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News Brief: GOP Relief Bill, MLB Postponements, Getting On Top Of The Pandemic


Here is how the top Senate Republican is describing his party's latest plan to help Americans.


MITCH MCCONNELL: So we have one foot in the pandemic. And one foot in the recovery. The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive. And they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the GOP plan adds up to about $1 trillion. There's a different House plan - also about a trillion dollars. The Republican plan includes more direct payments to families, legal protections for businesses, extra money for schools and more.

GREENE: And let's dig into this GOP plan with NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. Hi, Claudia.


GREENE: So what is in this proposal?

GRISALES: It's wide-ranging plans. Among them, they want to include a new extra payment program for unemployment benefits. But it's at a much lower level. It would fall to a supplemental payment of $200 per week from $600 currently. This would be in place until September. Republicans think they can switch that out to a formula starting in October that would replace 70% of lost wages. But from our understanding, this would be very difficult for states to implement.

Other items in the plan include new legal protections for businesses impacted by the pandemic, more direct payments of $1,200 to Americans. There's also more than $100 billion directed to schools. And the administration had some say in this proposal as well. There was a surprise provision in there to fund a new headquarter building for the FBI at about $1.75 billion. But even McConnell reacted with some surprise when he was asked about this yesterday at a press conference. But later, he and Republicans seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea. So it's possible we won't see this in their final version once it goes through the chamber.

GREENE: Wow. It's sort of a sign of how this has come together and how there has been some division in the Republican Party when the leader even gets surprised by something that seemed to get in there somehow.


GREENE: Well, talk to me about Democrats, how they've responded to this and if there are any signs of the two parties coming together, quickly.

GRISALES: Yeah. They're not crazy about this idea already. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer spoke on the Senate floor about this yesterday. Let's take a listen.


CHUCK SCHUMER: In short, the Republican plan is too little too late. The Republican plan is weak tea when our problems need a much stronger brew.

GRISALES: So Schumer and Pelosi said, the two parties, they remain very far apart. Pelosi said she was against another separate idea of maybe let's just extend unemployment benefits, these extra payments. And then we'll address the rest later.

GREENE: All right. So lawmakers are busy trying to help Americans in this pandemic, also busy especially on the House side. You've got Attorney General Bill Barr testifying before the Democratic led House Judiciary Committee later today. I think, suffice to say, Democrats have questions.

GRISALES: Many, many questions. This is his first time before the committee. And there's a lot of past issues here. Remember, last time, the AG was supposed to testify. He failed to show up. And this didn't go over well with the chair of this committee. This is Jerry Nadler. So today is kind of a do-over. And Democrats say Barr has acted to protect the president and shown preferential treatment for his associates, like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, for example. And they question his independence.

Democrats have also said they want a congressional investigation into the use of federal law enforcement agents and use of force in cities like Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore. So expect those questions to be directed at Barr. And finally, this hearing takes place less than 100 days before the next election. And Barr's claimed without evidence that a foreign country could counterfeit mail-in ballots. So this will be another focus. So you could expect as well Republicans will deliver a full-throated defense of Barr.

GREENE: All right. A lot of ground to cover with the attorney general.


GREENE: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. Thanks so much, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.


GREENE: All right. So as many fans know, baseball is back. And even in these - just these few days, it has been really fun to watch.

INSKEEP: Even though your Pirates, David, are 1-3. But who's counting, right?

GREENE: Thank you, Steve. Yeah.

INSKEEP: You're still getting a chance to play. My mom is happy because the Cubs are 3-1. But here's the problem. Only five days into the season we're seeing a spike in coronavirus cases on one team, the Miami Marlins. They have postponed three games so far, leaving players and fans wondering what this means for the rest of the season.

GREENE: And we've got NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman with us. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So just a few days in and we're seeing this outbreak. What is going on with the Marlins?

GOLDMAN: Well, David, four members of the team tested positive this past weekend while the Marlins were in Philadelphia for a series of games to open the season. Yesterday, that number grew to at least 13 - mostly players. And that's when the decision came down to postpone games last night and tonight in Miami, and last night's game in Philadelphia against the New York Yankees out of caution because the outbreak happened in Philly.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said they were expecting further test results on the Marlins and the Phillies late last night. We're still waiting on those. The results are expected today. And they'll determine the next steps. Manfred says, if the results are acceptable, the Marlins can resume playing tomorrow in Baltimore. If they're not, we're possibly looking at more postponements at the very least.

GREENE: Well, I mean, if - this is all in theory. But if we see more outbreaks, if we - you know, if more games postpone, what does this mean for the league? Is this a crisis?

