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News Brief: Government Shutdown Looms, Pence To Travel To South Korea


The government is set to run out of money this week.


This story takes us back, way back, to three weeks ago, which, the way the news is moving, does seem like a long time. After a brief government shutdown, lawmakers three weeks ago were not able to come together, not able to agree on immigration issues or spending levels or other differences. But they did at last resolve a disagreement over how many days they would push back the deadline to agree. The date is this coming Thursday.

MARTIN: You got to celebrate the victories where they come, I suppose.

INSKEEP: Yeah, bipartisanship.

MARTIN: So NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow's in the studios this morning. Hey, Scott.


MARTIN: All right. So, again, here we are, and the government is set to shut down unless they reach a deal. Where are we on negotiations? What's on the table?

DETROW: Oh, just about exactly the same as before. There has been no real progress on a long-term funding bill. This will likely be resolved with yet another short-term measure. There's been no progress on immigration negotiations. President Trump wants to change legal immigration as well as provide permanent protections for DACA. Democrats say that goes too far. So it's basically the exact same dynamics. The only difference is that a lot of Senate Democrats thought that voting to shut down the government was a tactical mistake, and they're less likely to do that again.

MARTIN: So that means Democrats are going to be in the same position this time. So they're going to - they're going to compromise. The Democrats have to - have to change their minds, essentially.

DETROW: Yeah. They're going to be in the same position but with less leverage because it's clear both sides viewed the shutdown as a mistake that hurt Democrats. Democrats are unlikely to do that, so that takes away any leverage they would have going into negotiations. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised at the end of the last shutdown that if the Senate had not reached an immigration deal by the time this measure comes up, the Senate would move to immigration debate. So I think Democrats still could vote and say, OK, we'll see what happens next and see if McConnell keeps his word.

MARTIN: All right. So if Congress hasn't been busy trying to figure out how to keep the government open, they sure have been busy talking about a certain memo. This is - of course, the Nunes memo was released last Friday. The House Intelligence Committee chairman drafted this thing. So Democrats have wanted their rebuttal to come out to give context to this controversial memo. Is that likely to happen this week?

DETROW: It's still up in the air. There's another House Intelligence Committee meeting this afternoon where that could be voted on, but even if the committee approves it, there would be several more steps. And ultimately, it would come down to the White House, just like the Republican memo did. You know, over the weekend, President Trump was pretty explicit, saying he saw the Nunes memo as proof the Russian investigation, the Mueller investigation, is biased. So it's unclear whether he would be willing to release something that is - reportedly undercuts a lot of what the Nunes memo argued, namely that the FBI wasn't clear with the FISA court that there was partisan motivation in some of the evidence they brought.

MARTIN: Right. So what bearing, if at all, does this have on the Russia investigation? When the president is saying, see, this proves that there's no there there, what does that mean for Robert Mueller?

DETROW: I think it has a lot of political bearing because this really muddied the waters. It dominated the news last week at a time when Mueller's investigation seems to be making a lot of progress and is honing in on the White House itself. And you saw President Trump - he said this vindicates this investigation is a hoax. Now notably, a lot of Republicans pushed back, including South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

INSKEEP: We are in a situation here where Congress, for all of its divides, is perhaps representing the country. We have profoundly different narratives in this country right now, profoundly different media. We're in a studio here with Fox News on one screen and CNN on the other screen - completely different stories being told to different segments of the public. And Congress, in a way, is representing those divisions in both of the stories you just discussed.

MARTIN: Scott Detrow - he hosts the NPR Politics podcast. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.


MARTIN: OK. So, Steve, there was an interesting moment during the pregame show for the Super Bowl last night. Did you catch this?

INSKEEP: Well, which one do you mean?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, it was at the very beginning. During the national anthem, the network often cuts to a live image of American troops deployed abroad - right? - in a conflict zone or somewhere. For the past 15 years, those troops have been in Iraq or Afghanistan where we've been fighting wars. Last night, when they cut away to the troops, they were in South Korea. And I bring this up because the Winter Olympics are coming up in Pyeongchang in South Korea. Clearly, though, this is not going to be some big reprieve from geopolitics.

INSKEEP: No, not at all because nuclear tensions on that peninsula make for an exceptional backdrop to the Olympics. North and South Korea, as you may know, plan to keep talking as the Games get underway. And many world leaders clearly have an interest in those talks, including Vice President Mike Pence, who heads to South Korea this week.

MARTIN: Which is where we find NPR's Elise Hu. She's in Seoul. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: Before we get to Mike Pence and his trip, remind us where the talks stand between North and South Korea. We're seeing an opening, aren't we?

