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Morning News Brief

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you work at a company with more than 100 employees, your boss is under new pressure to require that staff get vaccinated for COVID.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's part of a big shift in President Biden's approach to fighting the pandemic. He's zeroing in on tens of millions of people he says have no good reason to avoid the shot.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is not about freedom or personal choice. It's about protecting yourself and those around you, the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love.

MARTIN: What are the implications of this change? We're going to put that to NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So before we talk about the consequences of this, walk us through exactly what the president announced.

KHALID: Yeah, well, you know, for months, President Biden has been pleading with people to get the shot. His team has been offering incentives using different messengers. But yesterday, the president took a more stern approach than I have heard him to date, you know, in speaking directly to the 80 million people who have been resistant to vaccines.

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BIDEN: We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please do the right thing.

KHALID: You know, Rachel, the president seemed kind of over the idea of cajoling and now being - moving more towards forcing. Mandates are the core of his plan - mandates for federal employees, federal contractors, health care workers and even some private sector employees. He is going to require that companies with 100 or more employees ensure that their workers are either vaccinated or if not, they agree to weekly testing. For federal workers and contractors, there will be no weekly testing option. Essentially, the message for them is if you want to work for the federal government, if you want to work with the federal government, you've got to be vaccinated. The White House does say there are limited exemptions for religious and medical reasons, though.

MARTIN: OK. So this is a mandate. But how is the White House going to enforce this?

KHALID: Well, I will say that a lot of details about how this will actually be enforced to me are still not entirely clear. But let's talk about the different mandates here. The first one I want to discuss is the federal workers and contractors piece of that. There's an executive order that the president signed yesterday. And we've been told that federal workers will have about 75 days to get fully vaccinated. If they don't, they'll go through standard HR processes and, quote, "progressive disciplinary action." White House press secretary was asked point blank yesterday, does that include termination. And she said yes but then added they hope it doesn't come to that.

Rachel, then the other large component of this is the private sector rule. That is going to be dealt with by the Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A senior administration official told reporters that businesses that do not comply with the rules could face fines of up to $14,000 per violation. There is, of course, I think, a reasonable question, though, about how OSHA, this Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is not a huge entity to begin with, could actually enforce this.

MARTIN: So, Asma, what's the reaction been?

KHALID: Well, I think the context here is important. You know, the president has been under pressure to do more from many health experts, from many of his supporters within the Democratic Party, particularly as the COVID situation over the summer had been deteriorating. There has not been vocal pushback that I have seen to date from large corporations. You had the Business Roundtable - it's an association of CEOs of leading companies - put out a statement welcoming the move. But who I think has been particularly vocal about this are Republicans. They are upset. They say it's unconstitutional. The Republican National Committee says it will take the administration to court over this. And the governor of Alabama, who herself has expressed frustration with people who are not getting the shot, said this is a vast overreach.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thank you so much, Asma. We appreciate it.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

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MARTIN: OK. The Justice Department is now going after the new anti-abortion law in Texas.

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MERRICK GARLAND: The Department of Justice has a duty to defend the Constitution of the United States and to uphold the rule of law.

MARTINEZ: Attorney General Merrick Garland said the state law that bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, before many people even know they're pregnant, openly defies the Constitution. And he says that gives the federal government the grounds to sue the state of Texas.

MARTIN: Joining us now, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Lay out the suit for us.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says this Texas law conflicts with decades of Supreme Court precedent on abortion. The attorney general also condemned how it's going to be enforced.

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GARLAND: The statute deputizes all private citizens, without any showing of personal connection or injury, to serve as bounty hunters, authorized to recover at least $10,000 per claim from individuals who facilitate a woman's exercise of her constitutional rights.

JOHNSON: The top line here is the federal government is saying this new Texas law clashes with federal law. And it wrongfully subjects federal workers at places like the Labor Department and the Pentagon to civil penalties just for doing their jobs. The Justice Department is asking the court for a judgment that the Texas law is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and the equal protection language in the 14th Amendment. DOJ is asking for a permanent injunction barring anyone in Texas from enforcing this law.

MARTIN: So what has been the reaction so far out of Texas?

