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News Brief: Coronavirus Relief, Pence-Harris Debate, Voting Legal Challenges

NOEL KING, HOST:

There was a moment late yesterday afternoon when stock indices appeared to fall off of a cliff.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It happened as the president seized attention by threatening to do nothing about the economy. The market moved after a tweet from the president. It was one of dozens of tweets and retweets sent from the White House where the president is being treated for COVID-19. Amid the tweets of self-praise and mockery and talk of a former FBI director and conspiracy theories, the president threw in a statement that he was ending negotiations over a pandemic relief package until after the election. Hours later and further tweets, the president began demanding that Congress act immediately and said he would sign at least some of the kinds of relief he'd previously said he would not.

KING: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us now. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is the president doing?

HORSLEY: (Laughter) Are you dizzy yet?

KING: Yeah (laughter).

HORSLEY: The president is giving us all a collective case of whiplash. It's strange because Trump very much wants to get reelected on the basis of a strong economy. The pandemic dented that slogan. And you would think he would want to put money in everyone's pockets as they're heading off to the polls. In fact, over the weekend, while he was hospitalized at Walter Reed, he tweeted in all caps that the country wants and needs stimulus and urged negotiators to make that happen. So it was kind of a surprise yesterday afternoon when Trump abruptly pulled the plug on negotiations, saying any relief would have to wait until after the November election. Now, Trump likes to paint himself as a master dealmaker, and he has said you sometimes have to be willing to walk away from the negotiating table. I missed the chapter in "The Art Of The Deal" where you then walk back to the table and ask for your own personal wish list. But that's what the president did last night about 10 p.m. tweeting, as Steve said, that there are parts of a relief deal he would sign immediately.

KING: Did he possibly do that because the markets tanked when he said he was ending the negotiations entirely?

HORSLEY: It's possible. The market did drop sharply after Trump walked away from the table. The Dow fell about 375 points. Airline stocks were hit hard. Of course, the airlines have been cutting tens of thousands of jobs after an earlier relief measure ran out last week. More important than the stock market, though, is what this all means for Main Street businesses and millions of Americans who are still out of work. The National Retail Federation complained that the pandemic is not over and neither is the economic crisis it spawned. The Independent Restaurant Coalition complained its members cannot afford to wait another five to six weeks for help and warned that if no deal is reached quickly, a lot more neighborhood restaurants are going to go out of business.

KING: Yesterday, before the president's tweets, Fed Chair Jerome Powell basically said you guys got to get relief done or you risk weakening the U.S. economy even further. What's the argument that Powell is making?

HORSLEY: The Fed chairman has been saying for months now that more relief is needed. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME POWELL: The right thing to do and the smart thing to do for the long run is to continue to support those people as they return to their old jobs or find new jobs in different sectors of the economy.

HORSLEY: You know, Powell has said that a lot of people are going to take a long time to go back to jobs that require a lot of in-person contact. And his concern is the longer the recovery takes, the more hardship those folks will experience, the wider the pain will be spread and the more long lasting the economic scars will be. Powell said that Congress should err on the side of doing too much rather than too little. Now, in walking away from the table, Trump appeared to be ignoring that advice. But then later yesterday, the president approvingly retweeted a story about Powell's comments, adding a one-word note - true. And, of course, tweets are no substitute for the hard work of legislative negotiation and governance. But right now, it appears to be all we've got.

KING: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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KING: Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will meet tonight on a debate stage in Utah.

INSKEEP: Plexiglass barriers will separate them. And that effort to protect them reveals a difference between the candidates because Harris favored the barrier; Pence's camp mocked it. Pence is a steadfast supporter of the president who's been in charge of the coronavirus task force. Harris is a former prosecutor and one of only three women now to ever claim a place on a major party national ticket. Each may be watched a bit more closely than most vice presidential candidates because the presidential nominees are both in their 70s.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Given the stakes tonight, what can we expect to see?

LIASSON: Well, one thing we're going to see is the two candidates seated. And as you said, there'll be some plexiglass barriers there. There was some wrangling about that. But we're also going to see that the president's COVID case is front and center, not just in terms of the preparations for the staging but in the actual discussion. It's not just the president that's gotten sick, but there's a cluster of COVID in the White House. The latest aide to get it is Stephen Miller. And as much as the president has tried to make the campaign about other things this whole election, the top issue has always been his leadership during the pandemic. Now Democrats are arguing that couldn't keep himself safe; how can he keep your family safe and the country safe? I expect that - will carry the latest White House message that it's not so bad, the president is beating it. The big opportunity for Kamala Harris on the pandemic is not only that Pence is a proxy for the president, that she can hold responsible for everything the administration has done, but as you just said, Pence is the actual head of the COVID task force. So he has a very specific and official responsibility for how things have gone.

