RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The power dynamic in Washington shifts today. A new Congress is sworn in, Democrats take control, and a familiar face becomes the new speaker of the House.
NOEL KING, HOST:
That's right. There was doubt and debate within the Democratic Party, but former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to become House speaker once again. She's the only woman to have held that position, from 2007 to 2011, and the first thing on her agenda will be to introduce legislation to end this partial government shutdown. But Pelosi has made it clear that when it comes to the president's border wall funding, she is not budging.
MARTIN: We're joined in the studio by NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell.
Good morning, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
MARTIN: So we're going to get to the shutdown and the wall. But first, I want to talk about what Nancy Pelosi has actually already done - even before assuming the speakership. She's made some rule changes. What can you tell us?
SNELL: Yeah. So Democrats plan to get all of these new rules in place as actually one of their very first orders of business. It's all part of this push that they're making to make government work better. They say that they want to kind of overhaul the ethics rules for Congress so that people can have more trust in the people who make the laws, something that a lot of people don't have right now (laughter).
MARTIN: Right. So what rules are going to make us do that?
SNELL: Yeah. So they hope to gain some trust by creating a kind of stark comparison between Republicans and Trump. And a big part of that is they want to make it easier to increase the debt limit. Now, you know we have had this fight over and over, it seems like, where there's a question about whether or not the government is actually going to make payments on debt that it already has.
SNELL: Their new rule would make it so that it automatically happens when they pass a budget. So that's the big first one that will probably impact people's lives the most. It will also make it harder for them to kick out a speaker of the House. And they want to make sure that no more members or staff can serve on corporate boards.
They think that would kind of separate Congress from private industry a little bit better. And they would extend bans on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and allow religious headwear to be worn on the floor of the House. That's for - largely to accommodate a request from Ilhan Omar, who is a representative who will be sworn in from Minnesota.
MARTIN: Who covers, yeah.
So let's talk about the shutdown...
MARTIN: ...'Cause this really is the business at hand.
MARTIN: She's going to make all these rule changes, which is all fine and good. But there is a partial government shutdown. And she is going to try - is it an earnest effort to try to get the government to reopen with this legislation?
SNELL: Well, she referred to it as a Republican way to reopen the government. Basically, she wants to give Republicans the option of saying - hey, we're going to pay for six of the seven parts of the government that are closed down right now, let them be opened, fund them for the rest of the year...
MARTIN: Things that don't have anything to do with border security.
SNELL: Right. And leave the border security fight to go on for just about another month - give them one month to work out the Department of Homeland Security. But the president has basically already said that he's not interested in doing that. And you know, the Republicans in the Senate say they don't want to vote on anything that doesn't have the president's support. So it may not go much further than the vote today.
MARTIN: All right. One other story I want to ask you about - The New York Times published a piece yesterday about the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016, saying that there were these claims of sexual harassment, pay disparity by staffers. What are you learning about this?
SNELL: Well, the complaints were, in particular, made by female staffers who talked about mistreatment, sexual harassment and being paid much less than their male counterparts. And the Sanders campaign is not denying any of this. They are talking about how the campaign grew too fast. And they released a statement saying that harassment and discrimination are not tolerated by Bernie Sanders himself and that they took some steps in 2016 to fix the problems.
But they're also guaranteeing that anything going forward, whether it's a new campaign or just his work in the Senate, that there will be efforts to make sure that there is more parity between men and women and make sure that there is no discrimination of any kind.
MARTIN: But he hasn't said, one way or the other, if he's going to run for president...
SNELL: He has not. That was not part of the statement (laughter).
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Kelsey Snell.
Thanks so much, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. So we have been talking about this. The whole reason for the shutdown is the fight over the border wall.
KING: Yeah. There was this meeting between President Trump and congressional leaders yesterday, but there was no progress. The president wants a wall funded, and Democrats say no. The thing that has gotten lost in this debate is whether or not a wall could actually keep migrants out of this country.
MARTIN: Right. And we have talked about this before, but it is worth reminding all of us exactly what is happening on the border, what's the state of the actual barrier there and what would be effective. So no other person can better serve us in this moment than NPR correspondent John Burnett on the line from Texas, who has spent...
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: ...His fair share at the border.
So even as recent as yesterday, President Trump tweeted that the wall's already being built. What is there now?
BURNETT: Well, when the president talks about the urgency of a border wall, remember that a third of the border is already covered by some sort of wall. You've got 700 miles of barriers down here. There are vehicle barriers in the remote areas of the west desert and pedestrian fencing. They range from chain-link fences that are easy to cut to these 12- to 18-foot-tall iron bollard fences. You can see through them, and they're very hard to get over. And that's the standard construction for the replacement fencing now.
Remember, most of the big border cities are already walled off, like San Diego and El Paso and Brownsville. These were the most popular crossing points because undocumented immigrants could blend in with the urban population. And Customs and Border Protection uses all kinds of other technology. They've got video cameras mounted on poles that are monitored remotely, sensors buried in the ground and embedded in the walls, these big spy blimps tethered in the sky that look into Mexico and, of course, some 16,000 agents along the southern border that are watching and tracking.
