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News Brief: Infrastructure Vote, Bootleg Fire, Olympics' COVID Concerns

NOEL KING, HOST:

Just about a month ago, President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators stood outside of the White House...

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

And said they'd reached an agreement on a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. But here's the thing, there's no actual bill yet. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says a procedural vote today is a kind of a pressure test to try and move legislation along despite Republican objections.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: It's not an attempt to jam anyone. It's only a signal that the Senate is ready to get the process started.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is covering the process. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: What is Chuck Schumer trying to get done with this procedural vote?

DAVIS: Well, this is not an unusual Senate tactic. You know, the vote today is essentially asking senators if they're ready to start debate on this deal. They need 60 senators to say yes. And then they'd be on the bill until they complete it. That could take days. That could take weeks. Schumer has assured this group of bipartisan senators in the talks that he'll bring up their bill for debate as soon as they hand it over to him. It's really not so much an attempt to derail this deal, but to try to force the group to close it, which is often really hard to do, as you know, in Congress, unless they're up against a firm deadline.

KING: So if it's not that unusual, why are Republicans objecting to it?

DAVIS: Well, senators don't like being told what to do, especially in the minority.

KING: (Laughter) OK.

DAVIS: But at the same time, they say they're close, right? Utah Senator Mitt Romney is one of these negotiators. He said that Republicans asked Schumer to postpone today's vote until Monday because he thinks they can tie up the loose ends by then. Schumer rejected that request. One of the holdups is senators need to figure out how they're going to pay for this. It's got about $600 billion in new money in the bill. One example of the disagreements they're having - Democrats wanted to give the IRS more money to enforce tax laws so they could bring in more revenue, which they estimated could bring in around $100 billion. That's about one-sixth of the new spending in the bill. But Republicans rejected that under pressure from anti-tax groups and conservative activists who don't want to see an emboldened tax agency. So they're going to have to find alternatives.

KING: And then if the Senate doesn't agree to move forward on the bill today, is that it? Is it done?

DAVIS: These senators say it's not. And Schumer can always try again. But it certainly wouldn't be seen as a good sign about the future of the bill. Some Republicans who were initially supportive of the deal have also publicly wavered a little bit because Democrats have linked passing this bill to a separate piece of budget legislation that could spend as much as $3 1/2 trillion to expand the federal government and combat climate change. There is unified Republican opposition to that legislation in the Senate. So there's a lot of political, tactical strategy going on here, complicating the shared fate of the bills.

KING: And then the other big Democratic priority is the budget bill.

DAVIS: Yeah.

KING: Where does that stand?

DAVIS: Well, Schumer has also set a separate deadline for today, asking all 50 Democrats to agree among themselves that they're going to support a budget resolution for that 3 1/2 trillion in new spending when it comes up on the floor. Most Democrats are on board for this. But as always, watching those key moderate swing votes, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, he has not committed to publicly supporting this - or supporting it, at least publicly, I should say. Schumer wants to get both of these bills out of the Senate before they adjourn for the August recess in just about two weeks - they could extend it - because the House, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has indicated they are not going to take up and move ahead on any of these bills unless the Senate proves it can act first.

KING: OK. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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KING: OK. Right now, as we speak, in the western United States, there are more than 80 big wildfires burning.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. The biggest of them is the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon. It's already the fourth largest in state history and continues to grow at a rapid rate. Now, no deaths have been reported so far. But at least 170 structures have been destroyed. And dry, windy conditions continue to fuel that fire, which is only 30% contained.

KING: Erik Neumann has been covering the bootleg fire from member station Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon. Good morning, Erik.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What's the situation on the ground there in southern Oregon?

NEUMANN: Yeah. So currently, the fire has burned nearly 400,000 acres. It's burning in this very rural part of southern Oregon near the California border. It's an area larger than Los Angeles. And this puts it at currently about the fourth largest fire in Oregon history since 1900. Yesterday, Mariana Ruiz-Temple​, who's the Oregon state fire marshal, gave kind of a warning about this fire season, just talking about the amount of firefighting resources that have already been sent out this year.

MARIANA RUIZ-TEMPLE​: I would categorize this fire season thus far as historic in terms of the amount of resources we've deployed.

KING: Historic is a word we're hearing a lot with respect to this fire and this fire season. Let me ask you about something I saw yesterday on reputable news sites that astonished and confused me. This fire is so big, it's creating its own weather. What does that mean?

