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News Brief: Biden Agenda, Military Justice System, Britney Spears

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The debate over whether to get rid of the filibuster, a fundamental part of the legislating process, is now in clear focus.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. So here's the background. Senate Republicans yesterday unanimously blocked a voting rights bill. Democrats say the legislation is necessary to prevent some states' efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote. But the bill died before it was even debated, which means Democrats really only have one option left if they want to get this legislation through. They have to get rid of the filibuster, which would eliminate the need for bipartisanship.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: This vote on this bill was always a long shot for Democrats. So now what?

KHALID: Well, the president issued a statement last night in which he described Republicans' behavior as yet, quote, "another attack on voting rights that is sadly not unprecedented." He did not articulate what he or his party's next moves might be, but he said he'd have more to say on the topic next week. You know, he did say that the fight over this is, quote, "far from over." But, you know, Rachel, frankly, some progressives feel like Biden himself was not actually using the perch of the presidency effectively enough to actually do something on this issue. Multiple Democratic activists told me that they see eliminating the filibuster as, frankly, the only option to get some key Democratic priorities through Congress.

MARTIN: All right. So they see it as the only option. But I mean, how likely is that, Asma, getting rid of the filibuster?

KHALID: I will say that even Democrats know it's extremely unlikely. You know, they'll need to get all of their fellow Democrats on board to do this. That just seems extremely unlikely. And I think there is a real assessment that that's not necessarily possible. But many activists are frustrated with the status quo. I caught up with Cliff Albright. He's the co-founder of Black Votes Matter. He told me that compromise in itself is not a noble strategy.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: You had a hundred and something Republicans that voted to essentially overturn a presidential election. If that's going to be your benchmark of bipartisanship, then you've failed before you even got out the door.

KHALID: You know, Rachel, it's not just progressives. As the White House engages in bipartisan infrastructure talks, even some of the more centrist voices in the party are starting to question what can actually be done across party lines. Jim Kessler is the co-founder of Third Way, and he says we'll know the answer about the future of bipartisanship in the next few weeks, as these active discussions on things like infrastructure play out.

JIM KESSLER: They're either going to come together, or they are going to stall. And then the clock really starts getting to that witching hour where you just have to say we're going to move on.

KHALID: And when it comes to police reform, another policy issue that's also in bipartisan discussions, you know, there are serious discussions. But Kessler says public policy inevitably runs up against politics. And crime and policing, in his view, are hot-button issues that Republicans will want to exploit, he says, ahead of the midterms.

MARTIN: So let's close by just taking a moment to talk about that. I mean, President Biden is delivering remarks about crime and policing later today. This is coming as several cities - New York City in particular, which is going through a mayoral election - has seen a big surge in crime. What is the president's plan?

KHALID: Well, the White House is going to announce new steps to curb gun violence. Those include cracking down on gun sellers who violate federal laws, expanding summer programs for teens and investing in community violence intervention. One important detail is that the administration is now going to be allowing communities that have experienced an uptick in gun violence to use COVID relief money to hire more police officers. You know, Rachel, the administration recognizes that crime is on the rise. And part of what the White House is doing is attempting to get out of this issue ahead before it becomes, you know, too much of a political liability.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin now says he supports a potential major change to the military justice system.

KING: Yeah. For the first time, he's backing a plan to let independent military lawyers handle cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence. Under the current system, military commanders get to make the decisions about whether to take those cases to trial.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why is Secretary Austin backing this change now?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, an independent review panel just delivered its recommendations to Austin on Monday. And setting up that panel was one of his first directives when he took office in January. He said in the past, ending sexual assault and harassment - one of his top priorities. And he's set to testify today to a House committee and is likely to face questions about this. But this is one of the review panel's recommendations, taking away prosecution of sexual assault cases from commanders - military commanders and having an independent review of this.

MARTIN: So that's one major recommendation, taking the decision about prosecutions out of the chain of command. What else is in this set of recommendations?

BOWMAN: Right. That's the big one. And also, he wants to come up with more plans for prevention, command climate, victim services. He says that'll take more money and personnel. And finally, he said, listen; a lot of this change demands leadership. And you hear that a lot that. Military commanders have to take this issue seriously. Reports of sexual assault keep going up.

MARTIN: What could this mean for service members, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, again, you'll see a lot more training, as well as more services available for those who are victims of sexual assault. But as to how this will work with the prosecutions, we really don't know yet. There's not a great amount of detail about this.

