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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The House of Representatives is on track to vote today on the deal to suspend the nation's debt limit.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, but several ultraconservative and progressive lawmakers are unhappy with the compromise bill. Supporters, though, argue the deal is necessary to avoid a catastrophic debt default.

MARTÍNEZ: Here's NPR's congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Is this bill passing today?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: So Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his allies have repeatedly said they're confident it will pass tonight. This deal is similar to ones that we have seen before in divided government. It has modest spending reforms in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling. The debt limit is raised for two years, past the 2024 presidential election. In terms of the spending cuts the speaker and President Biden negotiated, they agreed not to include Social Security and Medicare as part of the talks and to protect defense programs. So McCarthy said yesterday that limited what this deal could address.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: We couldn't get everything we wanted. And when we have this debate, you couldn't talk about the whole budget. So in essence, we are only able to focus on about 11% of the budget.

WALSH: And the speaker keeps saying it's going to take votes from both parties to pass it tonight.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what about Democrats then? Are they getting on board with the deal that President Biden helped make?

WALSH: You know, many are. The president's been making a lot of calls to Democrats on the Hill, but a lot of progressives say the president shouldn't have negotiated on the debt ceiling at all with House Republicans. Some are still upset about the policy provisions that were added to the bill. One would reform how new energy projects get approved. Another would add some new work requirements for adults without dependents who receive assistance like food stamps. Those new requirements would be in place through 2030. But the White House did get agreement to exclude some groups of people - veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and some others who get aid from federal safety net programs from any work requirements. So in the end, more people could receive these benefits. One Democrat, Pennsylvania Congressman Brendan Boyle, wasn't enthusiastic about backing this deal, but he summed up where Democrats find themselves right now.

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BRENDAN BOYLE: This bipartisan bill is not perfect. In fact, I've yet to meet one person who loves it. Perhaps that is a sign that it is a fair compromise between a narrowly Republican House and a narrowly Democratic Senate and, of course, a Democratic White House.

MARTÍNEZ: So to what Boyle is saying, there are more than a few House Republicans that do not love it. Deirdre, could this threaten McCarthy's job as speaker?

WALSH: For now, no one is pushing to remove him. Remember, part of the deal McCarthy cut to get the votes to be elected speaker in January was to agree to a rules change that would allow just any one member to offer a resolution to remove the House speaker. Texas Republican Chip Roy argued no Republican should vote for this debt deal. He warned yesterday there would be consequences without mentioning the speaker by name.

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CHIP ROY: No matter what happens, there's going to be a reckoning about what just occurred unless we stop this bill.

WALSH: But McCarthy says he believes his job is secure.

MARTÍNEZ: So if McCarthy is right and the deal passes tonight, the Senate still has to take it up. When would that happen?

WALSH: It needs to happen quickly. Some senators are pushing for amendments, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he's going to keep the Senate in this weekend to vote on it. The treasury secretary says the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills as soon as Monday, June 5. So they need to act by then.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Talk again soon.

WALSH: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: A federal appeals court ruling shelters members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma from all civil lawsuits linked to their role in the opioid crisis.

FADEL: The ruling comes as part of the company's bankruptcy settlement deal. It's seen as a major legal victory for the Sacklers. And while the family will be protected, the court paved the way for the company to settle thousands of legal claims.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here. Brian, what do you make of this ruling? I mean, was it a surprise?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: You know, A, no one really knew how this case was going to land. A federal bankruptcy court first approved this controversial deal way back in 2020. Then it was overturned. And now, after months of deliberations, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York restored it. And what this means is the Sacklers will walk away from their family's role in this deadly opioid crisis with immunity from civil lawsuits - that despite a paper trail that shows some of them aggressively pushed opioid sales. In exchange, they will pay roughly $6 billion and give up control of their company, Purdue Pharma.

MARTÍNEZ: So that's the deal with the Sacklers. Who else is going to benefit?

MANN: Yeah. Under the terms of this deal, billions of dollars will be paid out by Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers to help fund addiction and health care programs around the U.S. over the next two decades. Also, victims of OxyContin addiction will share roughly $750 million in settlement money. Ryan Hampton lost years to addiction after being prescribed OxyContin, and he helped negotiate this deal. He told me he's not happy the Sacklers get legal immunity, but he does think it's time to settle.

RYAN HAMPTON: The system is far from perfect. We have known that for some time. But the true injustice is going to be if this continues to linger on and victims don't get their speedy recovery.