NEUMANN: Yeah. So this is something that a meteorologists that I talked to yesterday described as kind of a sign of just the amount of extreme fire behavior that they're seeing from the Bootleg Fire. I'll give kind of a crude description. It's basically that this fire is so massive and it's creating so much smoke that the moisture in that turns into sort of a big thunderhead, like, a big, puffy-type cloud that we would see. It goes into the atmosphere. It's called a pyro-cumulus or a pyro-cumulonimbus cloud. And at a certain point, that creates this added level of risk where there's this new weather system that's created, which can cause its own level of wind and lightning, which can then lead to more fires.

KING: That is absolutely extraordinary. Now, Erik, listen; I know you're a reporter, not a scientist. But you've been talking to scientists. To what degree are they blaming climate change for this fire season?

NEUMANN: It definitely seems like climate change has magnified the fires this season. In addition to this area being in a really severe drought, one of the factors that has sort of prompted this fire being so difficult is the record heat wave that happened in June across the Pacific Northwest. Those two factors tied together really just sort of primed all the vegetation in this area to be extremely dry and really able to burn. And so, for example, yesterday, Governor Brown called this watching climate change play out in front of us.

KING: OK. Only a third of the fire has been contained at this point. What's the outlook for the next couple of days? What are you hearing?

NEUMANN: Well, so far, that 32% containment is really being seen as an achievement.

KING: OK.

NEUMANN: Firefighters are just protecting communities that are currently threatened right now. And the forecast is still for hot and dry conditions. So this fire is going to continue growing.

KING: Erik Neumann, a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio in southern Oregon. Thanks for your time, Erik. We appreciate it.

NEUMANN: Thank you.

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KING: All right. The Tokyo Olympics start this week. The opening ceremony is on Friday. And it will be different.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, very different. Stadiums and arenas that cost Japan billions will be empty. Spectators are banned because of COVID. Some athletes and staff have already tested positive for the coronavirus. Major sponsors, such as Toyota, Japan's most valuable company, won't run ads in Japan tied to the Olympics. So what does all of that look like from within the games?

KING: NPR's Tom Goldman is there in Tokyo. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Noel.

KING: So some competitions have already started. And yet it is very weird year. People are calling it the pandemic Olympics. What is standing out to you?

GOLDMAN: Well, one thing standing out, we're seeing daily increases in positive tests here. As of today, there have been at least 79 people connected to the Tokyo games who've tested positive for the coronavirus since July 1, including at least six athletes. Now, in an IOC meeting today in Tokyo, the head of the World Health Organization said these Olympics shouldn't be judged by the number of positive cases, but how the infections are handled. There are strict protocols, so far, no outbreaks that we know of. But I got to tell you, Noel, our personal experience has made us question the promises we keep hearing from Olympic organizers that everyone's going to be safe. We've been tested daily. And the collection process for our tests has been erratic. And we've talked to other journalists who've been able to, essentially, talk their way out of being quarantined when they got to Japan.

KING: Oh, gosh. Well, don't try to talk your way out of anything. Stay safe, please. Tom, I just learned that this is your 13th Olympic games. This is the 13th time you've covered the Olympics for NPR. How does it compare so far?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Strangest by far.

KING: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: And I talked to a reporter today who's covering his 22nd...

KING: Oh, man.

GOLDMAN: ...And he confirmed that. You know, usually in this week before the Olympic ceremony, opening ceremony, there's this buzz in the host city. There's, you know, anticipation. There are lots of visual reminders that this is the biggest of sporting and cultural events. And it's about to unfold. And I'm just not seeing that, you know? Now, granted, my NPR colleagues and I are coming out of four days of quarantine since we landed in Tokyo. But the initial impressions are, you know, a kind of eerie quiet, some of that related to Japanese displeasure about these games. We've heard about the polls that show a majority of the public here just doesn't want the Olympics.

KING: People don't want the Olympics there. It's extraordinary. The quiet feeling...

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

KING: ...Would also be partly mandated - right? - because of COVID restrictions. I imagine there are limitations on movement, what people can do.

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah. And, you know, as far as the quiet goes - for the few fans who can attend some events, no cheering, no singing, no chanting. Most events have no fans at all. There are some plans to pipe in some sound at venues. But interestingly, today, Japan started off the Olympic competition with a big softball win over Australia. The Japanese won 8-1. And one report from the stadium in Fukushima said that when the Japanese players hit home runs, all you could hear was the buzzing of cicadas and polite applause from the team staff.

KING: OK. That polite applause is nice. So Japan won in softball - any other competitions of note?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, yeah. The top-ranked U.S. won as well in softball. They beat Italy 2-0. It was a good start today for the US. Also, women's soccer is underway, including the World Cup Champion United States.

KING: All right. NPR's Tom Goldman in Tokyo. We'll talk to you again soon, Tom. Stay safe.

GOLDMAN: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.