KING: The vice presidential debate isn't usually viewed as that important, but one of the big criticisms of the first debate was that, like, the American people heard very little on policy, on what the candidates were going to do to pull the country back together. Do you think we will get policy tonight?

LIASSON: Yeah, I think we're going to get more policy. Remember, one of Mike Pence's jobs is really to do cleanup from Trump's first debate performance after he interrupted Biden so much, got bad marks from voters for it. There's no better antidote to Trump's over-the-top performance than Mike Pence. He's very smooth. He's steady. Before he got into politics, he was a conservative radio host and called himself Rush Limbaugh on decaf. He's also very experienced and effective at debating. Kamala Harris, on the other hand, has much less experience debating one on one. Her strengths are at a Senate hearing where she's questioning a witness. That's very different than a back-and-forth debate. We also have seen her sometimes wobbly on policy, but she has said that she's been doing a lot of studying to get ready for this debate. But I do think she's the underdog tonight, even though her job is much more straightforward - make Pence defend everything Trump has done. Pence has a choice. Does he want to attack Biden through Harris, or does he want to make Harris herself the target, call her the liberal puppeteer controlling Biden, saying that she would be the real president? But there's a risk there, too. He can't be too aggressive against Harris and risk turning off even more suburban women.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Millions of Americans have already voted in parts of the country where that's an option.

INSKEEP: Some people have stood on line to vote in person and many, of course, have voted by mail. Some legal challenges to mail-in voting are still underway even as people vote. And these challenges could end up before the Supreme Court. Here's some of what's unclear. Do some voters need to follow requirements in some states to find a witness when they mail in a ballot? And how late can ballots arrive and still be counted?

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting. Pam, thanks so much for being here.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So almost 5 million people have voted already, but the Supreme Court could still rule on how we can vote. This would seem to be a real problem.

FESSLER: Yeah. We've seen hundreds of legal cases this year on how we vote, and a lot of them have been resolved, but a few of the key ones haven't. And that's left a lot of uncertainty for voters. Just this week, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order that absentee voters in South Carolina do have to have a witness sign their ballot for it to count. But the court said the ruling doesn't apply to thousands of South Carolina voters who've already submitted their ballots. Those voters were operating under a lower court ruling that they didn't need a witness. So this is a really good example, I think, of some of the legal whiplash the voters are experiencing this year as these cases work their way through the courts.

KING: Haphazard would be an understatement. What cases are still pending?

FESSLER: Well, there's a lot, but I think the biggest one right now involves Pennsylvania. Republicans are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a decision by Pennsylvania's own Supreme Court that allows absentee ballots to be counted if they're received up to three days after Election Day as long as they're mailed by Election Day. Democrats and state election officials say this is needed because of possible mail delays. But Republicans say that the state Supreme Court overstepped its authority and the change could lead to fraud. A few other cases in Wisconsin - Republicans are fighting a lower court ruling that ballots can be counted up to six days after Election Day. And in Alabama, the state's fighting a lower court decision to waive ID and witness requirements for absentee voters who are at a high risk of contracting COVID. So there's still a lot of balls up in the air.

KING: And this has become partisan, which maybe we should have expected. Who is having more success in court, Democrats or Republicans? Can we say that at this point?

FESSLER: Not really. I mean, it's kind of a mixed bag. Democrats, for the most part, are trying to expand voter access because of the pandemic. And they've been successful in a number of cases. There were court decisions in Pennsylvania and even Ohio allowing expanded use of drop boxes. And in Nevada, there was a Republican effort to stop the state from sending out ballots to all its registered voters. And Democrats were able to fend off that challenge. But Republicans have also had a number of successes like that South Carolina case I just mentioned. They've also won several cases preventing the ability of people to collect and hand in large numbers of ballots, something that Republicans call ballot harvesting. And they've been successful in Florida requiring felons to pay off all their fines and penalties before they're able to vote.

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting - a big beat this year. Thanks, Pam. We appreciate it.

FESSLER: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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