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News brief: NATO meets on Ukraine, Judge Jackson vote, student loans

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian forces may have retreated from the areas around Kyiv, but Ukrainian officials are warning residents in the eastern part of the country to evacuate as fighting intensifies there.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said what his country needs at NATO headquarters today.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: My agenda is very simple. It has only three items on it. It's weapons, weapons and weapons.

INSKEEP: The U.S. and Europe are promising more of all three. NATO foreign ministers are meeting amid reports of Russians killing civilians in Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from NATO headquarters to discuss all this. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: So you've been traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. What's the U.S. bringing to the table at NATO today? And what's he hoping to get from allies?

KELEMEN: Well, he really just wants to maintain a united front with Europe in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You know, Blinken's been spending a lot of time here in Brussels coordinating with allies on sanctions and on military aid. And as he arrived here, the U.S. announced another $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles for Ukraine. That brings the U.S. total, just in recent weeks, to $1.7 billion in security assistance. The Ukrainians say they need more. They need more missiles. They also need air defenses and other heavy weapons. And they say this is urgent. Foreign Minister Kuleba says he believes the only way to prevent more Buchas is to get more military aid, and of course, he's referring to that Kyiv suburb where there are widespread reports of Russian atrocities.

FADEL: So the U.S., Europe and others responded to those horrific scenes in Bucha with another round of sanctions. Is that happening quickly enough for Ukrainians?

KELEMEN: Not from their perspective. Just listen to the Ukrainian foreign minister explain what it took to get to this latest round of sanctions.

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KULEBA: Frankly speaking, I hope we will never face a situation again when, to step up the sanctions pressure, you need - we need atrocities like at Bucha to be revealed and to impress and to shock other partners to the extent that they sit down and say, OK, fine, we will introduce new sanctions.

KELEMEN: Yeah, so he wants to see more Russian banks out of the SWIFT messaging system. He wants a full oil and gas embargo on Russia. And, you know, Europe still relies heavily on Russian energy, so it's going to take time to wean them off of that. But some European officials are saying they are headed in that direction.

FADEL: So a lot of talk about sanctions, about military support. What about diplomacy? Is there a diplomatic path to end this war?

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been pretty skeptical about diplomacy. They want to make sure that, however this war ends, there are going to be long-term consequences for Russia and for Russia's actions. But Washington is taking its cues from the Ukrainian government on this. Before Bucha, the Ukrainians put forward some ideas in talks with the Russians. Ukraine could, for instance, give up NATO ambitions if it gets solid security guarantees to remain neutral. The U.S. has been talking to Ukraine about that, and officials say the sanctions and the military aid are really just meant to strengthen Ukraine's hands at the negotiating table. But, you know, the U.S. and NATO have been warning that this war is likely to continue, and the world should be ready for a long haul because as Russians pull back from areas around Kyiv, they're just reinforcing their positions in the east.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you for your reporting.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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FADEL: The Senate is expected to vote today to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the highest court of the land.

INSKEEP: She is expected to be confirmed as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Three Republican senators are joining all 50 Democrats to confirm. The vast majority of Republicans will vote no, including some who voted in her favor for a lower judgeship.

FADEL: Joining us now to discuss all this is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hello there, Leila.

FADEL: So why was there so much opposition from Republicans to Judge Jackson's nomination?

TOTENBERG: The Republicans cited concerns with her judicial philosophy, her sentencing record in a handful of cases related to child pornography - which they've called sympathetic to offenders - and her record as a public defender for a couple of Guantanamo Bay detainees. But let's get down to basics. Republicans were largely going to oppose whoever Biden chose. Senate Republican leaders wouldn't even give Obama nominee Merrick Garland a hearing. Remember that? So for literally more than a decade, they've built a wall of opposition to liberal and moderate judicial nominees, especially at the Supreme Court level but for all levels.

Let me just give you one statistic. According to Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution, if you look at the appeals court nominees in the first two years of the Trump administration, 15 out of 30 got at least 10 Democratic votes. And if you compare that to the Biden nominees in the first year, plus a little, only 2 out of 15 got more than 10 Republican votes. So when you get to a Supreme Court nomination, everything is on steroids. And South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham is a prime example.