MARTIN: But even Democrats agree that border security needs to be improved. So clearly, even all that technology isn't passing muster. It's not securing the border to the level that Democrats and Republicans would like to see.
BURNETT: Well, remember that illegal immigration is still down 80 percent from its peak in 2000. And there are just fewer and fewer incidents of chasing single males through the brush, which is what, you know, it used to be all about. What we're seeing now is an uptick of these families and children that are arriving from Central America asking for asylum.
And the thing is that most people who cross illegally, Rachel, are apprehended not trying to evade the Border Patrol. They're looking for these green-suited agents. And in the Rio Grande Valley, the wall is not even on the river. It can be a half mile inland, so they're already in the United States before they even see the wall.
MARTIN: So let's get back to this claim. The president keeps insisting that the wall, meaning his wall that he wants - the big physical barrier to run the extent...
MARTIN: ...That it's already being built. Is that true?
BURNETT: Well, what's under construction mostly is the replacement. And in San Diego, you see it. They're replacing these old Vietnam-era landing mats with these big steel bollards. Same thing in El Paso, they're replacing chain link fencing. There are 33 new miles of border fencing that are being built down in the Rio Grande Valley, though.
MARTIN: So there are parts of the border, you and I both know, that natural terrain is just so treacherous, really...
MARTIN: ...It would make it impossible to build a wall in some of the areas. Right?
BURNETT: Right. And in the flat areas, that's where it's practical. But many border agents will tell you that a wall is just not necessary or feasible in these remote mountainous areas. The terrain is its own deterrent, like the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend area of far West Texas and the San Ysidro Mountains east of San Diego. It's the terrain that slows people down, and that enables agents to apprehend them.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's John Burnett for us in Texas.
Thanks so much, John.
BURNETT: You bet.
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MARTIN: All right. We're going to turn now to Russia, where American officials are trying to figure out why a U.S. citizen was detained there last week.
KING: Russia says Paul Whelan was detained during, quote, "an act of espionage." Whelan's family says absolutely not. He was in Russia for a wedding. The U.S. ambassador to Russia visited Whelan yesterday for the first time. And meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that American diplomats are waiting for more answers from their Russian counterparts.
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MIKE POMPEO: We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he's been accused of. And if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.
MARTIN: All right. We've got Moscow reporter Charles Maynes on the line with us to talk about this.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you. Hi.
MARTIN: What was communicated in that meeting between U.S. Ambassador Huntsman and Paul Whelan? Do we know?
MAYNES: Well, we don't have too much. So the State Department released a statement that said that U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman had visited with Mr. Whelan in Lefortovo Prison. This is a czarist-era prison with a long history for holding alleged spies and political prisoners in Russia. Mr. Huntsman had expressed support, offered the embassy's assistance - pretty standard stuff. He'd also spoken by phone with Mr. Whelan's family. But in the interest of privacy, they weren't providing any more details on the charges or the circumstances of the arrest, which of course are of great interest.
MARTIN: Right. But there are more details coming to light about Paul Whelan and, in particular, his tenure as a Marine. Right? What can you tell us about that?
MAYNES: Well, right. We know he was a former Marine. He served two tours in Iraq back in 2004, 2006. The Marine Corps, however, released Whelan's service record. And that showed he was convicted in 2008 of a court-martial on charges related to larceny, given a bad-conduct discharge. But his career from there - he goes on to work for law enforcement for a while.
He works currently for BorgWarner. This is a Michigan-based company. It deals with propulsion engines, where Mr. Whelan is head of global security. Now, BorgWarner has offices in Europe, in China but not in Russia. That said, Mr. Whelan has traveled to Russia frequently since 2007. And as you noted, his family says he was in town for a wedding.
MARTIN: So I mean, what are you hearing from people there? Are people - are Russians talking about this? Are officials there that you've been able to speak with discussing this in terms of a possible prisoner swap with Maria Butina, the Russian agent who was arrested and charged here in the U.S.?
MAYNES: Well, first of all, it's the middle of the kind of New Year's holidays here, so everything's shut down. But we have kind of a blockbuster story that appeared in the Russian press today, in Rosbalt. This is a Russian online newspaper that's pretty well-sourced with the security services. And they have what they claim are the first details of Whelan's arrest. They say that Mr. Whelan was caught receiving a flash drive naming Russian intelligence agents in the Metropol hotel. This was within this hotel room where he was staying for this apparent wedding.
And certainly, skeptics here in Moscow are discussing the circumstances of this. I mean, the idea of a flash drive in 2019 sounds a bit strange. Did Mr. Whelan even know what was on that flash drive? So there are some who suggest here that it was some kind of setup in a very made-for-TV moment. So essentially, wait for this video to be released on state television here in Moscow.
MARTIN: Yeah, interesting that Russia is already spinning out this narrative.
Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow, thank you so much. We appreciate it.
MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.