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News Brief: Infrastructure Deadline, Harris In Guatemala, Burkina Faso Massacre

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So could this be the day we finally see a deal on infrastructure?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden is set to talk again to West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito. Her West Virginia colleague, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, told Fox News he's hopeful.

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JOE MANCHIN: I think we can come to that compromise to where we'll find a bipartisan deal. I'm very, very confident of that.

FADEL: If the bill isn't bipartisan, Manchin says he won't support it. So yes, selling it to Republicans is hard, but there are fractures among Democrats on this bill, too.

MARTIN: We've got NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell with us this morning to talk about all of it. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MARTIN: So the White House has said today was the deadline to get a deal with Republicans. Is that likely?

SNELL: Well, they also said that there was a deadline of Memorial Day. Deadlines can be kind of soft, particularly in Washington when they're actually trying to get an agreement. You know, it isn't impossible for them to start moving towards an agreement sometime this week, but it's worth remembering that they are going into this latest conversation pretty far apart. Biden still wants about $1.7 trillion in spending, most of which is brand-new investments. And he wants to pay for it mostly by increasing taxes on people earning over $400,000 and with a new 15% minimum tax on corporations. Now, that's a bit of a change from his original pitch of raising taxes on corporations.

Republicans started last week saying they could go as high as $928 billion, but they've agreed to, you know, about 50 billion more. The White House didn't really seem impressed by that movement, though. And, you know, they really do need to be moving towards a real deadline if they want to meet the Senate goal of moving through a bill in July. You know, getting a deal in the Oval Office really isn't the same thing as actually having legislation which has to be, you know, checked and...

MARTIN: Right.

SNELL: ...Double-checked. And lawyers have to go through it. There has to be official scores. And then there's the issue of making sure they actually have the votes to get something like this passed. So they got to get to work.

MARTIN: Indeed. So let's talk about those votes. President Biden's been spending a lot of his time and energy with Republicans - right? - trying to make sure this is a bipartisan bill. But as we noted, he doesn't even have a lock on all the Democrats.

SNELL: Yeah. We're watching not just people like Joe Manchin, who we heard right there at the beginning, but we're also watching a lot of progressives who are growing frustrated with Biden's approach and the pressure for him to just move on and accept that the gap is too big.

You know, there are very slim margins in both the House and the Senate. We do focus on the Senate a lot, but that's really not the only problem. Democrats hold a very slim margin in the House. They're down to the single digits. And for some Democrats I talked to, it's measures related to climate change and green investments for long-term infrastructure that they need to see in this bill. But I'm also increasingly hearing from Democrats that the child care and elder care portions of the Biden package must be included.

They're having a big coordinated set of action days to push for this kind of stuff. And it gets harder and harder to eliminate provisions like that if Biden wants all of his Democrats on board. You know, he needs to kind of chart a path here that somehow satisfies big-city progressives like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and moderates like Dean Phillips from Minnesota, who want absolutely different things. And as I've been talking to Democrats, they have a bit of a debate about what's at the core of infrastructure and what they need to see included.

MARTIN: All right. So let's just take another moment to talk about Joe Manchin. I mean, because of the Democrats' narrow margin in the Senate, he's got a lot of power - right? - a moderate Democrat from a red state. How is he leveraging it right now?

SNELL: He wrote an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail where he said that he didn't want to move forward with the voting rights bill because of his opposition to the filibuster, because he wanted things that are bipartisan. Now, voting rights are not the same thing as infrastructure, but it tells a little bit about the way he's thinking about the way legislation needs to get done. You know, he says he wants to do things with GOP buy-in. And if he's not willing to budge on that, that may mean he's not willing to budge here either.

MARTIN: Hmm. NPR's Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: All right. Vice President Kamala Harris is traveling. She's in Guatemala City today.

FADEL: She's there to get at the root causes of a migration crisis that has sent tens of thousands of people to the southern U.S. border with Mexico.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is traveling with her, and she joins us now. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So President Biden has tasked Vice President Harris with one of the most intractable problems in the U.S. - solving the immigration problem at the border. How's she going to approach this in Guatemala?

KEITH: Well, it's all about trying to improve conditions in the countries that are sending people up to the U.S., not really about the border specifically. She'll start off the day by meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei. Her aides told us that they'll talk about how to increase economic opportunities, strengthening the rule of law, working together on law enforcement. Notably, later in the day, she's meeting with community and civil society leaders as well. This is a pointed effort to amplify the stories of people working to improve Guatemala from the inside, which can put them at odds with the government. The vice president is also expected to put an emphasis on fighting corruption both here in Guatemala and tomorrow in Mexico.

