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Morning News Brief: GOP Health Plan Fails In Senate, Pakistan's Sharif Removed


We have got a lot of Washington news to get through today, starting with the defeat of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.


Yeah. It was a breathtaking moment, one last effort by Senate Republicans to undo at least some part of Obamacare. This was last night after more ambitious plans had failed. Republican Lindsey Graham called the so-called skinny repeal a, quote, "disaster" and "a fraud" and "terrible politics." Nobody really disagreed with him. And then, Graham said he would vote yes, hoping the House and Senate would find something better later on.

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine said no thank you. And then John McCain of Arizona also voted no, leaving Republicans one vote short. McCain had previously denounced this whole process and called for bipartisanship.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith is here. Hi, Tam.


MARTIN: Republicans have been fighting Obamacare, trying to get it repealed for seven years. Is it done? Is that effort over now?

KEITH: It's hard to say. I mean, you don't want to declare something dead ever really. What...

INSKEEP: This is like a zombie movie basically. They come back at any time.

KEITH: Well, right. And you just don't know if the zombie is really dead or if it's coming back. And in this case, Mitch McConnell came to the Senate floor. He said he was - or he was already on the floor. He said he was disappointed. And he said, I regret that our efforts were not enough this time.

MARTIN: So he clearly was leaving the door open.

KEITH: He - the door is just a weensy bit ajar. But he also then said that it's up to Democrats now to say what they want.

MARTIN: So is that a big failure for McConnell personally? I mean, everyone was talking about, oh, this is McConnell's moment, and he's this great tactician. And he's going to push it through.

KEITH: Right. And he did do some magic earlier in the week. He pulled one out of the hat when he got enough senators to vote to even begin debate on the bill. There had been some question if there was even enough support for that. And then this so-called skinny repeal was his effort to try to just get a win and then push the ball over to the House and try to figure out something. And...

MARTIN: Which, as Steve pointed out, was, I think we can say - ridiculous? I mean, is that a word I can say here? They were voting on something that they only wanted to fail.

INSKEEP: They explicitly did not want it to become law.


KEITH: Yeah. I mean, it was sort of a last-ditch, let's-just-do-this thing. But there was a concern among some Republicans, including John McCain, that it could become the law - that the House - there was nothing to stop the House from just taking up this so-called skinny repeal and passing it.

MARTIN: Yeah, besides some pinkie swear or something that had no enforcement behind it.

KEITH: Exactly.

MARTIN: So we have to pivot now from this one dramatic story to another dramatic story, this one smaller scale, smaller repercussions - but pretty high stakes for the White House, this personnel spat between Anthony Scaramucci, new communications director, and Reince Priebus, chief of staff. No love lost between these two. And the latest development is this thing Scaramucci said to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker yesterday. You can't say it on the radio.


MARTIN: But give us a snapshot of where things are at. And is Priebus in or out?

KEITH: Yeah. So it was a colorful statement that he made to The New Yorker (unintelligible) vulgar...

INSKEEP: Yeah. Not actually a snapshot, please, because the image in this statement is not any better than the words.

KEITH: Nope.

INSKEEP: But please, go on.

KEITH: It was vulgar and not suitable for work is all I will say. And Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, was basically gunning for Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, saying that he's going to be out soon. And we don't know if he's going to be out soon. But there was a line in a Politico story published yesterday that is sort of striking. It says one person, who spoke to Priebus over the weekend, said he wanted to make it one year in the White House but has settled for staying at least through health care.

MARTIN: Which now we don't know...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...What that means since the effort to repeal Obamacare seems to be at least stalled for now.

KEITH: It looks mighty dead.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith - thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.


MARTIN: Question - does a tweet equal government policy?

INSKEEP: Not according to the U.S. Department of Defense. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, president's top military adviser, responded yesterday to the president's brief message on transgender troops. Trump declared on Twitter they're banned. But in a message to the troops, Dunford said the Pentagon is going to do nothing about this until it receives a formal directive, which it can turn into a policy in the methodical way that the Pentagon does. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says the ban will still take effect.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The White House will work with the Department of Defense and all of the relevant parties to make sure that we fully implement this policy moving forward.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with us. Hey, Tom.


MARTIN: This must be confusing for folks in the military right now.

BOWMAN: The word I heard was flat-footed. That's what the Pentagon was saying, we were caught flat-footed by this. There were people at morning meetings after this tweet came out, looking at each other and saying, who are the generals he was talking with? Everyone was...

