Morning News Brief: Puerto Rico, Senate Health Care Plan

Oct 19, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The day before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico's governor predicted that the island would soon need, quote, "help from all our fellow citizens."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He said our fellow citizens since Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Today the governor, Ricardo Rossello, meets his fellow citizen in the White House - this, after President Trump battled on Twitter with San Juan's mayor and then said federal recovery aid should not last too long for Puerto Rico.

Weeks after the storm, 19 percent of the island's population has electric power - 19 percent. About 69 percent have clean drinking water.

GREENE: And NPR's Adrian Florido is in San Juan and joins us on the line.

Hey, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hey, David. How are you?

GREENE: I just hear those numbers. Tell me what it feels like. What is it like living there right now?

FLORIDO: I mean, things are not looking good, like you said. I mean, you know, most of the island is still in the dark. You know, people don't have running water on a third of the island. And so people still are either resorting to streams and rivers or looking for communal taps or just sort of looking anywhere they can for bottled water. There also have been a lot of recent heavy rains, and so those have caused mudslides and damaged bridges, which has sort of hampered the recovery effort because of obstructed roads.

Everywhere you go, David, you see destruction in just about every direction. And the thing that really blows my mind is the power lines - right? - like, mangled power lines and utility poles absolutely everywhere on this island. And they all have to be repaired. And imagining how many people that's going to take to fix and how long just sort of boggles the mind. This recovery is absolutely going to take a very, very long time.

GREENE: Well, I mean, beyond doing what you just did and explaining the conditions - the horrible conditions right now - if you're the governor, I mean, what message does he bring to the White House and to the president today?

FLORIDO: The message - it's going to be very clear. It's going to be, we need more help. This island's recovery is going really slowly. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that Puerto Rico simply does not have the money to speed this recovery up. A week ago, the House did approve more than $6 billion in disaster relief, including about $5 billion in loans, so the island doesn't run out of cash. The Senate still has to approve that. But yesterday, the governor also said he'd be requesting an additional $4 billion to $5 billion dollars to help provide short-term relief to certain sectors of the economy.

Those requests are obviously - require, like, a delicate dance for the governor because of the mixed messages that Trump has been sending about the federal government's responsibility to help, saying that FEMA won't be here forever. He changed his tone by the end of last week. But I think the governor understands. And you hear this in his messaging, the importance of emphasizing that Puerto Rico is not some foreign land - right? - it's a U.S. territory.

GREENE: Sure.

FLORIDO: It's home to 3.5 million U.S. citizens.

GREENE: Well - and I mean, I guess the delicate dance he's going to be doing - he has tried to be, the governor, upbeat about the FEMA response. He's had a good relationship with President Trump so far. But...

FLORIDO: Right.

GREENE: ...I would imagine he's getting pressure from people on the ground who are not satisfied with how the federal government has responded here.

FLORIDO: Absolutely. People just want their electricity restored and their water restored. Another big need that's not being met is the need for tarps, David. We're still in the rainy season here, and so water's coming into people's homes if their roof has been damaged. FEMA traditionally has provided tarps, but it's run out. And so they've got half a million on the way, but they're not arriving until the end of October. So that's something that people are really frustrated by.

INSKEEP: There's an argument over who and what is responsible. The president has been willing to engage in that argument, but you're reminding us of the bottom line, which is 2.7 million Americans, for weeks and weeks, without electric power.

GREENE: Which is extraordinary.

FLORIDO: Absolutely.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan. Adrian, thanks.

FLORIDO: Thank you two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, a stream of partisan efforts on health care have failed. Now a bipartisan health care bill seems to be ready to see the light today.

INSKEEP: Democratic and Republican senators released their much-discussed bill to stabilize the health insurance market. It would restore, for a time, subsidies that President Trump ended by executive order the other day. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander says it's now or never.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR ALEXANDER: If we do nothing, we'll create chaos. And chaos will lead to a birthday present for Bernie Sanders, which is a single-payer solution - which none of us want.

INSKEEP: Plenty of people have said the complicated and bitter fight over health insurance could end with a drive for a simpler answer, national insurance. But if Alexander is going to prevail, he needs to sell President Trump, who's alternately sounded like he's for and against and for and against restoring the subsidies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Lamar Alexander is working on it very hard from our side. And if something can happen, that's fine. But I won't do anything to enrich the insurance companies.

INSKEEP: So how do you convince the president that he's not bailing out insurance firms?

GREENE: Well, NPR's Tamara Keith is on the line from NPR's Politics podcast.

Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So let's get to a fact. I mean, is this proposal, this bipartisan proposal, a bailout of insurance companies, as the president argues?

KEITH: Well, if you ask Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, they would say no. And the reality is that these cost-sharing reduction payments are basically reimbursing insurance companies for what they're required to do, which is to lower the costs, for some consumers, of deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance.

GREENE: OK. We were right here in this same studio yesterday talking about whether President Trump was for or against this bill. And I think 24 hours have gone by, and I'm still - I may be more confused now. Can you shed some light on the president's position on this?

KEITH: I think 24 hours ago, he was mostly for it, and now he seems to be mostly against it. But I don't think that his view has actually changed that much. He does not want a bailout. And I think the key for Senator Alexander and others, if they are going to get the president to support this, is to convince him that it isn't a bailout for insurance companies. And it's not quite clear how they do it because it seems like the president has more or less made up his mind.

GREENE: Let me ask you about something else, the president and what he said or didn't say to the widow of a U.S. soldier who was killed in Niger. This has been getting a lot of attention in the last 24 hours.

KEITH: It has. And he called the family and was on the speakerphone in the car, so a lot of people heard it. And according to people who were in the car, he said that the fallen soldier knew what he signed up for. This was taken as very insensitive by the family and also by a Democratic congresswoman who happened to be in the car. The president said - no, no, no, this is totally wrong. And it has turned into - this has been a multiday fight. This is now a multiday fight, and at the center of it is this very sacred thing of how the nation respects families of the fallen, these Gold Star families.

INSKEEP: And it's noteworthy - you remember the previous press secretary, Sean Spicer, was willing to back up President Trump and say it was the biggest inauguration crowd ever. The new press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, not quite willing to go that far in the last number of hours, not really backing up the president's initial claim that he was lied about.

KEITH: Saying the tone was right is what she's saying.

INSKEEP: At least he was trying is essentially what she was saying.

KEITH: Yeah. But she's not getting into the specifics of the words that he said.

GREENE: Hey, NPR's Tamara Keith - thanks a lot, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: I think it's safe to say we rarely see the governor of a state declare a state of emergency over a speech.

INSKEEP: And Florida's governor did that as hundreds of police prepare for white nationalist Richard Spencer, who's scheduled to talk at the University of Florida today. The university president, Kent Fuchs, urged students to skip it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENT FUCHS: Do not provide Mr. Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking. I urge everyone to stay away from the Phillips Center October 19.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Greg Allen is on the line from Gainesville.

Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK, you have the university president saying to stay away. So I mean, why is the university going through with this? Did anyone from campus actually invite Spencer to campus?

ALLEN: Well, not really. I think the reason that the university is going through with it is I think they feel like they had no choice. It's a public university, the president has made clear. He feels that they should be open to the community, so they have their facilities open to rent. And Richard Spencer decided he wanted to speak on campus. Someone who - one of the students who goes here booked it for him, but that wasn't necessary. He could book it himself. It costs like $10,000 to rent the hall, and so that's what they've done. The university denied the request at first but then, with some further negotiation, realized that a legal challenge could be hard to defend in court. So they're going ahead with this with lots of security.

GREENE: So interesting because, in some other cases we've seen, student groups invite, you know, potentially provocative speakers. This is an example of someone just using money to buy space. And this is Richard Spencer, who was involved in organizing that rally in Charlottesville where, of course, violence erupted. A woman was killed. So what's the university doing here to make sure things don't escalate?

ALLEN: Well, this is Richard Spence's M.O. He goes to university campuses; it's a great place to take your free speech message. And he uses that to try to make his case. The university, because they had plenty of time to plan, have organized a lot of security. The governor of Florida declared a state of emergency for the county here. And that allowed them bring in sheriff's deputies and state troopers. And there's just an amazing array of law enforcement officers on the ground here - just kind of marching around, checking out the scene. So I'm sure there'll be plenty of those folks on the scene today - so lots of precautions.

The campus, though, is open as usual. Classes are being held. Some students thought that classes should have been canceled today, but they're going ahead with this.

GREENE: You think students and others are going to take the university president's advice about not protesting, not giving him the spotlight?

ALLEN: I think there's going to be a pretty substantial protest outside of the hall where Richard Spencer is speaking today. We've seen social media organizing that for quite some time, and so they'll be there. That's where the president of the university is most concerned about possibility of conflict, you know, after the speech when Spencer supporters - if there are some here today - come out and might actually, you know, have some interaction with those people outside.

GREENE: NPR's Greg Allen speaking to us from Gainesville, Fla.

Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "BERRY LOVES YOU B") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.