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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It is among the most famous backdrops in American politics - the president speaking to a joint session of Congress.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And tonight it'll feature Joe Biden seeking to reassure voters he is ready and able to serve a second term. Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address as America gets ready for a matchup they've seen before between Biden and former President Donald Trump.

FADEL: NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now to talk about all this. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what are you expecting to hear from the president tonight?

KEITH: President Biden is going to talk about what his administration has accomplished and what he still wants to get done. Tops on that list includes urging Republicans in the House to support aid to Ukraine. He's also going to tell Congress he needs funding to help secure the border.

Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Biden's chief of staff, Jeff Zients, who says there will also be a discussion of the war in Gaza, which will include showing support for Israel and going into some depth about the suffering of Palestinian civilians. But much of the focus tonight will be domestic and forward-looking. This is what Zients told Steve.

JEFF ZIENTS: Lowering costs, continuing to make people's lives better by investing in child care, elder care, paid family and medical leave, continued progress on student debt. But I think, importantly, the president's also going to call for restoring Roe v. Wade.

FADEL: Now, Biden is going to be speaking to a room full of congressional Republicans who've been blocking him at nearly every turn for the past year and a half. Does the White House really think these proposals will become law?

KEITH: They're still holding out hope for Ukraine. Otherwise, this is very much a second-term agenda, if Democrats are to control Congress. This is truly Biden's first speech of what is going to be a difficult 2024 general election fight. As of yesterday, former President Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. So even if he doesn't make it explicit, Biden is using this address to make his pitch to the American people for four more years.

And this speech is likely going to be policy heavy, but performance is almost more important. That's what Sarada Peri told me. She was a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama.

SARADA PERI: It is one thing to sort of say, I am the person who is fighting for you. But if you appear as though you don't have a lot of fight in you, that's not particularly compelling to people who want that. And so I think what he did so well last year was just come out swinging.

KEITH: And she's talking about the moment at last year's State of the Union where Biden had this raucous back-and-forth with Republicans over Social Security. Heading into the speech last year, a lot of people, including Democrats, had many of the same questions we're hearing now about Biden's stamina and age. After that speech, a lot of those questions faded - at least for a while.

FADEL: But it's very much back in the forefront now. Can this one speech actually make a difference?

KEITH: The State of the Union certainly gets outsized attention. I was talking to voters earlier this week, and they told me - people from both parties - that they do have concerns about whether Biden has it in him for another four years. Republicans were openly questioning his mental competency. So will this one speech solve all that for the president? Probably not. But if he does have a chance to go off script and improvise, it might go a long way to reassure Democratic voters, at least, who are worried.

FADEL: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In vitro fertilization providers in Alabama are expected to resume services as soon as today.

MARTÍNEZ: That is because Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that was rushed into law after a controversial state Supreme Court ruling. It ends nearly three weeks in limbo for both IVF providers and the families they serve.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us from Montgomery, Ala. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So you were at the Statehouse last night to watch the debate over this law. What is it intended to do?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's intended to provide criminal and civil immunity for IVF providers and the families they serve. They had been pushing for this after that ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court last month that basically gave frozen embryos the same rights as children.

What this law does not do is address the whole question of whether stored embryos should get the same kind of protections that in utero fetuses do under Alabama's strict abortion ban and the ramifications that that could then have for how doctors and families use their embryos. So what passed last night is basically a stopgap measure. It's intended to make IVF treatment available again, and the sense of urgency to get it done was underscored by the fact that the governor immediately signed it into law, despite the late hour last night.

FADEL: So basically, providers wanted to feel protected in doing these types of procedures. I mean, is this stopgap having the desired effect? What are providers saying they'll do?

ELLIOTT: It appears to. The biggest IVF provider in the state is the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a major medical center. It says it will resume treatments. Another provider, Alabama Fertility, operates in three cities. It says it welcomes the legislation and actually has patients scheduled to have embryo transfers today.

Families who were undergoing IVF had been a constant presence at the Statehouse, pressing for this. I spoke last night with Corinn O'Brien with the Fight for Alabama Families coalition. She's pregnant after having an embryo transfer in January and says these last few weeks have just been devastating for women who were left in a lurch. Now that they have scored this victory with the immunity law, they plan to use that momentum and push for a constitutional amendment to address the underlying question posed by the Supreme Court ruling.

