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News Brief: Budget Proposal, FBI's Nassar Probe Criticized, Europe's Climate Plan

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Exactly how much can you change the United States with $3.5 trillion?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senate Democrats have offered an answer as they give details of a budget plan. It is the only measure they can likely pass this year without Republican support. And so they've worked in an enormous range of priorities, a big part of President Biden's agenda.

PFEIFFER: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Now, this plan isn't even drafted line by line, I believe. But could you at least give us the outline?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I can give a bit of information. You know, we have some bullet points of the main provisions, and it would amount to a sweeping restructuring of the U.S. economy. Among the things it'd do, it'd extend the new child tax credit expansion, establish new clean energy standards, fund universal pre-K. And it would also expand Medicare benefits to include things like vision and dental. Of course, as you guys noted, the specific details really still need to be finalized. And there are a lot of details.

PFEIFFER: What's the proposal for how to pay for it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, again, much of the specifics really need to be worked out. But a Senate Democratic aide says it'd be paid for with, you know, among other things, a series of tax increases for corporations and wealthy Americans, those making more than $400,000 a year, and some health care savings, including on prescription drugs.

PFEIFFER: Republicans have shown very little interest in these discussions, but Democrats say they can pass it anyway. Explain how that works.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Democrats hope to pass the legislation through a process known as reconciliation, which would allow them to pass the spending with a simple majority and avoid a filibuster. But to be frank, there's no guarantee that all Senate Democrats will support the package. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, told reporters he had a few concerns, including how it'd be paid for and cuts to fossil fuels.

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JOE MANCHIN: I'm concerned about inflation, and I said I want to see more of the details, what's going on. I'm concerned also about maintaining the energy independence the United States of America has.

ORDOÑEZ: And Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, he's a progressive. You know, he said his vote wasn't locked in either.

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CHRIS MURPHY: The president makes an incredibly compelling case that this is the moment to go big. This is a moment you have to be able to deliver real money in the pockets of Americans that are hurting.

ORDOÑEZ: But he said the devil is in the details. And, look, the plan also needs the support of the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces competing pressures as well. She only has a thin majority. And some members on the left feel the Senate deal is just too small.

PFEIFFER: So the idea of the budget blueprint is that it would fund priorities not covered in the bipartisan infrastructure proposal. Is that right? And if so, what's the status of that package?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's right. This is the second part of Biden's two-part strategy on spending priorities. A bipartisan group of senators agreed on a plan that adds about $600 billion of new spending on traditional infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and broadband. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, he said he'd like to bring the bill to the floor as early as next week, though it's not clear that it'll be ready by then. But there is...

PFEIFFER: NPR's - oh, go ahead.

ORDOÑEZ: Oh, but there's just some pushback from Republicans, like always.

PFEIFFER: Of course. NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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PFEIFFER: FBI field agents failed to respond to sexual assault allegations against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar with the seriousness and urgency they deserved.

INSKEEP: That is the conclusion of a Justice Department inspector general report. You will recall that Nassar eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges involving gymnasts and others, many of them minors. But it took years to catch Nassar; so many years that by the time of his sentencing, more than 150 women spoke against him. The inspector general says FBI agents not only responded slowly, but one may have lied to cover up mistakes.

PFEIFFER: For more on this, we're joined by NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: So, Carrie, Nassar is now serving decades in prison on sex assault charges, but this report focuses on what the FBI did. What's new here?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department's inspector general has been investigating what the FBI did or didn't do for years, and the conclusions are devastating. We know the leader of USA Gymnastics approached the FBI in 2015 about concerns that Larry Nassar was engaging in sexual abuse of young gymnasts. But the FBI in Indianapolis did very little. They interviewed one victim by phone, and the FBI failed to contact two other victims. And after that, the watchdog report says nothing for eight months. The FBI in Indiana apparently concluded there was no jurisdiction. But after they did that, they didn't pass along this information to other FBI offices or to state or local authorities who could have acted. This watchdog report says Nassar assaulted about 70 girls and young women during that time; some lawyers say it's more. Ultimately, state authorities in Michigan were the ones who pursued him.

PFEIFFER: But for months, information just sat there. What more do we know about the FBI officials who were in charge back then?

JOHNSON: Only one person is named in this report. He's Jay Abbott, who was running the Indianapolis field office for the FBI. The inspector general says Abbott made false statements about what he did and didn't do. He misled reporters and influenced what others in the FBI said about the investigation. But this watchdog report also cites misstatements by another supervisory agent who lied in paperwork about the investigation.

PFEIFFER: And I understand the report talks about potential conflicts of interest between the FBI and USA Gymnastics. What are those conflicts?

JOHNSON: This report says Abbott was in talks for a big job with the U.S. Olympic Committee as chief security officer after his Indiana office decided to take no action but while this Nassar investigation was still live within the FBI. Once investigators showed up at his doorstep, Abbott allegedly lied to the IG about applying for this job. But the Justice Department has declined to prosecute him, despite all these findings. Abbott retired from the bureau in 2018. His lawyer says Abbott hopes the courageous victims of Nassar's crimes find some peace.

PFEIFFER: Is there more fallout expected?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the FBI is making changes to how it documents and reviews cases of child sex abuse. Members of Congress are furious. A pair of senators, one Democrat and one Republican, are calling on the FBI director and the attorney general to testify about this. They said, how many athletes would have been spared unimaginable pain if the FBI had done its job? As for the FBI, the bureau says the actions identified by the watchdog report are inexcusable and a discredit to the organization. The FBI says people engaged in wrongdoing are no longer working on FBI matters, not supervising anyone else while they undergo this internal disciplinary investigation. And, of course, finally, the FBI is making clear once again to its own employees that there's an obligation, an urgent obligation, to report crimes against children.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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PFEIFFER: The European Union has a sweeping plan to tackle climate change.

INSKEEP: It's a plan that could reshape the continent's economy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the case for it yesterday.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: The infernos and hurricanes we have seen over the last few weeks are only a very small window into what our future could look like. But by acting now, when we still have the policy choices, we can do things another way.

INSKEEP: What is that other way? Well, among many other things, it includes phasing out sales of gas and diesel cars.

PFEIFFER: Camila Domonoske covers cars and energy for NPR and joins us now to talk about this. Good morning, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: So the plan by the EU is to cut its contribution to climate change by more than a half in just a decade. What's the plan for how to do that?

DOMONOSKE: Well, the proposal covers a lot of territory. It's got boosting wind and solar power, making buildings more efficient, investing in forests and agriculture, vehicles, which we're going to talk about. A big part of the plan is using carbon pricing, which fundamentally is about making things that are bad for the climate more expensive to discourage people and companies from doing them. Obviously, making things more expensive has a lot of consequences. So it's paired with a social climate fund. The idea there is this is a pool of money that would help low-income households cover the added cost that they have to bear as a part of this transition. One really important thing to note about all of this is that this proposal still needs to be approved by EU member nations and by Parliament. So there could be a political fight ahead.

PFEIFFER: Camila, does this truly mean the end of gas-powered cars in Europe, no more of them on the roads?

DOMONOSKE: Well, this plan would mandate that all new cars be zero emission vehicles by 2035 - so less than 15 years from now. With current technology, that basically means transitioning to electric cars. But just to emphasize that existing cars aren't affected. So someone who owns a car today or 10 years from now wouldn't suddenly find that vehicle illegal. But what it would do is it would change what's available on dealer lots quite rapidly.

PFEIFFER: So a phasing out. And of course, some people want gas cars completely gone; other people thought that would be unthinkable. How did we get to the point where the EU itself is saying they're going to be gone eventually?

DOMONOSKE: Well, as we heard at the top, a lot of policymakers are seeing wildfires and storms and heat waves, things that are happening now. I think climate change has really changed from being a hypothetical future risk to something that a lot of governments are experiencing as an urgent problem. There are individual targets, mostly goals that some countries have set for themselves, which I think laid the groundwork for the EU to consider this. And then there's the fact that you have automakers who are already saying that they're going to go all electric in the next decade or two. Industry is moving very quickly in that direction, which I think has really shifted the sense of what's possible.

PFEIFFER: Sure. And California, as many of our listeners probably know, is moving in the direction of ending sales of gas cars, too.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, exactly. There's a big question in the United States about what happens nationally. California has set this target. Some other states are considering similar targets. Progressives are pushing for a federal - a nationwide target for phasing out gas cars. But there's a lot of resistance from automakers who make money selling these cars to electric vehicle proponents who worry that a mandate could backfire. And in general, industry in the U.S. is really pushing for subsidies and charging - carrots rather than sticks.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.