FADEL: So Senator Graham voted for the two most recent Democratic nominees to the Supreme Court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, and he voted to confirm Jackson a year ago for the Court of Appeals. But now he's not voting for Judge Jackson. Why?

TOTENBERG: Well, for whatever reason, Graham worked himself into a temper when the potential nominee he was supporting, Judge Michelle Childs from his home state of South Carolina, didn't get nominated. From the get-go at the confirmation hearing, it was clear he would take out that disappointment on Judge Jackson. In fact, Graham even said her nomination should never have been considered by the committee, and if Republicans regain the Senate, he seemed to say, they simply would refuse to consider nominees like her.

FADEL: It's worth noting, though, that three Republican senators have now said they will vote to confirm Judge Jackson - Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, right?

TOTENBERG: Right. For me, the most interesting of the three is Romney because less than a year ago, he voted against Jackson when she was nominated to the D.C. Court of Appeals. My assumption is that back then, Romney was being a good team player in voting the way Mitch McConnell wanted him to. And this time he actually thought about it and decided that while he didn't expect to agree with every decision Judge Jackson might make, she, quote, "more than meets the standard of excellence and integrity." And Lisa Murkowski, who has a tough primary race this year, said something very similar and added that her vote, quote, "also rests on my rejection of the corrosive politicization of the review process for Supreme Court nominees, which on both sides of the aisle is growing worse and more detached from reality by the year."

FADEL: And Senator Collins made a similar point in her statement, right?

TOTENBERG: Yeah, she said that anyone who watched the Jackson confirmation hearings would reach the conclusion that the confirmation process is, quote, "broken."

FADEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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FADEL: About 7 million Americans are in default on their federal student loans.

INSKEEP: But yesterday, those borrowers got some good news. The Education Department announced a plan to restore them all to good standing. That news accompanied yet another extension of the federal student loan payment pause that began in March 2020.

FADEL: Here to tell us more about all of that is NPR's Cory Turner. Hi, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So, Cory, let's start with what the Biden administration is calling Fresh Start. What more can you tell us about that?

TURNER: Yeah. Fresh Start basically hits the reset button for those 7 million federal student loan borrowers you mentioned who are currently in default. Now, to be clear, it does not erase their debt. What it does is jump them out of default and return their loans to good standing. Practically, that means when the repayment pause does finally end, these borrowers will no longer be subject to collections. They will also have access to more flexible payment plans. This also presumably means no more negative credit reporting to credit agencies, which could help these borrowers qualify for things like a car loan or a mortgage. I will say, though, Leila, it is surprising how little we know about how this Fresh Start will work because the White House and the Ed Department said next to nothing about it yesterday besides simply announcing it.

FADEL: So let's talk about that extension. You reported several weeks ago that this was essentially inevitable. Anything about the news that did surprise you?

TURNER: Yeah, even though this was the worst-kept secret in Washington, one thing jumped out at me, which is that it is only through August 31. Prominent Democrats had been asking for an extension into 2023 for a few reasons. The obvious one is that pushing it just until September, as Biden has done, raises the possibility of resuming student loan repayments for tens of millions of voters just a matter of weeks before November's midterm election. For political reasons, that seems highly unlikely, which is why most of the experts I've talked with, as well as folks on Capitol Hill, think this is likely to get extended again. The other reason Democrats were hoping for a longer extension is because they're pushing the Biden administration to make some pretty big changes to the student loan program, and these are changes that more than likely just cannot happen by August.

FADEL: So what kind of changes?

TURNER: Well, so NPR reported less than a week ago that the Ed Department's workhorse repayment plans, income-driven repayment plans, have been a bit of a mess. They've been mismanaged for years, NPR found, and the program's really in need of a reckoning. In fact, in response to our reporting, the Ed Department and the White House admitted as much. They said, quote, "the current situation is unacceptable," that they will be making operational changes to get things right moving forward and that they will fix this for the borrowers who have been harmed by past failures with payment counting. That said, industry experts I talked with don't think those changes can be made by August, and they say it doesn't make sense to resume repayments until they are ready. Implementing Fresh Start will mean moving 7 million borrowers to new loan-servicing companies, which will be a huge lift for the department, even if it didn't have anything else to do. So August just seems fairly unrealistic when you consider the logistics of what they're up against.

FADEL: So maybe come August we'll be talking about another extension. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thank you so much.

TURNER: You're welcome. 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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.