CORINN O'BRIEN: An embryo outside of the uterus is potential life and not an unborn child or unborn life.

ELLIOTT: With that question still unsettled, a national industry group says the Alabama bill still leaves fertility doctors and their patients at risk. A statement from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says the legislation is still a problem because there's still this sense that fertilized eggs are scientifically and legally equivalent to children.

FADEL: Is there any indication from Alabama lawmakers that they might try to address that broader issue raised by the Supreme Court ruling?

ELLIOTT: Well, everybody says they'd like to, but honestly, the path to get there is a bit murky. That's something that Republican Senator Tim Melson acknowledges. He's a physician from North Alabama and sponsored and fast-tracked this law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM MELSON: I think there's just too much difference of opinion on when actual life begins. And a lot of people say conception. A lot of people say implantation. And there's others that say heartbeat. I wish I had the answer.

ELLIOTT: Melson says the obstacle is making sure that the debate would be based on science and not gut feelings from politicians about when life begins, so certainly a very tricky issue.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Today marks five months since October 7 and the surprise Hamas assault on Israel.

MARTÍNEZ: Palestinian lives in Gaza are forever changed by Israel's deadly military response. Israeli lives have changed as well, and the state of Israeli society is crucial to understanding where this war might lead.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been reporting on this and joins us from Tel Aviv. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So October 7, we know, was the deadliest day for Israel in its history. The Israeli military response has been the deadliest war Palestinians in Gaza have ever faced. How are Israelis feeling five months into this war?

ESTRIN: Israelis are living their lives on hold, Leila. Ninety-four thousand Israelis are still evacuated from their homes along the borders with Gaza and Lebanon, and it's not just them. I met with an October 7 survivor, Avidor Schwartzman.

AVIDOR SCHWARTZMAN: On October 7, something cracked or maybe broke in the Israeli psyche. Even those that weren't there, just saw it on TV, they are still there.

ESTRIN: Now, he was actually there in one of the attacked communities. His in-laws were killed, and his family has only now moved from a hotel to a trailer park to house all these broken families. And a lot of these families, he says, will not move to new homes being built for them until the hostages are freed. There are more than 130 Israelis still held in Gaza, many still believed to be alive. And so these families don't want the Israeli government to think that they're moving on until those hostages are released. And it's just a whole sense, Leila, that the entire country is in a state of suspended animation.

FADEL: A state of suspended animation. Now, there is a lot of alarm globally about the way Israel has conducted its response. But what do Israelis think?

ESTRIN: There is a consensus here that the war should continue until Hamas has no capability to threaten Israel. Israelis are largely unified now in support of the war. Together we will win is the slogan that you see everywhere - I mean, even displayed on highway signs along with the traffic reports. Many Israelis will tell you it's unfair of the world to expect them to show restraint in Gaza after the October 7 attack. And you also hear from Israelis who used to believe in some peace deal with Palestinians one day that they've lost all trust in that now. I spoke with an Israeli lawyer, Adi Peshko Katz (ph).

ADI PESHKO KATZ: The beliefs we had before October 7 were just wrong. We were just naive.

ESTRIN: You know, a lot of Israelis are angry at the world for seeing Israel as the aggressor against Palestinians and not as a victim defending itself.

FADEL: Now, Daniel, you've been reporting on this war for months now. What changes have you seen among Israelis and in Israel?

ESTRIN: You see a lot of guns, Leila. I mean, one of the most profound changes is that many Israelis no longer believe they can depend on their army alone. They saw what happened October 7. Civilians were under attack for an entire day before help arrived. And so 900 volunteer armed squads have been mobilized across Israel to patrol cities.

FADEL: Israel says Hamas has been greatly weakened by its military operation. What are Israelis most concerned about now?

ESTRIN: They're concerned about Lebanon. Hezbollah and Lebanon is a much more formidable enemy than Hamas is. Hezbollah has longer-range missiles that could paralyze Israel and knock out the electricity grid. So Israeli families are buying generators just in case, and many army reservists are being told to report for duty just in case there's war.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.