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News Brief: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Biden Foreign Policy, Colleges Open

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Constitution contains a particular provision about Congress. The people choose the lawmakers, of course, but each House makes its own rules and may punish its own members, quote, "for disorderly behavior."

NOEL KING, HOST:

Under that provision, today the full House of Representatives will vote on Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Democrats want to strip committee assignments from her. She promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory. She has endorsed political violence. First, House leaders gave Republicans a chance to punish their fellow Republican. But after a meeting of his party caucus, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy declined to do anything.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: They're going to judge her on things that were said that she has now denounced before she was ever a member of Congress. I just wonder if they take that same standard.

KING: When McCarthy says she's denounced those remarks, he's talking about what she has apparently said in private to other lawmakers. She hasn't made a public apology.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following all of this and joins us now. Good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I just got to note, this is a person who praised the QAnon conspiracy theory, which talks, without any evidence, obviously, of cannibalistic pedophiles in government. She said that school shootings were false flag operations, and she also promoted, we should note, the false election fraud theory. How did Kevin McCarthy make peace with all of that?

SNELL: Well, he put out a statement aside from the remarks that he made after that meeting where he basically said that Greene recognized, as he described it, members of Congress have a responsibility to hold themselves to a higher standard than how she presented herself as a private citizen. You know, he says that he offered Democrats a chance to address their concerns that, you know, didn't go as far as stripping both of her committee assignments. He said, you know, that they would address the Education and Labor Committee but that he felt that she deserved to continue to be on the Budget Committee.

And he's also starting to call this a power grab by Democrats. He's essentially trying to reframe all of this away from being a conversation that is a referendum on where Republicans stand on QAnon to be about, you know, what Democrats are doing, the process. I should also note that this is all happening as Greene is fundraising off of this situation. She sent out several fundraising emails and tweeted last night about how she raised over $160,000.

INSKEEP: OK - so she's raising money off of this controversy. McCarthy talked about offering to make some changes but did no changes. And now the full House vote - so it's Republicans and Democrats on the floor today voting on what?

SNELL: Well, they're voting to remove her from both of the committees where she serves. And we should say she's only been serving for a short time, and she's newly elected. That's the Education and Labor Committee and the Budget Committee. Democrats say they have no choice but to remove her from those committees, particularly the one tasked with writing education policy with regard to her comments about school shootings. Here's what Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said yesterday.

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HAKEEM JEFFRIES: How can you put someone who is a mass shooting denier who mocks the survivors of Parkland on the education committee?

SNELL: You know, he also said that Democrats feel that Greene is an example of a wider trend within the Republican Party that needs to be addressed.

INSKEEP: And it was widely noted yesterday, she gave a short speech in this private meeting and from some members received, we're told, a standing ovation, according to reporting. What do you make of the atmosphere in the House right now?

SNELL: This has turned really ugly, you know, and it has potentially long-term consequences. One of the issues that's being raised is that if Democrats kick someone off of a committee now, what is stopping another majority from doing the same down the road? You know, Democrats are arguing, though, that this is not an issue of just an unpopular opinion here. They are talking about threats of violence against other lawmakers and harassment of victims of mass murder.

INSKEEP: And we should note in that closed-door meeting, as I understand it, Liz Cheney did keep her position. This is the leading lawmaker who voted for impeaching the president the other day.

SNELL: That's correct. Sixty-one House Republicans voted to strip her of her leadership position, and 145 voted to keep her.

INSKEEP: Big tent Liz Cheney is in; Marjorie Taylor Greene in, according to the Republicans. Kelsey, thanks.

SNELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell.

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INSKEEP: Two weeks ago, President Biden took office in a country very focused on its own divisions. Today, he turns his focus to trouble abroad.

KING: Yeah, he'll give a foreign policy speech at the State Department. It's a chance to say how he intends to change President Trump's foreign policy, which you'll remember included chummy relations with authoritarians and criticism of Democratic allies. Two sudden crises for Biden involve Democratic values. One of them is the coup in Myanmar. The other is Russia's detention of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the president plan to say?

ORDOÑEZ: Part of this is to thank career foreign service officers for sticking through the Trump era. These are people who Trump viewed with great suspicion, what he called the deep state of people who didn't share his views. There's a lot of anticipation about this speech. What will he say about China, for example? We've not seen him have a call with President Xi yet. But press secretary Jen Psaki told us yesterday that we should expect this speech to be broad and not lay out his vision for every burning foreign policy issue.

INSKEEP: Well, let's mention a couple of burning foreign policy issues, though. There is this matter of Russia detaining Navalny, the opposition leader, and also the coup in Myanmar.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. He has already spoken out about Navalny in Russia and the coup. And he's looking at his options, none of which are easy. But both are going to be tests of his appetite to work with international partners to confront these kind of issues. How Biden handles them will speak to how he'll turn the page on Trump's unilateral "America First" approach and how strongly he'll promote democracy around the world.