MARTIN: The Pentagon, as you know, is a big old bureaucracy. How difficult will it be to make a change like this?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, you're going to have to go to Congress, and they'll have to rewrite portions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And there are some top military officials who have expressed reservations about this, saying, you know, it may have adverse effect on readiness, good order and discipline. Now, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is a lead sponsor of a plan that would not only take sexual assault prosecutions away from the military chain of command, she would go further than Secretary Austin and the review board want. She wants to take many felony prosecutions away from commanders, but the military doesn't support that, and it's currently being blocked in the Senate. So it's uncertain if that widespread taking all felonies (ph) away from military commanders' prosecution will actually pass muster. That's really uncertain at this point.

MARTIN: All right. We will look forward to hearing Secretary Austin give his testimony on Capitol Hill today. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Free Britney.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Free Britney.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

MARTIN: That was the sound outside of an LA courthouse during one of Britney Spears' last hearings this past March. You heard fans there chanting free Britney now.

KING: Her fans are supporting her in a complicated case about who controls her finances and, she claims, her actions. Today, she's scheduled to talk to a judge for the first time about this legal arrangement that's gone on for 13 years. It's called conservatorship.

MARTIN: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas is with us now. Anastasia, thanks for being here.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start with the basics. Can you walk us through the whole concept of conservatorship and why it gets put in place?

TSIOULCAS: Sure. Well, typically, legal and financial conservatorships are arranged for people who aren't able to make decisions in their own best self-interest. So, for example, they're usually used in cases of, say, an elderly person or someone with some kind of cognitive impairment.

MARTIN: All right. So explain why Britney Spears has one of these.

TSIOULCAS: Well, hers was put into place back in 2008 after she had a very public mental health crisis. And this conservatorship controls all the major aspects of her life, including decisions related to her financial, medical and personal well-being. And the conservatorship also oversees visitation arrangements with Spears' two teenage sons, who are under the full custody of her ex-husband Kevin Federline.

MARTIN: But it's not like Britney Spears has been languishing on the couch for 13 years. She's been doing things. Right?

TSIOULCAS: Oh, for sure she has. She's released four albums. Two of them went platinum. She was a judge on both "X Factor" and "American Idol," and she had a four-year concert residency in Las Vegas. So all of that doesn't exactly line up with the typical profile of someone unable to look after themselves, Rachel.

MARTIN: Who is in charge of her conservatorship right now?

TSIOULCAS: It's primarily her dad, Jamie Spears, and that's already been a point of contention. Last fall, Britney asked for a separate wealth management company to co-run the financial side of things. Her dad objected to that, but the judge allowed it to move forward.

MARTIN: So, as we heard in that clip of tape in the intro, a lot of her fans have wanted this arrangement to end. They've been very public about their support of Britney Spears. They launched this hashtag, #FreeBritney. What has Britney Spears said about the whole public nature of this? I mean, this is a very complicated thing, I imagine, for this woman.

TSIOULCAS: It really is. So far, Spears has never said in public that she doesn't want the conservatorship at all. Her lawyer said in court filing that it, quote, "rescued her from a collapse, exploitation by predatory individuals and financial ruin," end quote. But that might not be the full truth. Yesterday - just yesterday - The New York Times published a report in which it said it had evidence that Spears has been privately resisting the conservatorship and particularly her father's control since at least 2014. And she's made those points to both the judge and to a court investigator.

MARTIN: And is that why she wants to speak to the court directly today, which is the big deal, right?

TSIOULCAS: Yeah. And for sure, it's a real possibility. She may want to contest the conservatorship altogether. It's been 13 years.

MARTIN: Is there any precedent that this could set, Anastasia? I mean, this case is getting so much attention, obviously, because it's Britney Spears. But will it say anything about future cases?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I think it really points to larger issues about control and autonomy. I mean, there's Britney Spears' sheer celebrity, for sure. But 13 years is a long time for a grown working woman to cede complete control over her life to other people, whether they're family or not and, you know, clearly very complicated family dynamics here. And apart from the particulars of Britney Spears' situation, it really opens up questions about whether a mental health situation should dictate the course of one's whole life.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And one more news story to tell you about before we go today - Hong Kong's tabloid Apple Daily says it will end its publication on Saturday due to, quote, "the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong." The government there has frozen Apple Daily's accounts, arrested their editors, a columnist and their founder under the new national security law. For more on that story, you can follow along at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.