GOLDMAN: You know, plenty of observers and pundits say so. An infectious disease expert from UC Berkeley who I spoke to yesterday, Dr. John Swartzberg, put it in medical terms. He said, the Marlins outbreak portends a very poor prognosis. Manfred, of course, is not paid to be a pessimist. On his weekly call with Major League Baseball owners yesterday, he said - there was no talk of canceling the season or putting it on hold. Still, last night on MLB Network, he was asked whether an outbreak like the Marlins is baseball's worst nightmare. And here's how he answered.


ROB MANFRED: I don't put this in the nightmare category. We built the protocols to allow us to continue to play. That's why we have the expanded rosters. That's why we have the pool of additional players. And we think we can keep people safe and continue to play.

GREENE: I mean, they built protocols, Tom. The MLB had been, really, rigorously testing to keep this in check. How do you think we got here?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. That's right. The numbers of positives were really low leading into the regular season. Baseball's health and safety protocols seemed to be working at summer training camps, where teams stayed in their home cities. And through the first weekend of the regular season, fans were loving having the game back...


GOLDMAN: ...Even though it was weird with those cardboard cut-out figures placed behind home plate and piped in noise. And personal preference, David, stop with that. Let us hear the chatter on the field.

GREENE: (Laughter) I'm with you.

GOLDMAN: But then teams started traveling, which was always a concern. Major League Baseball - unlike the NBA, WNBA, National Hockey League, men's and women's pro soccer - MLB is not in a so-called protective bubble, which, Manford said, wasn't really workable. And now, perhaps, because of that, the sport's having trouble. And that respite baseball provided this past weekend has given way to the harsh reality of the pandemic.

GREENE: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.


GREENE: Important question, is it time to admit that the U.S. strategy in the pandemic is just not working?

INSKEEP: Some experts think so even though the basic approach seemed clear months ago. You know, a lockdown would cut down on cases. And then as life reopened, constant testing and contact-tracing would isolate new outbreaks. Face masks would reduce the risk of new infections until a vaccine arrives. Those were the straightforward steps, which have been blurred by a fog of politics and disinformation. The president demanded early reopening when case numbers were still high. And now they have climbed higher. The U.S. death toll remains the highest in the world. And there is no end in sight.

GREENE: And we have NPR science correspondent Rob Stein with us. Rob, are we doing enough in the U.S.?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: David, the short answer is, no. Many experts I've spoken with say it's just too late for simply testing and contact-tracing here in the United States. You know, testing and contact-tracing can be very effective, you know? Test to quickly find infected people. Track down everyone they might have infected. Isolate and quarantine everyone to stop the virus from spreading. You know, it's sort of like quickly dousing every ember from a campfire to keep it from erupting into a wildfire. But I talked to Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota about this. He says the virus is already spreading like a wildfire burning out of control.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Right now, we are experiencing a national forest fire of COVID that is readily consuming any human wood that's available to burn.

STEIN: There are just too many people getting infected now too fast in too many places. And there still aren't enough tests. So it can take days - maybe more than a week - to get results. By that time, anyone who's infected may have already spread the virus to who knows how many other people.

GREENE: All right. Well, given all that, what do experts say we can do to get this under control?

STEIN: You know, it's not going to be an answer that anyone wants to hear. It's more lockdowns.

OSTERHOLM: We will not get there. We will not get there unless we bring this virus level down again. And there is just no other way to do it, literally, but a kind of second lockdown. And this time, let's get it right.

STEIN: You know, Osterholm says the only way other countries managed to crush the virus was by locking down harder than the U.S. and sticking with it.

GREENE: I mean, you're right. That's not what anyone wants to hear. But every lockdown is different. Do they have to be as severe as we saw before?

STEIN: You know, David, there may be places that don't have as much virus and may have enough testing and contact-tracing to avoid that, but probably not many. But even in the places that do have to impose new shutdowns, there's some hope that they could be less draconian this time around. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo from Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I do really worry about forcing, you know, an entire state or country to retreat to our homes for extended periods. These are harmful measures in themselves. They may be necessary. But I hope that we can take action to do everything in our power to avoid them.

STEIN: You know, like finally get everyone to wear masks, stay away from other people, especially indoors. And we probably don't have to shut down some things that we now know are low risk, like parks and playgrounds and beaches. And we shouldn't give up on testing and contact-tracing. We need to keep doing that as much as possible, you know, to help figure out how to shut down more strategically this time, you know, targeting places where the virus is spreading the most - maybe, like, bars. That could knock the virus back enough to let kids safely go back to school, get some people back to work and give the nation time to finally get enough tests and contact-tracing to finally get off this deadly, miserable roller coaster we've been on.

GREENE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.