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News Brief: Looming Shutdown, Facebook Hearing, Britney Spears' Conservatorship

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A lot rests on the shoulders of Congress today. Keeping the government from shutting down at midnight is just one item on the big to-do list.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. Democrats are divided over President Biden's agenda, including a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, a vote on which is also on today's to-do list. Here's the White House press secretary Jen Psaki talking yesterday about the stakes of all this.

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JEN PSAKI: This is why we all came to Washington. It's like an episode of a TV show. We're - we - I'm not in a position to look in a crystal ball here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Which TV show?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PSAKI: Maybe "The West Wing" if something good happens, maybe "Veep" if not.

MARTINEZ: Both excellent shows - "Veep" is my favorite, though.

All right. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell joins us now. All right. To start, Kelsey, will there be a partial government shutdown tonight?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: It doesn't really seem likely. You know, the Senate has an agreement to vote today on a bill to keep the government funded through December 3. Democrats and Republicans all really want to avoid a shutdown, and they actually do seem to be working pretty closely together and working in good faith to get this done. You know, both parties wanted this bill for other reasons, too. They wanted to make sure that they approved some things that were added to the spending bill. I'm thinking of things like money for refugees from Afghanistan and monies for communities hit by natural disasters over the past 18 months. Those are big, big priorities for both parties. You know, it may take the whole day and get close to the deadline, but everybody I talked to is confident that there will not be a shutdown.

MARTINEZ: Wow. OK. Now, that's not the only deadline they're facing...

SNELL: Right.

MARTINEZ: ...Though. The House is supposed to vote today on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan. Is that actually going to happen, though?

SNELL: I don't know the answer to that. There have lots of mixed messages on what's going to happen. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer say there will be a vote today, but Pelosi has also said she doesn't want to have a vote on a bill that fails. And progressives have threatened to vote against this bill and more progressives than Pelosi can afford to lose if this bill is going to pass. So Pelosi is facing a big decision here - to move forward with a bill that might fail or to decide to move off of this bill and do something else, wait until later.

You know, support for the bill hinges on President Biden reaching a deal with moderate senators, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, on a totally separate but politically linked spending bill. And you know, whatever deal that is also has to satisfy the progressive Democrats who want to keep as much of the existing $3.5 trillion bill as possible. They don't want to compromise on things like addressing health care and climate change and paid family leave. And it's really unclear right now if all of that is possible in the next, you know, couple of hours here.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

SNELL: You know? But it's important to remember that this is a self-imposed deadline and part of an agreement that Pelosi reached with her own members. They can shift that self-imposed deadline. What they can't shift is another deadline that's coming up on the debt limit.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And President Biden has gotten really involved in this process on the spending bills over the past week. What's at stake for him?

SNELL: You know, the White House has left details of negotiations on this to congressional leaders up until just about a week ago. Biden himself is now playing a really active role and a really public role. He's been having all of these meetings at the White House over the past couple of weeks. He canceled a trip to Chicago. He even made a trip last night to a charity baseball game between congressional Democrats and Republicans. He spent time hanging out with Democrats in the dugout. He waved. He brought ice cream. You know, his entire agenda is on the line here, along with the promises that most Democrats made to voters when they were running. So, yeah, this may seem like a blurry mess of political fighting, but there's a lot for Democrats to lose here.

MARTINEZ: And one more thing - I mean, hanging over all this is the possibility of a government default if Congress doesn't act in the next couple of weeks. Any plan to prevent that?

SNELL: They don't exactly have a plan yet, but there is going to be an attempt to vote on a clean debt limit bill to increase the debt limit. Republicans have vowed to block that.

MARTINEZ: Kelsey, quickly - "West Wing" or "Veep"?

SNELL: Oh, "Veep" (laughter).

MARTINEZ: Perfect. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: For months, Facebook has brushed off concerns from critics about kids' privacy and mental health. Now, today it faces new questions on Capitol Hill.

KING: Facebook recently paused its plans to build a version of Instagram for kids ages 10 to 12. And just a note - Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters.

MARTINEZ: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us now. And before we begin, I want to mention that our conversation will address topics that are inappropriate for children. Shannon - all right, let's start. Why did Facebook want an Instagram version for tweens? Why did they back off?

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Well, Facebook says kids are already on Instagram despite its age limit of 13. So its reasoning is that a version tailored for tweens with parental supervision would be safer, more appropriate. But critics disagree. They're worried about privacy and safety, and that criticism has only intensified after a Facebook whistleblower turned over this trove of internal documents to The Wall Street Journal. So here's Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking about that to CNBC.

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MARSHA BLACKBURN: What we know is a lot of this anecdotal information that we had from parents, teachers, pediatricians about the harms of social media to children, that Facebook was aware of this.

BOND: And the Journal reported that Facebook's own researchers found that Instagram was in some cases deeply toxic for some of its youngest users. So...

MARTINEZ: And a...

BOND: ...That's what led Facebook to make this concession.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And a lot of those revelations in that reporting, I mean, they were pretty deeply disturbing.