INSKEEP: Oh - because he said he was advised by generals.

BOWMAN: Exactly. No one knew where this came from outside of that tweet. That's all we have at this point. And we don't even know who at the White House is working the issue.

MARTIN: So we don't know whether or not the Pentagon had been in conversations with the president about doing this down the road even?

BOWMAN: Well, what we know - the policy right now is transgender people can serve openly. That was decided last year by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. And as far as, you know...

MARTIN: Rolling that back.

BOWMAN: Right. Well, as far as new transgender people coming into the military, the Pentagon kicked that can down the road and basically said, we'll decide later about additional transgender people coming in. But those transgender people in the military now can serve openly. And what General Dunford was saying is basically, that policy stands until we get new direction from the White House. And what the Pentagon is saying is, you know, if you have questions about this, ask the White House...

MARTIN: I mean...

BOWMAN: ...Which is highly unusual. This is military policy. So...

MARTIN: It would come from the Pentagon.

BOWMAN: Right. Or someone at the Pentagon...

MARTIN: You would hear the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, talk about this, you would think.

BOWMAN: You would think.

MARTIN: Where's he at?

BOWMAN: He's on vacation now. But no one at the Pentagon seems to know the way ahead outside of, we're waiting for someone at the White House to give us direction. We don't know who that is at the White House outside of the president who sent out several tweets saying, we will not accept or allow transgender people in the military. That's what we have.

MARTIN: The argument is that changing this policy, preventing transgender people from serving, would save money or somehow increase the military's effectiveness. Any evidence to that?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a small amount of money we're talking, maybe $8 million - $10 million, according to studies.

MARTIN: And we're talking about health care or transgender assignment surgery.

BOWMAN: Well, right. But not many - not a great percentage of transgender people actually go through hormone therapy or surgery. So the money is miniscule. Eight million dollars out of a half-a-billion-dollar Pentagon budget, you couldn't even call that pocket change.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.


MARTIN: The leader of one of the world's largest countries is out of a job.

INSKEEP: Pakistan's Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding office, a move that follows an investigation of corruption. Now, Sharif is a political leader who insisted on running his country while also controlling a family business empire. It is the second time he's been dismissed from office, by the way. The first was years ago in a military coup.

KEITH: NPR's Diaa Hadid is on the line from Islamabad, Pakistan, where this is all unfolding. Diaa, what's it like to be in the capital city at a moment like this?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's like watching a political drama take place in real time. We were at the Supreme Court building earlier this morning. And it was cordoned off by what appeared to be hundreds of security forces - the police in blue, the anti-terror forces in black, the paramilitary in khaki. It was this - just this colorful mess of security forces all trying to keep people out.

Now, there were dozens and dozens of journalists allowed in - and lawyers as well and political figures. And also, protesters managed to sneak in as well, particularly older women, for whom there is utter deference shown in this country. And so they managed to hold a few pop-up protests outside the Supreme Court as well.

MARTIN: Protests? So people don't like this idea that the Supreme Court can just say, Prime Minister Sharif, you're out?

HADID: Well, actually, it's quite polarizing in the country. There's more protests expected after Friday prayers. Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. And so we're really waiting for Friday prayers to finish to see what sort of response there will be in the streets. But certainly, this - there are many people here who do support this. They see it as the courts really trying to tackle the pervasive corruption that exists among this country's political elite. And then there are, you know, Nawaz Sharif's supporters, who say that this is just another attempt to take down a popular prime minister.

HADID: Because he has been popular - he's been getting credit for running that country pretty well.

HADID: That's right. I mean, he has basically touched bread-and-butter issues that really matter to Pakistan's poor. He's built roads. He's fixed public schools. He's introduced public transport, which, you know, masses and masses of working classers here rely on. And for them, corruption is sort of an issue they take for granted. They like Sharif for all these other things.

MARTIN: And I imagine the big question now is, who's going to replace him? And that's unclear.

HADID: That is unclear because the courts not only dismissed Sharif from political office, they also dismissed his son-in-law. They dismissed his finance minister, who's also a relative.

MARTIN: We'll just have...

HADID: And so it's really upturned politics here. And we're all waiting to see what happens next.

MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan, this morning. Diaa, thanks so much.

HADID: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTHETIC EPIPHANY'S "ETERNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.