MANN: Now, in theory, this ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the legal experts I've been speaking to - they just don't think that's likely to happen.

MARTÍNEZ: What are the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma saying about the ruling?

MANN: Members of the Sackler family and the company sent NPR statements yesterday praising this decision. It's important to note that while their company, Purdue Pharma, pleaded guilty twice to federal criminal charges for illegal marketing of OxyContin, the Sacklers have never been personally charged with a crime. They've never admitted any wrongdoing. And the way this deal is structured, they will now keep much of their wealth.

MARTÍNEZ: The Sacklers won protection from a bankruptcy court without actually filing for bankruptcy. Does that set a precedent?

MANN: This is interesting. Federal courts around the U.S. are wrestling with this question. Should bankruptcy courts have the power to approve deals like this that allow wealthy people or companies to pay cash as part of settlements in exchange for protection from lawsuits? A lot of the richest companies in the country are now trying legal maneuvers similar to what the Sacklers did here. Bankruptcy experts I talked to say this ruling does open the door to this legal strategy a little wider.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so clearly a legal victory for the Sacklers. What about the reputations, though, Brian?

MANN: Yeah, that's a really different story. Just a few years ago, remember the Sacklers were among the most respected philanthropists in the world, but activists focused a huge amount of attention on their role, the role the Sackler family played leading Purdue Pharma pushing OxyContin sales while addiction and overdose deaths surged.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shame on Sackler. Shame on Sackler.

MANN: And protests like that one worked. Now museums and universities all over the world - they've stripped the Sackler family name from their galleries. Some critics say that's not enough. They want to see the Sacklers prosecuted criminally. But legal experts I talked to say that's very unlikely to happen.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, thanks for your reporting on this.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: Trial is underway for the man accused of killing 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh back in 2018.

FADEL: Six people were also injured that day in what's considered to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. The defendant is charged with 63 federal counts, including hate crimes.

MARTÍNEZ: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA was in court. Oliver, why is the trial just starting now - I mean, four years after the attack?

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Well, the trial was delayed in part because of Covid. And so that's had an impact because during interviews of potential jurors, which took about a month, many of the jurors couldn't even remember the very basic details of what happened. But they were sworn in yesterday, and they started to hear those details very quickly. The defense and prosecution both gave their opening arguments. And then we heard from a few of the witnesses, including some very graphic 911 phone calls.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so what did the prosecution and the defense say in their opening statements?

MORRISON: So the prosecution basically laid the scene of what happened that day. They talked about the many congregants arriving at the synagogue and introduced them to the jury. And then they switched to talking about Robert Bowers and the many antisemitic comments that he had made online, talked about how he showed up and began hunting them. They argued that even though it was a tragedy, there were many acts of heroism from the witnesses that will be testifying during the trial. Now, the defense took a different tack. They didn't dispute that Bowers was the one that killed everyone, and they didn't even dispute that it was horrible. This didn't come as a total surprise because Bowers had tried to plead guilty in the trial in exchange for life in prison. But the prosecution rejected that effort. They want to seek the death penalty. So the defense basically had two tacks that they tried. One was to say that Bowers - it wasn't really a hate crime because Bowers wasn't trying to hurt Jews specifically. Bowers, right before he went in, had made a comment about a refugee resettlement group. One of the congregations at the Tree of Life synagogue had supported a refugee resettlement group, and so he was actually acting with animus towards the refugees, not towards Jews in particular. They also said that these kinds of statements and actions that didn't line up sort of were an example of the irrationality that they're hoping to prove during the course of the trial.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, has the jury heard from any witnesses?

MORRISON: Well, yeah, there were several witnesses, and one of them in particular made a big impact at the end of the day yesterday, the Tree of Life rabbi, Jeffrey Myers. Many of the people that were there that day were very elderly. When he first realized what was happening, he was able to help them, like, lay down on the ground and get out of the shooting. And then he fled upstairs into a little bathroom. And in that bathroom, there was no lock on the door. So he called 911. And from that bathroom, he was just holding the door handle, and the gunshots were getting louder and louder. And so he was pretty convinced that, you know, his life was about to end. And so he didn't want to call his wife because he - you know, he didn't want to put her through that. So he decided what he should do is say a Jewish prayer to ask for forgiveness, especially for the congregants that day, who he thought might not have a chance to say the prayer themselves. So a vivid scene of him sort of gripping this doorknob, ready to fight if the shooter came in, but just quietly accepting his fate in what he thought was going to happen.

MARTÍNEZ: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA. Oliver, thank you.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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