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Morning news brief

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The Senate returns to Washington today after a monthlong August recess.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And there's a lot on the agenda. First up is a fight over government funding that could turn into a potential shutdown. Yes, feels like we've been here before. And the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, faces questions after another episode when he froze at a public event.

ESTRIN: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning.

ESTRIN: Can Congress avoid a shutdown?

WALSH: You know, once again, they're going to be racing the clock. Federal agencies run out of cash on September 30, and the House and Senate haven't agreed on any of the 12 annual spending bills. The problem is the two chambers aren't even working off of the same math. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden negotiated a debt ceiling deal in May that set overall government spending levels. But a group of House conservatives who didn't like that deal forced the speaker to craft bills at a lower level.

The Senate is sticking to the deal, so essentially the two are on a collision course. There's broad agreement that Congress needs to pass a short-term bill to avoid a shutdown. They're working on what's called a continuing resolution - or CR - to keep agencies funded at the current levels through this fall. But even that CR is going to be a fight. Some far-right conservatives have issued demands about attaching items, things like a partisan border security bill. So they're still pretty far apart.

ESTRIN: OK. And besides avoiding a shutdown, what else is on the agenda?

WALSH: Disaster aid and money for Ukraine are the two big things the Biden administration wants Congress to pass this fall. The White House has asked for about $16 billion in emergency aid to respond to the recent disaster needs coming out of Maui after the fires and the floods and the hurricanes that hit several states this summer. The other big ask is about $20 billion for Ukraine. Even though there's bipartisan support for continuing aid for Ukraine on the Hill, some conservatives still don't want to approve any money.

ESTRIN: Let's talk about top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell. He froze up, struggled to speak for about 30 seconds at a press event. This is the second time that's happened in two months. How is he doing?

WALSH: I mean, that's the big question. The Capitol physician has cleared McConnell to work, but this latest episode, combined with the other one you mentioned, were just really jarring. And there's still a lot of questions. In March, McConnell fell and suffered a concussion. And the Capitol physician said lightheadedness was a symptom of recovering from that concussion. So far, Senate Republican colleagues have supported the 81-year-old senator. But there's going to be so much attention on his appearance on the floor later today and in his weekly press conference tomorrow.

ESTRIN: The House returns next week, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy is signaling an impeachment inquiry is moving ahead. So what basis is there of possible high crimes or misdemeanors by the president?

WALSH: House Republicans haven't presented one yet. They haven't uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden. Some are alleging corruption related to his son Hunter Biden's business deals during the time Biden was vice president, but they haven't shown that the president himself received any financial benefit. McCarthy's coming under increasing pressure from conservatives, especially after the new indictments of former President Trump over the summer. But there's a split. Some Republican moderates do not want to move ahead without concrete evidence. And McCarthy did say to a conservative outlet he won't start impeachment without a vote. It's unclear whether he has those votes right now.

ESTRIN: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESTRIN: In Texas today, the impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton begins in the state's Senate.

FADEL: Paxton faces 20 charges, including obstruction of justice, conspiracy, abuse of office and bribery, mostly surrounding his relationship with an Austin real estate developer and Paxton campaign donor.

ESTRIN: So what can we expect today? Let's go to Sergio Martinez-Beltran, political reporter for The Texas Newsroom. He's been following this story very closely. Good morning, Sergio.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Twenty charges - wow. What is he accused of doing?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right, I mean, that list is pretty long. Paxton has been accused of using his office to protect and shield a political donor from an FBI investigation. This man is named Nate Paul. He's someone who was recently indicted on eight felony counts of making false statements to mortgage lenders and other financial institutions. And Paxton allegedly asked his top staff to help Paul and even kill the federal investigation.

So all of this has led to Paxton to be impeached on seven counts of disregarding his official duties, three counts of making false statements in official records, two counts each of constitutional bribery and obstruction of justice. He's also been accused of misapplying and misappropriating public resources, conspiracy or attempted conspiracy, dereliction of duty, unfitness for office and abusing the public trust.

ESTRIN: That's a mouthful. OK, so we're going to hear opening arguments today. The first witnesses will take the stand. Who is testifying?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: So we're expecting to hear from those former employees who warned Paxton to stay away from Nate Paul and who ultimately reported Paxton to the FBI. They said there was criminal behavior happening within the office of the attorney general. These whistleblowers were either fired or pushed out by Paxton shortly after.

And they are very credible witnesses, they know, because, one, they are career-long public servants, but also because Paxton is despised by Democrats and those on the left, but the whistleblowers are all conservative Republicans. And some were even recruited by Paxton personally. We are also expecting to hear from one of Paxton's closest aides, who overheard a conversation that House investigators say show Paul was paying for Paxton's home renovations. This aide is already being considered a star witness.

