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News Brief: GOP Tax Plan, Tillerson's Future At State, Kate Steinle Case


It has become a scramble in the Senate over the Republican tax plan.


Yeah. This is not exactly what Republicans wanted. Republican leaders still hope to pass their tax overhaul before the weekend, but they have hit a snag. And central to that snag are concerns over the federal deficit.

MARTIN: Let's bring in NPR's congressional correspondent, Susan Davis. She's in the studio. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What happened? It was full speed ahead. Was it not? And now not so much.

DAVIS: So Republicans still face a lot of obstacles to get this bill passed. But the most immediate challenge they're facing is convincing Republicans like Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona that this tax cut won't blow a bigger hole in the deficit and the national debt. To that end, they're facing two major problems. The first is that a leading nonpartisan Senate analysis of the bill came out yesterday and said, nope, these tax cuts will not pay for themselves. In fact, they will add to the deficit to the tune of about $1 trillion over the next decade. And second, the Senate rules wouldn't let them include something that Corker wanted in the bill. It was called a trigger that would've essentially let tax increases automatically kick in if this economic growth that Republicans are promising didn't happen.

MARTIN: So this was a thing Corker had devised to get him onboard. And even that they can't do because it's...

DAVIS: They can't include it.

MARTIN: ...Illegal, basically. So what are the options, then? I mean, how do they bring people like Corker onboard or any other Republican who is concerned about the deficit?

DAVIS: This is what they're scrambling to figure out. One of the options they're talking about is that they could now stagger the corporate rate - that it would start at this initial 20 percent rate - down from 35 - and could sort of stair-step up...

MARTIN: Incrementally go up.

DAVIS: ...Over the next 10 years. But if you do that, that is really unpopular with conservatives like Ted Cruz of Texas, who said he doesn't support it. And President Trump has also insisted that the 20 percent rate must be included in the bill. So this is sort of this hard math - is every time you gain a senator like Corker, do you lose another Senator to get the bill passed?

MARTIN: Right. So the House - on the House side, they passed their overhaul - their tax overhaul bill - a few weeks ago. And Steve - Steve Inskeep, actually - sat down with House Speaker Paul Ryan yesterday. I want to play a little bit of their exchange about those perpetual concerns about the deficit. Let's listen to this.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Why is it OK to increase the deficit, as this tax bill will do?

PAUL RYAN: Actually, I don't think it will increase the deficit. That's my entire point. I don't think this will increase the deficit. I think this will give us the kind of economic growth we need to keep jobs, to keep companies here - and faster economic growth.

MARTIN: So that is the Paul Ryan line on the House bill. But the economic growth he's talking about - will it be enough to make a difference?

DAVIS: It doesn't really matter in the House. House Republicans are on board for this bill. And they do believe that it is going to deliver the kind of economic growth that no nonpartisan analysis has said it actually will. They're just saying, they're not right. It's going to deliver. It's rosy math.

MARTIN: Right.

DAVIS: Some may call it funny math. And conservatives like Bob Corker say they just need harder dollar assurances that this is not going - is going to be economically sound. Bob Corker is a Republican who has said that he sees the national debt and deficit spending as the singular greatest threat to national security - says it's a bigger threat than ISIS, a bigger threat than North Korea. So if you feel that strongly about an issue, and you're retiring...

MARTIN: Right - important point.

DAVIS: And Jeff...

MARTIN: Easy for Bob Corker to say.

DAVIS: And also for Jeff Flake, who is also retiring, to say, we're not going to vote for something that we think is going to leave the country less secure and less economically sound.

MARTIN: NPR's Sue Davis will be following all of it. Thanks so much, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: All right. It seems to be business as usual for the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, this morning.

GREENE: It seems that way, despite reports that the White House is planning to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in the coming weeks. President Trump was actually asked about this yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you want Rex Tillerson on the job, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's here. Rex is here.

GREENE: Rex is here. Not exactly the most enthusiastic show of support. Now, the State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, says Tillerson has heard all of these stories before and that he is just brushing them off.


HEATHER NAUERT: I don't work at the White House. But what I can tell you is that chief of staff Kelly called our department this morning and said that the rumors are not true.

MARTIN: Are they? Are they not? Let's bring in NPR State Department correspondent, Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.


MARTIN: What's what? Is the president trying to get Tillerson to resign?

KELEMEN: Well, it certainly looks that way. I mean, you heard there was very little pushback on this story from the White House, though the State Department spokesperson says Tillerson's feathers don't get ruffled very easily. You know, he's had a number of foreign policy disputes with Trump over this year. He advocated for staying in the Paris climate accord. Trump wanted out. There was a similar debate over the Iran nuclear deal, even on North Korean diplomacy. Trump once tweeted that Tillerson is wasting his time. So there doesn't seem to be a lot of connection between the two men. And don't forget about that time when Tillerson reportedly called Trump a moron.

