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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's some news we've been following overnight. At least six people were killed across Ukraine after Russian missiles hit targets all over the country. The attacks knocked out power in several areas, including a nuclear power plant that is Europe's largest. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is following the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Most of the dead were in the western city of Lviv, where a Russian rocket hit a neighborhood. In a message on Telegram, Ukraine's air force claimed it had shot down 34 of the 81 missiles Russia launched. Ukraine's air defense is sophisticated and can usually shoot down most Russian missiles. But the air force said at least six missiles launched by Russia today were advanced missiles called Kinzhals, which travel at hypersonic speeds, and the military says it does not have the capability to shoot them down. The attacks also knocked out power at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, which is currently occupied by Russian forces.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

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INSKEEP: President Biden unveils his budget proposal today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And you can think of this as the start of an argument. The president gives ideas for taxes and spending, but Congress eventually decides. Biden says he wants to protect programs Americans rely on, such as Medicare and Social Security. He wants to do that amid pressure to spend less and borrow less.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us once again. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to define some basic terms for people who don't follow this every day. If the government spends more than they take in in a year, that's a deficit and they borrow to cover it. And over time, a lot of deficits would add to the debt, and the debt's getting pretty high. So is the White House saying it's time to borrow and spend less?

KEITH: Let's say caring about the deficit is cool again. Back in 2017, Republicans passed a massive tax cut that has added to the deficit, big league. In 2020 and 2021, both parties, and then just Democrats, threw money at the pandemic. Now there is a Democratic president, and Republicans are in control of the House. House Republicans are demanding spending cuts. And President Biden has, for more than a year, touted his own administration's deficit reduction.

INSKEEP: True. The deficit was so high that it has been coming down, even though it's still high. So what's he want to do now?

KEITH: Well, according to the White House, the president has a plan that would reduce the deficit by nearly $3 trillion over the next 10 years. That comes through a combination of tax increases on the wealthy and big businesses and targeted spending cuts. That sounds like a lot, but I spoke with Bob Bixby of The Concord Coalition - it's a group that advocates for responsible federal spending - and he put it into context.

BOB BIXBY: Three trillion dollars is a lot of deficit reduction, and it sounds good. But the Congressional Budget Office says that we're going to add about 20 trillion over the next 10 years. So you'd really have to do about twice that - I think probably more than twice that - in order to keep the debt from rising as a percentage of the economy.

KEITH: Hold on to your seatbelts, he says. The national debt is going to rise a lot. This budget is an opening volley in a high-stakes political fight between President Biden and Republicans over government funding and the debt ceiling.

INSKEEP: Debt ceiling - OK, we've talked about that. That is basically paying the bills that the U.S. has already incurred. Republicans have yet to sign on to doing that because they're demanding unspecified spending cuts to lower future spending. In that context, what is the president offering?

KEITH: Well, the president's budget leans heavily on cost savings through things like negotiating drug prices and cutting tax breaks on the oil industry. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and large corporations. That's something he campaigned on three years ago and will campaign on again. And the White House sees these as popular proposals supported by the majority of Americans.

You know, the biggest two sources of government spending are Social Security and Medicare. The president says he doesn't support cutting either of those things in his budget proposal. He has a plan to extend the life of Medicare by another two decades. You know, he, as you say, has talked a lot about the deficit reduction he achieved in his first two years in office - $1.7 trillion. But that came largely because those expensive pandemic-era programs ended, and there was better-than-expected job growth. The rest of the deficit reduction to come is going to be a lot harder.

INSKEEP: What are Republicans saying?

KEITH: They are not excited about this. They say the tax hikes and proposed spending cuts aren't serious. Kevin McCarthy said he wants to negotiate with the president, but he isn't saying exactly what he and Republicans want to cut, though they are saying they don't want to cut Medicare and Social Security either.

INSKEEP: Doesn't Congress get the last word?

KEITH: Yes. This budget is really a messaging document and the start of a back-and-forth.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: All right. U.S intelligence agencies are in the business of gathering knowledge so the government can do its job. This week, their leaders are also being asked about what they do not know.

MARTÍNEZ: The intelligence officials take questions from a House committee today. They sat before a Senate panel yesterday. They're coming off an impressive year, when they successfully forecast the invasion of Ukraine. But lawmakers now want answers to a different set of mysteries with fewer definite answers.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre covers the agencies. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the lawmakers want to know?

MYRE: Well, lawmakers in both parties want to know the origins of COVID, and they agree China hasn't been forthcoming about the virus that began there. And this is part of broader friction in the relationship with China. Now, the intelligence community is considering two possibilities with COVID - one, a transmission from a wild animal to a human, or, the second one, a leak from a scientific lab. Now, we should stress that most of the scientific community strongly believes it came from an animal. But some Republicans, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, support the lab leak theory.