ESTRIN: And what is Paxton's defense for all this?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Well, he was at a rally over the weekend in Collin County. That's the place where Paxton rose to prominence. But he couldn't say much because there's a gag order in place. But in the past, he has denied any allegations of wrongdoing and has gone after the Republican speaker of the Texas House for moving forward with the impeachment proceeding in that chamber. In terms of legal defense, one of the main arguments used by his team is a vague rule they call the prior term doctrine. Pretty much, they're saying that Paxton cannot be impeached for actions committed prior to his most recent election, so 2022.

A lot of these allegations stem from actions that happened from 2019 to 2020. So under that idea, they're claiming 19 out of 20 articles of the impeachment should be dismissed. Now, the Texas Constitution does say that a person cannot be impeached for actions committed before their election to office, but it's not as explicit as Paxton's team is making it sound. It doesn't say most recent election. So that argument is something that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who serves as the presiding officer of the court of impeachment, and the senators will have to consider.

ESTRIN: How long is this trial going to take?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: So we're expecting it will take a few weeks. What we know right now is that each side will have 25 hours to make their case. That is not including cross-examination. So sources tell us it'll take three to four weeks.

ESTRIN: OK, we'll be following. Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin, Texas. Thanks so much.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ESTRIN: Jury selection begins today in Canada in a case that will test the country's anti-terrorism laws.

FADEL: Yeah, Nathaniel Veltman is accused of killing three generations of the Afzaal family. They were walking in London, Ontario, two years ago when a pickup truck jumped a curb and mowed the family down. Prosecutors say they were targeted because of their Muslim faith.

ESTRIN: Ginella Massa is a freelance journalist based in Canada and she joins us now. Good morning.

GINELLA MASSA: Hi. Good morning.

ESTRIN: So three generations of a family killed. I'm looking at a beautiful photo of them right now. They're dressed in pastel colors. Who were they?

MASSA: Well, Daniel, this was a family that was out for a walk. It was the height of COVID. And you have to remember that Ontario had some of the strictest lockdown laws during the pandemic. Walking outside was pretty much the only thing you could do. As you said, a pickup truck jumping the curb while they were at an intersection. Those who were killed were a mother and father, their 15-year-old daughter and the mother of the man. Most notably, a 9-year-old boy was the only survivor. He was left orphaned - his parents, his sister and his grandmother killed. So this was, you know, an incredibly heinous crime that shook the community two summers ago.

And in the following days, police were quick to call this a hate-motivated attack, that the family was targeted because of their faith. You'll note in that photo the mother wearing a hijab, a headscarf. They were originally from Pakistan, visibly Muslim, visible minorities. So you know, this was incredibly troubling to the community and sparked a conversation about Islamophobia and about anti-Muslim hate in Canada, because this isn't the first attack of its kind. Four years before, six men killed in a London mosque when a man opened fire.

ESTRIN: And what do we know about the defendant?

MASSA: So the accused, Nathaniel Veltman, he was 20 years old at the time of his arrest. He's facing four murder charges and one attempted murder charge, but he's also facing terrorism-related charges. We know that he was arrested willingly in a mall parking lot about 4 1/2 miles from the scene. He was wearing a military-style helmet when police took him in. And the Dodge Ram truck was found with extensive damage to its front end and smoke coming out of the engine. Now, we don't know what Veltman said to police when he was taken into custody.

We don't know if he admitted to killing the family because of their faith. That information remains under a publication ban. But partially unsealed documents do reveal that he may have accessed the dark web to consume white supremacist and hate-related material online. So no doubt that we will learn more about the possible motives as this trial unfolds over the next 12 weeks.

ESTRIN: And, Ginella, what significance does this case have nationally in Canada?

MASSA: So this is the first time that a jury in Canada is considering terrorism charges. There were two other cases where they were applied but the accused pled guilty, so they never went to trial. Those cases being a hammer attack in 2020 that left a woman dead - the accused there confessing he was motivated by ISIS. The other was the murder of a woman at a massage parlor. But that one was related to the incel movement, a misogynistic, anti-women movement. Incel is short for involuntary celibate.

But what's interesting is the cases where terror laws weren't applied - notably that Quebec mosque killing that I mentioned, as well, in 2020, a man stabbed outside a Toronto mosque. No terrorism charges there. And in another incel case, a van attack in midtown Toronto that killed 11 people. So it raises questions about the uneven application of this law, when it should be applied and when it isn't. But it's worth noting that it doesn't necessarily result in harsher charges or different sentencing because first-degree murder carries a life sentence with no possibility of parole. So it's really just about the message that it sends about who's a terrorist and who isn't.

ESTRIN: Ginella Massa, freelance journalist in Canada. Thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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