making a pretty unusual argument. One won't qualify for any relief. The other does qualify for $10,000 but is actually frustrated because he believes he should qualify for more. The remedy they're seeking, though, is not cancellation of their debts but to stop the government from cancelling anyone's debts, and to essentially start all over again and rewrite the rules of the program. So I spoke last night with Persis Yu. She's managing counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center, which has advocated for debt relief. And here's how she describes this case.

PERSIS YU: I like to think about this lawsuit as, like, the toddler problem. If I can't have it, you can't have it either. And that's not how the law works. And it's not how the courts should apply the law.

TURNER: But here's the thing, Rachel. This case is not just about these two borrowers. It is also a big-picture fight over capital-G government and the separation of powers. The conservative legal group behind this suit argues President Biden cannot just wipe away $400 billion in student loan debt. Only Congress can do that. And for him to do it without Congress, they argue, is unlawful. Though, of course, the Biden administration says lawmakers did give it the authority to erase student debt when they passed a law called the HEROES Act.

MARTIN: OK. So what did this judge say?

TURNER: So Judge Mark T. Pittman, who was appointed by former President Trump, doesn't buy the administration's reading of the HEROES Act. Instead, he wrote that Biden's debt relief program is a complete usurpation of congressional authority by the executive branch. The judge even quoted James Madison in the Federalist Papers writing, the accumulation of all powers - legislative, executive and judiciary - in the same hands may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. What's most interesting about Pittman's ruling, though, is that he condensed a lot of legal process here, including whether to issue, you know, some sort of temporary block on debt relief. And instead, he went big and vacated the entire program.

MARTIN: So what does that mean for all the people, all the borrowers who've already started their online documents to get their debt relieved?

TURNER: Well, at the very least, it means they're still waiting. This is a big setback, Rachel, for those borrowers and for the Biden administration's program. Vacating it doesn't just pause it or block it, it would essentially unwind it. In response, though, we know Biden administration has already appealed the decision. We got confirmation of that last night from the White House. Then again, I should also make clear, like, an appeal is going to go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a reputation for being the most conservative federal appeals court in the country. From there, another appeal would land this case at the Supreme Court.


TURNER: It's hard to know what the timeline is here for clarity, could be weeks. Keep in mind, though - this is important. Lots of borrowers know this, don't need to be reminded. Student loan payments are also set to restart in a matter of weeks come January.

MARTIN: I still got to pay mine. NPR's Cory Turner. Thank you.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.