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SUSAN COLLINS: I just don't understand why you continue to maintain, on behalf of the intelligence community, that these are two equally plausible explanations. They simply are not.

MYRE: Now, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, responded by saying that there's just not enough evidence to make a clear assessment at this point. And there is some divided opinion in the intelligence community about whether it was a lab leak or came from a natural transmission.

INSKEEP: Just not willing to say it is one answer based on what she says she's hearing from the analysts. What's another mystery for which the best answer, according to the intelligence community, would seem to be, we don't know?

MYRE: Well, the intelligence community produced a lengthy report last week into the so-called Havana syndrome. These are the ailments that have been suffered by U.S. intelligence officials, diplomats and soldiers overseas. But the report didn't offer a clear explanation. It said there was no evidence that it was an attack by a foreign government, as some suspect. Perhaps it came from existing medical conditions. And this just didn't sit well with New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: It essentially says there's no external cause, which I think is really problematic. I find it unacceptable that we are not continuing diligent analysis of possible causes.

INSKEEP: Greg, bigger question here - why would it be that the U.S. was so effective at forecasting Russian troop movements last year and less effective with some of these other questions?

MYRE: I think it really goes to the origins of the intelligence agencies. They were set up to deal with questions of the Soviet Union or Russia and focus on military issues. That's what they're built to do. That's what they're comfortable with. That's where their expertise is. These issues we've just been talking about really are more very difficult scientific questions.

INSKEEP: Well, now they need to provide real-time information about the global rivalry with China. So what are they saying there?

MYRE: Well, they're really looking at President Xi Jinping and talking about the strident language he's been using, talking about the U.S. trying to contain or encircle China. But they also added that they think he wants to deal with domestic economic problems and therefore, beneath the rhetoric, may want just a stable relationship.

INSKEEP: OK, so a little bit of insight there. NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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INSKEEP: And we're going now to Louisville, Ky., where the U.S. Justice Department has faulted the local police for a pattern of violating civil rights.

MARTÍNEZ: The federal investigation started after the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in her apartment during a botched raid.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about all this with Morgan Watkins of Louisville Public Media. Welcome.

MORGAN WATKINS, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. We're going to hear about what the community thinks. But first - the findings. What does the Justice Department say?

WATKINS: Well, they found the Louisville Metro Police Department has discriminated against Black people and repeatedly failed to deal with those disparities. The Justice Department said it found issues with excessive use of force, including police dogs, tasers and neck restraints. They also said Louisville officers unlawfully carried out search warrants. Attorney General Merrick Garland came to the city to speak about the findings and said they found a pattern of police wrongdoing.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Shortly after we opened the investigation, an LMPD leader told the department Breonna Taylor was a symptom of problems that we have had for years.

INSKEEP: Well, is that how Louisville residents see it?

WATKINS: Yes. Soon afterwards, there was a gathering at a park, one that was central to the protests that we had for months here in Louisville after Breonna Taylor's death a few years ago. And let's remember, Taylor was in her apartment at night when officers burst in. They were carrying out a search warrant. Taylor's boyfriend, fearing intruders, fired a single shot and struck an officer in the leg. Officers returned fire, killing Taylor. That search warrant, we learned later, should never have been issued. The Justice Department's findings vindicated people who were upset with the police department about Taylor's death and a lot of other issues. Here's Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP.

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RAOUL CUNNINGHAM: It validates what we've been saying. It encourages us to make sure that it is implemented in a fair and just manner.

WATKINS: The mother of Breonna Taylor, Tamika Palmer, said it was heartbreaking that it took losing her daughter for this investigation to happen.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens now with the Louisville police?

WATKINS: Well, city officials agreed to negotiate a legally binding consent decree that would require various reforms. In the meantime, the DOJ made over 30 recommendations for the department, things like ensuring officers comply with constitutional limits when they're doing traffic stops, also requiring stricter rules and oversight when officers carry out search warrants.

INSKEEP: Well, you did say city officials agreed to work out ways that this would happen. Do residents believe that these changes will happen?

WATKINS: They recognize this is a big deal for the federal government to come in and basically agree with what they've been saying for years about the Louisville Police Department. But there is skepticism. One major issue is the trust has been broken in this community because of the police's behavior. Garland emphasized the need for people here to work with the city on developing some of these reforms.

INSKEEP: Morgan Watkins of Louisville Public Media, thanks for joining us early. Really appreciate it.

WATKINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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