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News Brief: Health Care Bill Is Dead, Russian Compound Discussions

STEVE INSKEEP: Republicans promised for years to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In fact, they said they'd replace it with something better. President Trump says he would now rather just repeal.


Trump said that last night after a Senate bill to replace Obamacare collapsed. Two more Republican senators objected to it. And since they were trying to pass it with GOP votes alone, it was assured of failure. Democrats are pleased - not quite celebrating. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke with MSNBC last night.


CHRIS MURPHY: It's hard to reorder one-fifth of the American health care system with a bill that enjoys a 15-percent approval rating - no matter how long you have been promising it. So I think they are going back to the drawing board at this point. But they are going back to the drawing board. They're not giving up.

GREENE: Now, the next move for Republican leader Mitch McConnell is, in fact, a vote on a straight up repeal with no replacement.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now. He's been covering this story all along. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What doomed the Senate bill?

HORSLEY: It didn't take a whole lot, really. This bill was already on life support after a couple of Republicans defected last week. So when Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas pulled the plug, that was it. It's significant these two acted together because, you know, no Republican senator wanted to be the 51st no vote to kill the repeal bill.

But there was no shortage of senators willing to cast the 52nd, 53rd, or 54th vote to put a nail in the coffin. And we haven't even seen the CBO score yet - the forecast of what this bill would have meant for the budget and for coverage.

INSKEEP: Well - so Jerry Moran, in saying that he objected to this bill, called for a return to the regular legislative process, where you would have hearings and debate and input from Democrats and things like that. But that's not what Mitch McConnell says he's going to do.

HORSLEY: No. McConnell's plan now is to return to plan A, which is to just have a straight up repeal with then a replacement to come later. That was the way the Senate majority leader wanted to go at the beginning of this year. And it was President Trump who insisted that they push for simultaneous replacement. Trump is now on board with the repeal first plan. He tweeted last night that the Republicans should just go ahead and repeal what he called failing Obamacare and work on a new health care plan that will start from a clean slate.

We should say the president and Republicans in Congress rarely argue in favor of their own plan. Instead, they paint this sort of horror picture of failing Obamacare. But research from the Kaiser Family Foundation says Obamacare is really not in that bad shape.

INSKEEP: OK, so we've got that. But let me just ask you, Scott Horsley, Mitch McConnell was saying just the other day that if Republicans couldn't come to a consensus on a health plan, which seems to be the case, that he would have to negotiate with Democrats and work something out with Democrats, which is something that Republicans have sporadically said is a good idea, a bipartisan health care plan. What happened to that?

HORSLEY: You still have lawmakers like John McCain who say that would be the way to go - to go back to sort of consensus bargaining. Although, that's something that the Senate is very out of practice at. But when McConnell said that, he was doing so really as kind of a bargaining chip. That was a threat to his own Republican members, saying, you don't want us to have to negotiate with Democrats, do you? So you better pass this bill.

If they were to proceed with the repeal-only option or the repeal-first option, they would still presumably have to work with Democrats afterwards. But the landscape would be very different then. You would have - the default position would be no Affordable Care Act, as opposed to the default now, which is failure by the Senate leaves the Affordable Care Act in place.

GREENE: You know, in its simplest terms, this is all a reminder that public opinion matters. I mean, a lot of Americans did not like Obamacare. And that was one thing Republicans were responding to. Now a lot of Americans did not really like where the Republicans were going. And we see the result of that. So - I mean, that's going to be an important thing to watch - what Americans think and want in the weeks, months, years ahead.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Scott Horsley will be watching. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.


INSKEEP: OK, Russia is accusing the United States of a crime.

GREENE: Yeah. It's not the U.S. accusing Russia of election meddling we're talking about here. This is Russia complaining about how it was punished for that meddling. Russia wants to get back two diplomatic compounds that were seized in the last days of President Obama's administration. Here's what Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov told RT about this yesterday.


MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS SERGEY LAVROV: (Through interpreter) This is shameless theft. They sound like gangsters. How is it possible to steal property protected by an intergovernmental treaty? They act on the principle what is mine is mine, and what is yours is also mine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is on the line from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us what these facilities even are?

KIM: Well, they're plush, recreational facilities located in mansions. One of them is on Maryland's Eastern Shore. And the other one is on Long Island outside of New York City. Of course, the Obama administration said they were being used for espionage. And that's why they were closed.

INSKEEP: Although, they're recreational facilities - at least on the surface, that's what they look like.

KIM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So Russia seems really angry that they were taken away as part of the punishment, so to speak, for election meddling. What happened yesterday when Russian and American officials got together to talk about what to do?