MARTIN: Right.

KELEMEN: And the president challenged Tillerson to an IQ test.

MARTIN: Right - that. So, you know, it just seems from the outside, like, Tillerson was never able to endear himself to either camp, Like, on the one hand, there's the administration and the White House. And he's got all these divisions that you just outlined. But he also didn't really endear himself to the rank and file in the State Department, did he?

KELEMEN: No, that's right. I mean, he's been working on this redesign plan. And a lot of diplomats have been retiring, forced out the door while he's trying to cut the budget, make it smaller and more efficient. And it's not clear if any of that is going to survive kind of a transition at the State Department.

MARTIN: So what happens? Because he is still in the job. He's still going about the work of diplomacy. This is - clearly, these reports are going to damage his credibility abroad.

KELEMEN: Well, definitely. I mean, I have to say, you know, foreign countries have always sort of hedged their bets on this - building relations with various factions within the Trump administration, not just the traditional route through the State Department. That's especially needed now. But so far, the department says he's planning to keep up his schedule. And that includes a trip to Europe next week.

MARTIN: So these reports have Tillerson being replaced by Mike Pompeo, a congressman who ended up being the president's head of the CIA. How might he change the department if this actually happens?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, unlike Tillerson, Pompeo knows Washington. He was a congressman, as you said. So he has relations on Capitol Hill, something that Tillerson didn't really build up with. He also seems to have a very good relationship with Trump. So for instance, while the appointments have been slow under Tillerson, as top talent leaves, perhaps that would change. That's of course a big if. And he's really tough on Iran, something that Trump may like. That has advocates of the Iran nuclear deal really worried because Pompeo has advocated in the past for military intervention. They're also worried about Tom Cotton going to the CIA. Cotton, too, has been a real Iran hawk.

MARTIN: And that's the other part of this - that he would go to replace Pompeo if it all falls together.

KELEMEN: That's right.

MARTIN: NPR's Michele Kelemen - thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So we've got a verdict in a case that had become a focal point in President Trump's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.

GREENE: Yeah. So we're talking here about a month-long trial that ended yesterday with a not-guilty verdict for an undocumented man in the death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Here is defense attorney Francisco Ugarte speaking after the verdict.


FRANCISCO UGARTE: From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, to foment a program of mass deportation.

GREENE: Trump has made much of this Steinle case in his calls to end so-called sanctuary cities. And now he's calling this verdict disgraceful.

MARTIN: San Francisco, where this case unfolded, of course, one of those sanctuary cities. So we've got KQED's Alex Emslie on the line. He's been covering the trial from San Francisco. He joins us on Skype. Hey, Alex. Can you just start by briefly recapping what this case was about and who this man was at the center of it?

ALEX EMSLIE, BYLINE: The murder trial that's been going on in San Francisco for the past month - it was all about Jose Ines Garcia Zarate's intent - whether he meant to fire the shot that killed Kathryn Steinle. And what the defense has pointed to repeatedly to back up their argument that this shot was an accidental shooting is the fact that the bullet ricocheted. It bounced off the concrete about 12 feet away from Garcia Zarate day and traveled another 78 feet before it Kathryn Steinle in the back.

They put on experts who testified that that would be a very difficult, if not impossible, shot to execute on purpose. We don't know a ton about Jose Ines Garcia Zarate. He's spent the past 15 of - the past 15 years - over the past - since the '90s - in and out of federal prison for illegal re-entry into the U.S. He's been deported five times before.

MARTIN: So this really fell into the president's narrative about this - these people are a threat. And we have to crack down on immigration to prevent threats like this from coming into the country.

EMSLIE: I think partially. But, you know, he also didn't have any history of any kind of violent crime before Kathryn Steinle's death - some low-level drug convictions and deportation - illegal re-entry-related crimes.

MARTIN: Yeah. So what's been the reaction from the prosecution? And just more broadly, what's the upshot of all of this now that a verdict has come in?

EMSLIE: Well, I mean, the prosecution was disappointed in the outcome in this case. They fought very hard and, at the last minute, went for a first-degree murder conviction when, previously, they had been arguing for a second-degree murder conviction. The upshot right now - I'm seeing on Twitter a lot of reaction from other parts of the country, saying that this shows that San Francisco does not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. And that's something that should change.

MARTIN: Which brings other questions into how much this was about San Francisco's objection to President Trump's immigration policies. KQED's Alex Emslie, thanks so much for your reporting this morning.

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

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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