BOND: That's right. I mean, it found 1 in 3 teenage girls said Instagram makes their body image issues worse. A small number of teens even traced their suicidal thoughts directly to the app. And there was more in these documents, like, about the prevalence of human trafficking and cartels on - and drug cartels on Facebook's apps. And the Journal reported that Facebook was slow to respond to a lot of these issues. It said - you know, basically the argument was when research conflicted with growth, Facebook was prioritizing growth. So now today we're expecting Blackburn and our colleagues to have - you know, really press Facebook for answers on all of this.

MARTINEZ: So how is Facebook countering this?

BOND: Well, last night, the company released some of the Instagram research that the Journal cited with annotations that in some cases sort of downplayed or even cast doubt on its own researchers' findings. And this is a real shift away from Facebook's old strategy of apologizing, right? You know, we're sorry; we're going to do better. We heard that a lot. These days, Facebook is much more aggressively hitting back at its critics. I spoke to Katie Harbath. She's a former public policy director at Facebook, and she says this is a really intentional shift.

KATIE HARBATH: You know, nobody else is going to come and defend the company besides themselves.

BOND: But you know, A, Facebook doesn't just want to play defense here. It's also trying to turn the page to this new buzzword you hear a lot out here in Silicon Valley, which is the metaverse. And so the metaverse is this term that comes from science fiction, and it's this ambitious idea to move more of what we do every day in the physical world into a shared digital world. So our avatars would go to work, play games, attend concerts in virtual reality. And as Facebook's under all the scrutiny, its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is out there talking about the metaverse as Facebook's future. But its critics say before Facebook creates a new digital world, it needs to fix its current social network.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Shannon Bond. Shannon, thanks.

BOND: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: After 13 years, Britney Spears will be able to live her life without the legal oversight of her father, Jamie Spears.

KING: That's right. Yesterday, in an LA courtroom, a judge removed him from his role as her conservator. Britney said publicly over the summer that her dad had been exploiting her for years. All that said, the conservatorship still exists. The judge appointed a certified public accountant to temporarily oversee it.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Mandalit del Barco was in the courtroom yesterday. She joins us now to share what happened. Now we know, Mandalit, Jamie Spears has been removed from his role as conservator of his celebrity daughter's estate following strenuous motions from her lawyer. Did Britney Spears, though, finally get what she wanted?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Well, she did. Britney Spears very much wanted her father out of her life, removed from being the conservator of her $60 million fortune. You know, that role gave Jamie Spears a lot of control over his pop star daughter - how much she worked, how much she - how she spent her money, even whether she could have more children, which is something she says she wants. In June, Britney testified to the court by phone that she finds her father abusive. And then several TV documentaries made some pretty explosive allegations against Jamie Spears, including one just days ago by The New York Times in which a former member of her security team said her father had secretly and illegally recorded her private conversations.

Now, Britney Spears' attorney, Mathew Rosengart, cited that in court yesterday. He's a former federal prosecutor, and he told the judge, my client is begging the court to immediately suspend her father to, quote, "end this Kafkaesque nightmare." He also quoted Britney Spears calling her - the father-daughter relationship toxic, abusive and cruel. And yesterday, Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny agreed it was toxic, and she ordered that he be replaced by a CPA that Britney Spears OK'd.

MARTINEZ: Yesterday, I drove past downtown LA, Mandalit, and I saw a lot of happy people around downtown.

DEL BARCO: There - yeah, outside the courthouse, there was so much cheering by what's become known as the Free Britney movement. Here's Martin Gomez (ph). He was carrying a life-sized cutout of Britney Spears. This is what he had to say.

MARTIN GOMEZ: We knew something - we knew something has been up. But once everything came to light and people started talking, it was very obvious that she was in something that she did not want to be in for a really long time. So I'm glad she's finally - her voice is out there, and she was able to give her own testimony. And obviously, it's working 'cause, I mean, her dad's gone now, so - so excited.

MARTINEZ: Now, I understand that Jamie Spears has also filed a motion to remove himself from his role as conservator. Does yesterday's decision mean that he also gets what he wants?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, Jamie Spears did file documents saying that he was willing to leave his role when the timing was right. He argued he'd always acted in his daughter's best interests. But yesterday, his lawyer asked the judge to terminate the conservatorship altogether, and that's something Britney Spears also wants. Judge Penny now has set a court date, a new court date - November 12 - to decide if the conservatorship should end completely. You know, Britney's lawyer said he intends to ask for an investigation of how her money was managed, and this is what he told the Free Britney crowd after the hearing.

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MATHEW ROSENGART: As important as this matter is to Britney - and it is monumental to Britney because this is a substantial step toward her freedom. She's free today, in a sense, but there's a larger issue here.

DEL BARCO: That larger issues being toxic conservatorship, a theme that Congress is tackling on behalf of 1.3 million Americans who are controlled by legal arrangements that are similar to Britney Spears'.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco. Thanks a lot.

DEL BARCO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOXIC")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) With a taste of a poison paradise... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.