HU: Yeah. They're talking again for the first time after...

MARTIN: (Laughter) There are talks, yeah.

HU: ...Two years, right. So there was a pause in talks for about two years, and now they are talking again and came to some agreements when it came to the Olympic Games coming up. South and North are going to make history with a combined Korean Olympic team. It's a women's hockey team. And North Korean dignitaries are also going to come right over the border to attend the games. At the same time, other world leaders will be here, including, as you mentioned, Vice President Pence. He's on his way to the region where he is going to be in Japan and then Korea for the opening ceremony...

MARTIN: All right.

HU: ...On Friday.

MARTIN: So he's there - sorry to interrupt you - so he's there. Clearly, it's the opening of the Olympic Games, and there's, you know, a symbolism to sending a U.S. leader to that. But it is a particularly unique time. What does it mean for him to be there in this moment as the North and the South are engaging in this new way?

HU: Well, the vice president's aides have said that he really wants to use his time in Korea to remind the world that just because North Korea is going to be having its cheering squad and its figure skaters and other athletes really upfront, the regime running the country is still brutal and totalitarian. One obvious signal of that would be who Vice President Pence is going to be with at the opening ceremony. He's expected to attend with the father of a deceased American college student - Otto Warmbier. Now, Warmbier, you probably recall, died after being imprisoned in North Korea for about a year. The exact reasons for his death are still unclear. So that's going to be a real public reminder of the North Korean regime, that it's secret, that it's brutal and that - this is at the same time that there's going to be North Korean dignitaries there in the audience.

MARTIN: Also at the same time, doesn't it create some kind of tension? If the North and the South are talking without the U.S., that makes it awkward.

HU: Right. Well, there is a clear difference in approach to North Korea right now. The South Korean leadership is making - or taking this tack of trying to make peace and diplomatic efforts to get North Korea to the negotiating table. The Trump administration is really pushing its pressure campaign.


HU: But, of course, the point of pressure and sanctions is also to eventually get North Korea to the negotiating table. But right now, the U.S. doesn't want to talk with North Korea and vice versa. And so this is a problem that's dubbed the problem with no good solutions, and that continues to exist despite the unity that we're going to see between the two Koreas...


HU: ...At the Olympics.

MARTIN: Elise Hu reporting from Seoul this morning. Thanks, Elise.

HU: You bet.


MARTIN: All right. Now let's get the view of the border between Hungary and Serbia where about 4,000 refugees and migrants are hoping to get into Europe.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Remember, refugees from Afghanistan and the Middle East or Africa were reaching Europe and heading north. Well, when a refugee gets to Serbia and then heads northward toward Hungary, the refugee is stopped, often by a double border fence with razor wire and armed patrols. Hungary first built those fences to control the flow of asylum-seekers a couple of years ago. And since then, Hungary has grown more strict. The number of asylum-seekers admitted per day continues to drop. First, it was 60 asylum-seekers per day and then 30 and then last year dropped to 10.

MARTIN: Now NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to Hungary recently, found out that Hungary is now admitting only two refugees per day. She joins us now. Hey, Soraya.


MARTIN: What's going on in Hungary? Why are they limiting it so?

NELSON: Well, the explanation that was actually given to some of the Afghan asylum-seekers who I spoke to there was that it's about elections, which was very interesting. But it's also interesting to note that the government is denying that they're doing this.

MARTIN: So about elections - how so? What political motive would Hungary have for reducing the number here?

NELSON: Well, it turns out that despite a very anti-refugee and anti-migrant platform that the ruling party there, Fidesz, and Viktor Orban, the prime minister, have had, that they actually ended up admitting 1,300 refugees to Hungary last year, which was more than twice the number of the previous year. So they are facing some approval rating issues, shall we say, before April's elections. And so that seems to be the motivating factor, at least according to human rights activists who have been following this very closely and are dealing with the asylum-seekers who are in a great state of panic about what's happening at the border at the moment.

MARTIN: Right. So you and I have both covered this issue in Germany - right? - where this was a major issue for Angela Merkel in her election. How do the Hungarian people feel about this issue?

NELSON: Well, they're very much against - I mean, they very much bought into what the government has been saying about migrants posing a terrorist threat and being - you know, having Muslims come in would change the character of a Christian Europe. And so they very much don't want these people there. So there's not a whole lot of sympathy in the Hungarian public for the asylum-seekers who are now stuck on the border between Serbia and Hungary and can't get in.

MARTIN: What happens to those people?

NELSON: Well, they stay there for months and for years in sometimes pretty squalid conditions, running out of money and hope, frankly.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson - thanks so much for your reporting this morning, Soraya. We appreciate it.

NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel.