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News Brief: Government Shutdown Threat Looms, Hush Money Payments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today is a day for a game of governmental chicken. Lawmakers have to pass a routine measure to keep the government open - just because they have to, doesn't mean they will.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last night, the House approved a bill funding the government through February 16. Next, this bill goes to the Senate, but its fate there is uncertain to say the least. Republicans say only Democrats are standing in the way and that an agreement on immigration policy isn't urgent at this time. So what should we watch for today?

INSKEEP: Well, let's ask NPR's Susan Davis, who's with us once again. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's work through the situation, the basics here. Republicans control Congress - both houses. They control the White House. Can they just pass something?

DAVIS: No. And if we do have a government shutdown today or tonight at midnight, it will be the first time ever that when one party controlled Congress and the White House, the government has shut down. But this is a good opportunity to remind some people of some basic civics. You only need a simple majority to pass that bill in the House, which the House Republicans did yesterday, but you need 60 votes in the Senate, and that is where Senate Democrats come into play. And Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is saying we're not going to give you the votes you need.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, because Republicans only have 51, they're not even assured of getting the 51 in this situation. They need help from Democrats, so Democrats have some leverage, as they say. What do Democrats want?

DAVIS: Democrats want to achieve some agreement on this stalled immigration talks. There was a bipartisan agreement presented to the president. He rejected it. And right now, it's in limbo. There is - they're no closer to an agreement. Democrats are under a lot of pressure from their base to get a deal done, and because they have this leverage moment, they want to use it.

INSKEEP: And I know that CHIP has been thrown in here, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which Congress allowed to expire. There's an effort to restore it. But here's my question, Sue Davis. CHIP, DACA - don't Republicans also want these things - or lots of Republicans also want a deal on these things?

DAVIS: They do, but they don't have a deal yet that - on immigration specifically - that Republicans feel like they can support. So they're trying to buy more time. They want a deal, and they want a final immigration bill that Republicans can look at and extract more wins. The problem that they're going to consistently have on this is that any final bipartisan immigration bill is probably going to need more Democrats than Republicans to pass it. So as long as you need more Democrats than Republicans, it's harder to make a bill more conservative.

INSKEEP: Well, how has President Trump affected all of this?

DAVIS: He has thrown elements of confusion into this at every turn. He first embraced a bipartisan deal on immigration. Then he rejected it.

INSKEEP: Right.

DAVIS: In a series of tweets yesterday, he also seemed to be undermining what Republicans thought was a deal amongst themselves to keep the government open. The White House later retracted that. The president is on board for it. He's just been a really unreliable negotiator, not only from Democrats' perspective but from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's perspective as well.

INSKEEP: OK. So let me put a - let me put one other question on the table here. Assuming that each side acts in its own interests, we'd only have a shutdown if one party or the other thought, hey, it's in our interest, it's in our best interest to let the government shut down. So work through Democrats and Republicans for me. Does either party think that a shutdown would be in their political interest?

DAVIS: I think they're - I think they're both trying to game the system right now. Republicans are framing this as Democrats are voting down - voting to shut down the government to protect illegal immigrants. That's their argument.

INSKEEP: That's the way they said it could happen.

DAVIS: Right. That's the case they'll make. This is Democrats' fault. And Democrats are going to say, you're in the majority, you run Washington. It's your job to govern. Figure it out.

INSKEEP: Each side is positioning itself to threaten the other with possible blame.

DAVIS: A typical day in Washington.

INSKEEP: OK. Sue, we'll be here for tomorrow and the day after and the day after and the day after - you will, anyway.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Let's move on to another news story swirling around Washington.

MARTIN: And at the center of this story - an adult film star who goes by the name Stormy Daniels. In 2006, she met Donald Trump at a golf tournament. According to The Wall Street Journal, the two had an affair, which the newspaper says Daniels can't speak about publicly because Trump's lawyer paid her - paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.

INSKEEP: OK. So why is this story coming out just now? Paul Farhi of The Washington Post covers the media. He's been looking into this. Good morning once again, Paul.

PAUL FARHI: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How long have journalists had some kind of information about this, so far as you know?

FARHI: Well, I think the first surfacing of this is back in 2011. In Touch, a celebrity magazine, actually interviewed Stormy Daniels, and they never published anything. Fast-forward to 2016 - word gets around somehow that Stormy Daniels is talking about this, and a number of publications and media organizations get involved - Slate, Fox, ABC, Daily Beast - but no one publishes anything in 2016, during the campaign.

INSKEEP: OK. So give me an idea of why people would not publish this information.

FARHI: Well, they had various reasons, but mainly it comes down to that they couldn't corroborate her story to their satisfaction and to their standard. There wasn't enough proof. There wasn't anything but her say-so. And then, mysteriously, when they were getting close to publication and moving ahead, nearing publication, Stormy Daniels herself disappeared on them. She stopped talking. And that's because we believe the hush money, the $130,000, was paid.

INSKEEP: OK. So you say there are various reasons for various publications. When you hear that Fox News had some information it decided not to publish, you think about some of the things that Fox News was willing to broadcast about Hillary Clinton that turned out not to be true, and you wonder why Fox News wouldn't. But let me just ask - was this actually an act of responsible journalism, that multiple news organizations had this allegation and checked it out and decided they just weren't going to publish things that didn't seem verified?

FARHI: Yes, I think it was. You know, we get lots of criticism from the man at the center of this, Donald Trump, all the time. But in this case, Fox News, who might have been very favorable to candidate Donald Trump - and was - decided that it wasn't up to their standard either. You could say that The Fix was in, but Slate, no friend necessarily of Donald Trump, had information; it didn't go with it. ABC was talking with Stormy Daniels; they didn't go with it. And The Daily Beast, also no necessarily friend of Donald Trump's, didn't go with it. It just was a matter of feeling comfortable that the story checked out.

INSKEEP: And now it's been published by The Wall Street Journal in a form - The Journal owned by the same company as Fox News.

FARHI: That's right. And they're the ones who really broke this open. And so far, no one from the Trump administration - no one has been able to explain why $130,000 changed hands.

INSKEEP: Paul Farhi, always a pleasure. Thanks very much.

FARHI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's with The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Vice President Mike Pence goes to the Middle East tomorrow.

MARTIN: Yeah, and his first stop is going to be Cairo. That's where he will meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. They're expected to talk about everything, from fighting terrorism to protecting religious minorities.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Jane Arraf is in Cairo for the visit. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what are Egyptians - this huge, important Arab country - what are Egyptians thinking of the Trump administration as Pence arrives?

ARRAF: Well, as you probably know, there's kind of a big difference between what Egyptians say that they think and what they're actually thinking. And there's also that difference between Egyptian officials and the Egyptians on the street. So you'll remember that this relationship started off wonderfully. Trump thought that Sissi was a great guy. Sissi was the first to congratulate him as president.

INSKEEP: Oh, the strongman who's ruling Egypt at the moment.

ARRAF: Yeah, that guy. So they've been a little bit disappointed in what they've actually seen from the U.S., which includes possible budget cuts. They're moderating their expectations quite a lot. And one official has said that they believe the U.S. no longer is interested in a strategic relationship. Instead, they're interested in a transactional relationship, which is basically, what have you done for me lately? And they're trying to adjust.

INSKEEP: I guess I should mention that this visit by Vice President Pence comes after the Trump administration declared - President Trump himself recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that I guess would be seen as very unpopular in Arab countries. Is it unpopular really in Egypt?

ARRAF: It's hugely unpopular, partly because it's not just Jerusalem that's a symbol for what a lot of Arabs see as the unfair position of a very strong superpower, the U.S. But having said that, it's probably not going to take a lot of actual effect because there's very little that Egypt or other Arab countries feel that they can do. It is definitely affecting the visit of the vice president. The Coptic pope here who leads - sorry - who leads Egypt's Coptic Christians has refused to meet with him, as has the chief Sunni Muslim leader here. And so it's casting a shadow over pretty much everything.

INSKEEP: But you mentioned there's a difference between what the people at large might think and what the government thinks. Does the government, the military-led government, particularly care about Jerusalem and what Trump says about Jerusalem?

ARRAF: They say they care. And one has to believe that they do care in a sense. It's part of the consciousness here. But one of the things that they care more about, obviously, is what happens to Egypt. So they're going to be looking very much at the economic impact of what happens with the U.S. They're going to be talking about continued cooperation in the military fight against ISIS. And that basically tops whatever considerations there are about Jerusalem, to be perfectly honest.

INSKEEP: Jane, thanks very much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPERPOZE'S "UNLIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.