JOHNSON: Well, the Democratic Party in Texas applauded the DOJ, said this law is uniquely harmful and exceptionally cruel. In Governor Greg Abbott's office, a spokeswoman said they're confident the courts are going to uphold what they call the right to life. And Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has tweeted the administration should focus on things like Afghanistan instead of meddling in his state's rights. But this is a really thorny issue. Lawmakers in Texas designed this law to make it hard for anyone to challenge. And it is. Law professors who've been following these issues closely say they're not sure how a judge could stop everyone in the state of Texas from enforcing it. And, Rachel, even if the Justice Department does persuade a lower court judge to block this law, stop in its tracks, experts are not sure what the Supreme Court will do when it gets back there again. There's really been a sense of urgency within DOJ, though. Here's the attorney general, Merrick Garland, again.

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GARLAND: The additional and further risk here is that other states will follow similar models with respect not only to this constitutional right but theoretically against any constitutional right in any other state.

JOHNSON: And, of course, several other Republican-led states have talked about adopting their own versions of this law. DOJ really wants to stop that momentum.

MARTIN: Democrats really wanted this to happen, right? They wanted the Justice Department to act. How did the attorney general respond to suggestions that he was pressured.

JOHNSON: Yeah, there has been pressure from Democrats in the House. President Biden has condemned this law. But Garland insists that had no impact, that his decision was based on the law and the facts, not on any outside influence on the Justice Department.

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: A commercial flight left Kabul International Airport yesterday carrying more than 100 people, including some U.S. citizens.

MARTINEZ: It was the first since the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan, part of a slow reopening as more people try to leave the country. Some people also try land routes to get out, as the U.S. recently did when guiding out a few more U.S. citizens.

MARTIN: Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Pakistan this week. And he visited the Pakistani side of a border crossing. Steve, thanks for being here. Just describe what you saw. This is a place called Torkham, right?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. And it's in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. We were in a very famous bit of landscape, the Kyber (ph) Pass or Khyber Pass, which has been used by traders and invaders and migrants for thousands of years. You do all these switchbacks in this winding highway going up into the mountains. And then about three miles from the border, we started seeing these very colorful, massively overloaded trucks that were parked in line by the side of the highway. There's enough traffic that the drivers wait several days to cross into Afghanistan, Rachel. And they have tea, or they take naps under the trucks in the shade.

MARTIN: Is there really that much business going back and forth, given the sudden changes on the other side with the Taliban now back in control?

INSKEEP: Seems to be it was disrupted for a while. There was a war on. But it seems to be increasing now. We talked with a Pakistani businessman, Mansoor Elahi, who does logistics and shipping in this region. And it may be hard for Americans to hear what he has to say. But he asserts the old U.S.-supported government was so incredibly corrupt that officials took hundreds of dollars for every single truck that he sent across. And he seems to be involved with sending thousands of trucks. But at least initially, he says, the new Taliban officials aren't taking money, even removed people who were taking money. And now he's thinking of increasing his business, sending more trucks through Afghanistan to the other side. Let's listen.

INSKEEP: You sound excited about this change.

MANSOOR ELAHI: I am (laughter).

INSKEEP: Were you looking forward to this for a long time.

ELAHI: I'm not in favor of Taliban. I'm not in favor of anybody. I'm looking towards the business community. I am interacting with the businessmen in Karachi, in Lahore, in Sialkot. Everybody wants to get the good access through Afghanistan to Central Asian republics.

MARTIN: The Taliban's good for business. Wow.

INSKEEP: Yes, so he says. And we asked, are you maybe a little concerned about human rights or especially the rights of women? And he said, well, he hopes the Taliban are less severe than last time. But really, that's literally not his business as he sees it. So that's a business perspective. And by the way, Rachel, it's also the Pakistani government's perspective, more or less. They want to look at the world more through an economic lens. And they do see new possibilities in this new situation.

MARTIN: What about just people, though, Steve? So many Afghans are still so desperate to get out of the country.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and Pakistan is helping some people who are in Afghanistan. The country has said they're going to let in people from Afghanistan so long as they have documents to travel onward to someplace else. We met, for example, an Afghan doctor who was allowed to cross over to Pakistan because he says he can relocate to Germany. Pakistan is not allowing refugees who want to stay here because they already have millions of refugees from four decades of war. But I should note that it appears that some refugees are getting in. It's widely believed that a different border crossing west of where we were is easier to pass through. And it is possible to find newly arrived Afghans in Pakistani cities. So this region is going to continue to change as the migration continues.

MARTIN: Our co-host Steve Inskeep. He's been reporting from Pakistan all this week. We so appreciate all the stories you've brought us. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.