KIM: Well, Sergey Lavrov's deputy - his name is Sergey Ryabkov. He was in Washington for high-level talks. What we know right now is that the meeting lasted for more than two hours. And when he came out he told reporters that an agreement had almost - he used the word almost - been reached.

This morning we have a statement from the Russian foreign ministry. It once again warns that Russia has the right to retaliate. And it basically said that the ball is now in America's court.

INSKEEP: Well, this is a strange situation, Lucian Kim, because Americans have been talking about how to further punish Russia for election meddling and make sure they don't do it again. There's discussion of sanctions in the United States Congress. But here you have Russia demanding what punishment it suffered to end - and even talking about retaliation if they don't get what they want. How would Russia retaliate?

KIM: Well, that's been the subject of quite a lot of speculation in Russian state media recently. U.S. diplomats here in Moscow - they use a recreational building in a park. That's been under discussion. There's also some kind of warehouse that they might confiscate. And there's also the Anglo-American School that is used by Americans, but also by some rich Russians.

GREENE: You know, there's something so Russian about this story. I mean, maybe these facilities in the United States were used for spying, as the Obama administration accused. But Russians - I mean, the dacha, the recreational place where you go on weekends to get away from the city, is so much a part of Soviet and Russian life. And the Russians are angry here. Maybe it's just the lesson. Don't mess with the dacha.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Or maybe they chose the right thing...

GREENE: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: ...In order to send a message to Russia - the Obama administration. Lucian Kim, thanks very much.

KIM: Thanks, guys.


INSKEEP: And now, we have a creepy, creepy warning from billionaire CEO Elon Musk.

GREENE: It is really creepy. This is all about artificial intelligence. Musk, the billionaire scientist, of course, behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is saying that artificial intelligence is an existential threat to human civilization. He offered that prognosis over the weekend at the National Governors Association meeting. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper described that moment.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: You could have heard a pen drop. A couple times he paused, and it was totally silent. I think a lot of us felt like we were in the presence of, you know, Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Alva Edison. It was remarkable.

INSKEEP: But not exactly optimistic - let's talk about this with NPR's Aarti Shahani, who's on the line. Hi, Aarti.


INSKEEP: Wow. So as some commentators have pointed out, we don't have to worry about artificial intelligence taking our jobs because it's just going to enslave us all, or kill us all or something. What's going on here?

SHAHANI: (Laughter). Well, I mean, in part Elon Musk is being Elon Musk. I mean, the part about AI being out of control is that - listen. That's kind of the point of artificial intelligence and that side of technologies, OK? Take machine learning, which is a way to make computers smarter, right? You feed the machines data, the computers data. They digest it. And they come up with solutions that we humans never told them to do exactly.

So for example, you get your Netflix movie suggestions, or you get better Chinese-English language translation from that kind of technology. Now, that is a far cry from the Terminator coming and starting a war and killing us all off, right? So...

INSKEEP: (Imitating Terminator) I'll be back.

SHAHANI: Some people in Silicon Valley (laughter)...

INSKEEP: I'm sorry. Go on. Go on, please.

SHAHANI: Some people in Silicon Valley - they're annoyed with Musk. I spoke to the head of artificial intelligence at Facebook, and he actually got spicy about it too. He was like, you know, the desire to dominate socially is not correlated with intelligence. It's correlated with testosterone, which AI systems will not have.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SHAHANI: His words, not mine.

INSKEEP: Artificial intelligence is going to be more sensible, is the argument there.

SHAHANI: Because it does not have testosterone.

INSKEEP: But Elon Musk is talking about the government regulating AI in some fashion before it is too late. What's on his mind there?

SHAHANI: Well, I'm not going to try to read his mind. And he did not spell it out for the governors. What I will say is I spoke to plenty of people who think a lot about these issues. And what they say is - listen. It's really important for politicians, for policymakers to pay attention at this point in the game to data - specifically, big data. Who's stockpiling it, and what are they doing with it, all right? There are just a handful of companies that have tons of data on us. And that gives them a huge competitive advantage, you know, to shut out competitors.

We see this already playing out in the world of Internet advertising, right? In that world, Facebook and Google basically have an all out duopoly. The European Union just hit Google with a huge fine for exploiting its data advantage to block competitors. So, you know, something that, politically, this could do now is pay more attention to who's got the big data because in the future, you know, consumers can lose out with that kind of monopolistic behavior.

INSKEEP: And the humans in charge of artificial intelligence could do any number of things. Aarti, thanks very much.

SHAHANI: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT JON'S "TARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.