INSKEEP: We did just see the new president make a kind of deal with Russia that was widely praised in foreign policy circles, extending the New START nuclear agreement. What do we take from that?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. So Russia is an example where Biden wants to work with leaders even as he counters them in other areas. Here's Charles Kupchan, who was a senior adviser in the Obama administration.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: And we already saw him walk that tightrope in his call with Vladimir Putin because, on the one hand, he wants to extend a nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. On the other hand, he wants to stand up to Putin on Navalny, on the SolarWinds hacking, also on Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: See - and there are other issues, like climate change, where Biden needs cooperation from China even as he criticizes them over human rights and trade.

INSKEEP: How does Biden try to resume U.S. leadership as a promoter of democracy even while dealing with the aftermath of the recent attack on democracy in the United States?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. You know, there's no question that the riot last month shocked leaders around the world, just as it shocked people here in America. And I spoke with John Simon, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union. He said Biden needs to show he's standing up for democracy here in the United States as well as globally.

JOHN SIMON: Biden, first and foremost, has to stand up for sound governance in this country. Part of what he has to do is sort of show that January 6 was a - it was an aberration and not the beginning of an unraveling of our own democratic norms.

ORDOÑEZ: You know - and this is something we'll likely hear more about next week during the impeachment trial of Trump.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: OK - the spring semester is underway for colleges and universities.

KING: Yeah. And some new data shows that some colleges have decided they're ready to bring students back to campus. They're going to offer more in-person classes than they were in the fall, despite the fact that coronavirus rates are high in almost every college town in this country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been visiting colleges and universities throughout the pandemic - dangerous work, but she's been doing it for us. Elissa, good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK - so how's it going as some colleges and universities bring students back onto campus?

NADWORNY: Well, according to new data from the College Crisis Initiative, more than a quarter of colleges are attempting an in-person spring. So this is more common among smaller schools and private four-year colleges. Here's Christopher Marsicano, who leads that research team based at Davidson College in North Carolina.

CHRISTOPHER MARSICANO: We're not seeing many institutions go from fully online to fully in-person, but I think they are trying to have more in-person classes 'cause that's what students want, and that's where the demand is.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does that modest change mean for students?

NADWORNY: Well, one example is Spelman College. They're a small, historically Black women's college in Atlanta. They were online last fall, but this semester they let about 250 students come back to campus with some in-person classes. I talked with freshman Ayiana Davis Polen after she moved into her dorm last week.

AYIANA DAVIS POLEN: Obviously, it's going to be - have certain restrictions, but I think I will definitely get some sort of college experience, especially 'cause, like, I'm going to have that social factor. I'll be able to, you know, actually be with people in person.

NADWORNY: So even though Ayiana is back on campus, all but one of her classes remain virtual. And that's how millions of college students are doing college this semester. More than a thousand institutions are still primarily online.

INSKEEP: So for many colleges, we're only a week in - two, three, four weeks in. It's early yet. But what does the virus spread look like?

NADWORNY: Well, many campuses are seeing lots of positive COVID-19 cases. Some campuses are reporting the highest numbers they've seen all year. Several campuses, including the University of Michigan, Union College in upstate New York, have enforced two-week lockdowns to try and stop that initial spread. But numbers remain high in communities. So it's, you know, kind of been a trend to keep pushing that date back, that start date back. So maybe they'll start online for a few weeks with plans to go in-person later.

INSKEEP: What did colleges learn from their various efforts to get people on campus last fall?

NADWORNY: Well, we learned that in-person classes were not where coronavirus was spreading. Instead, it was things that we witnessed - overflowing bar scenes, parties, lots of students living in the same house. Testing was key, so you've got to test everybody on campus regularly, which we know is expensive. And the other thing we learned is colleges aren't insular. College cases did spread to the surrounding community.

I talked with Paraic Kenny. He's a biologist who's been sequencing the coronavirus. He found the same virus strain among college students in La Crosse, Wis., matched the one they found weeks later in local nursing homes.

PARAIC KENNY: By the time the calendar rolled up to the end of the year, we had 33 deaths in local nursing home facilities with individuals who shared the same virus that was circulating on the college campus in August, September, October. So the campus is absolutely not insular. The campus exists in a society. It's integrated closely with a town.

NADWORNY: Now, vaccinations are going to help keep vulnerable populations safe, like those in nursing homes. But like we saw in the fall, the start of the semester is the hardest with students returning from all over. So colleges I've talked to, they say they hope lockdowns, frequent testing can get that initial spike under control.

INSKEEP: Elissa, thanks for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

NADWORNY: You bet. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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