MARTIN: So that's the thrust of the message. What are you expecting in terms of outcomes from this trip?

KEITH: Yeah, the vice president's team said to expect announcements around trafficking and smuggling and possibly also corruption, but it's not clear yet how significant these announcements might be. There are very deep-seated issues here. They've been around for a long time. In fact, when President Biden was vice president, he was also handed the job of trying to cut back on the root causes of migration. And experts I've spoken to say things have gotten worse since then. There have been these recent natural disasters. The violence is worse. The economies are worse because of the pandemic. But it's more than that. And leaders in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are less eager to work with the U.S. government on anti-corruption efforts and other reforms than their predecessors were. There are these strong anti-democratic tendencies, corruption making it difficult for the U.S. to find partners, which is something Ricardo Zuniga, the U.S. envoy to the Northern Triangle, was asked about last night in a briefing with reporters here.

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RICARDO ZUNIGA: The best way to deal with these cases where you have a very complex relationship in a country like Guatemala is to talk clearly and plainly as partners - right? - as countries that have to get along. We talk about easy things, but we talk mostly about hard things. And we have different perspectives.

KEITH: And there are going to be some hard conversations today. There were already some leading up to this trip. But, you know, there's just not going to be a straight line between this trip and the number of people showing up at the border.

MARTIN: Right. So as you have described, I mean, these are such long-standing problems. Is it possible to devise any short-term solutions here at all?

KEITH: These issues have been around for a long time, but the pandemic has certainly made matters even worse. And the Biden administration is now throwing itself into vaccine-sharing in a big way, including in these Northern Triangle countries. Rebecca Chavez worked on these issues in the Obama administration and is now at the Inter-American Dialogue. She says more vaccines could help.

REBECCA CHAVEZ: It's going to take time. Some of them are actually going to take a generation - the violence issue, for example. But I do think that one positive that could come out of it would be on the COVID vaccine. You know, I think a real commitment there would be one very positive potential outcome of the trip.

KEITH: We don't have many details yet of exactly how many vaccines each country will get in this first round, but that is information that Harris could deliver today and tomorrow.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith reporting from Guatemala City, where Vice President Kamala Harris is traveling today.

Thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: A massacre over the weekend left more than 130 people dead in Burkina Faso.

FADEL: At least seven of those killed were children. The government is blaming militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But so far, no group has claimed responsibility.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien is covering this story from Freetown in Sierra Leone. Jason, thanks for being here.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: What more do we know about this attack at this point?

BEAUBIEN: Well, what we know is that heavily armed militants attacked this village in the middle of the night. Witnesses say that the shooting started at 2 in the morning. And this occurred in a really remote part of Burkina Faso, up near the border with Niger. It's in the Sahel, this semiarid region that stretches along the southern part of the Sahara. And it appeared organized and deliberate. The gunmen targeted members of the local defense force. They killed civilians. They destroyed houses, burned the local market to the ground. You know, the U.N. is calling this one of the worst attacks in the Sahel in years. And the reports of the number of people killed vary, but it appears to be at least 138 dead in this village.

MARTIN: Why was this village a target?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, this part of West Africa has become a staging ground for al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It's a very wide open, remote area. These militant groups have found this to be a place where they can operate freely. They come to control migrant smuggling routes. They move a lot of migrants up to the Mediterranean as they try to cross into Europe. And we need to underscore that this is a major conflict. You've got thousands of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the area. France has another 5,000 troops battling these armed militants. That's on top of the local government soldiers. Yet the militants just slip back and forth across the borders with these. They disappear into the Sahara desert. They terrorize and kidnap the locals, you know, apparently at will. The U.N. earlier this year said that clashes between these militants has driven 2 million people in the region from their homes. And this conflict often gets overlooked in the U.S., but it's having a huge impact in West Africa.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, this region includes Mali, which has just had its second coup in less than a year. So what is the broader effect of this political instability?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, Mali, geographically, is a big country. It takes up a lot of space in West Africa. And there's a lot of problems when you've got political instability there. It just makes it much easier for these lawless groups to operate. And the fear is that this could become a new staging ground for al-Qaida, Islamic State or other groups, you know, in a way that Afghanistan was before 9/11. The fundamental problem is that these nations in the Sahel - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger - these are some of the poorest countries on the continent. And when armed groups start to control an area, terrorize the locals, it puts everything else - you know, education, health, economic growth - all of that ends up on the back burner.

And this conflict matters not just here in West Africa, but - because of the awful loss of life that you're seeing in attacks like this one. But the fear among Western military planners is that you're going to have this instability and lawlessness allow al-Qaida and Islamic State to grow and expand their campaigns of violence elsewhere.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Jason, thank you. We appreciate it.

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