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News Brief: German Election Results, Biden's Agenda, COVID Data

NOEL KING, HOST:

After 16 years, Germans have voted for a change.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It was a nail-biter, but in the end, the country's center-left Social Democratic Party narrowly beat Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party by just 1.6% in preliminary results. And these results are so close that it may take the country months to form a new government.

KING: NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is following this one. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: It was so close. What does that result tell us about where Germany's headed?

SCHMITZ: Well, the first thing these results tell us is that Germans are not unified on which party and which chancellor candidate they want to lead their country. The Social Democrats won this election with just 25.7% of the vote. The Christian Democrats came in second with just 24.1%. The top two parties received less than half the votes. Filling out the other half were the Green Party, the libertarian FDP party, the far-right AfD party and many others.

KING: And so now, as I understand it, a coalition government has to be formed, and that will not be easy.

SCHMITZ: No, it won't. You know, because no party received a clear majority, this means that the Social Democrats as well as the Christian Democrats will now be speaking to the smaller parties to see if they can entice them to govern with them. I spoke to Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund about this. She says we've seen this before in German politics, but never quite like this.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: The difference is now that the smaller parties are in the driver's seat, Merkel has left a very fragmented political landscape in Germany. And it looks like it's going to take three parties to form a majority for the next government. So the small parties, the Greens and the FDP, are actually sort of banding together to really call the shots for the next government.

KING: Three parties - that's extraordinary. Who are the smaller parties? What do they want?

SCHMITZ: So the Greens are an environmentalist progressive party that want to make Germany carbon neutral as quickly as possible, and they've had a profound impact on this election. They've channeled the growing frustration among Germans about climate change into a movement that's forced Germany's two largest parties to change their own platforms on this issue. The FDP is a liberal-minded libertarian party that is all about fiscal responsibility and against high taxes. And what's interesting about these two parties, who are now in the driver's seat for coalition talks, is that they attracted the most first-time young voters in this election. So in many ways, they represent Germany's future.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. So Germany's two top biggest parties are going to have to court the smaller parties in order...

SCHMITZ: Right.

KING: ...To form a government. Who's likely to win?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats, comes into this with a lot of momentum. He's been able to make big gains for his party in the closing weeks of his campaign. Meanwhile, Armin Laschet, the candidate for the Christian Democrats, has stumbled over and over in his campaign. And he's delivered the worst loss for his party since World War II. It's clear that the Social Democrats are in the best position to form Germany's next government, but it's going to take a lot of haggling.

KING: OK. NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: This coming week will be a big one for President Biden's agenda.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, congressional Democrats face a deadline to avoid a government shutdown and avert a debt crisis, all while trying to hash out disputes within their own party over the president's domestic agenda. Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC's "This Week" that, despite the differences, her party is unified and determined to get things done.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

NANCY PELOSI: This isn't about moderates versus progressives. Overwhelmingly, the entirety of our caucus, except for a few whose judgment I respect, support the vision of Joe Biden, and we will make progress on it this week.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is with us now. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What has to happen this week?

SNELL: Well, first of all, Congress needs to keep the government open. There is a spending deadline at the end of the fiscal year, which is on Thursday. If they do not pass a bill to extend current government spending, as there's bipartisan support to do, then the government will shut down. The other thing they need to do is they probably need to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill because there are some elements of it that contain the highway bill. Basically, it's programs that keep, you know, highways running are included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. So that is on their list of things that need to get done.

KING: Is it possible for them to get all that done?

SNELL: It's possible, but it's difficult. You know, Pelosi was pretty blunt in saying that the House will pass the bipartisan bill this week, but the timing has already slipped. They're going to start debate today, which was their original plan. But Pelosi sent a letter to Democrats last night moving the final vote to Thursday, which is that final day of authorization for some of those transportation programs. You know, there are a lot of moving parts. You also have the debt limit and a shutdown deadline, which are now politically tied. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is politically tied to a bigger $3.5 trillion spending bill. And while some of those deadlines are self-imposed, this spending deadline absolutely is not. It's going to be a difficult week.

KING: What is the status of the bill that would prevent a shutdown?

SNELL: Well, the Senate is expected to vote on that tonight. But we expect that it will fail because Democrats in the House added a provision to suspend the debt limit. Now that is the congressional borrowing limit that would allow the federal government to keep borrowing money on debt that has already been accrued. Republicans say they will not provide any votes to avoid a debt default unless Democrats drop their plans for further spending. And they would need 10 Republican votes if they want to get this bill passed. They're basically telling Democrats to move on.

KING: So are Democrats going to do that? What's their plan?

SNELL: Well (laughter), that's a really good question. Republicans are essentially saying that Democrats are already using a budget tool to get around a filibuster in the Senate on that bigger spending bill that Republicans don't support. So Republican leaders say Democrats should just go ahead and add the debt limit in there. Go ahead and do it on a partisan basis. But that would take time - as much as a couple of weeks. And they are, you know, running up against a deadline for that. And there's no guarantee Democrats will all vote for the spending in that bill. You know, it puts a lot of responsibility on Democrats to avoid default and get the bulk of Biden's agenda done in one bill. And Democrats don't want to be in that position. Plus, they're trying to make the political point that Republicans are shirking their responsibility on the debt in the first place. You know, debt limit suspension used to be a fairly bipartisan, though fairly perennial, fight.

KING: Does a shutdown seem likely at this point, do you think?

SNELL: You know, it's really hard to tell. The crazy thing is it's just a few days off. Democrats could hold the vote today in the Senate just to prove that Republicans are obstructing and then go back and pass a standalone bill to keep the government open. So that is still a possibility. But they don't want a shutdown, and it's a risky game of chicken, so there's going to be a lot of haggling over the next couple days.

KING: Risky game of chicken - just what we all need. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right, so here's some good news. Fewer people in this country appear to be catching the coronavirus.

MARTINEZ: New cases fallen by 20% over the last two weeks, and public health experts are optimistic the trend could continue if people continue to take precautions. Plus, millions of Americans are now eligible for the Pfizer booster dose aimed at shoring up their immunity.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us, as she often is on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So this is really interesting because public health experts say cases are dropping. But last Friday, more than 2,000 people were reported to have died of COVID-19. How do you square those two things?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the U.S. is down to about 114,000 new infections a day, and this decline has been pretty sustained over the last few weeks. So if this trend continues, deaths would begin to drop, presumably, too. I mean, hospitals in the hard-hit Sunbelt states do see a continued dip in admissions. That's good. Nationwide, new hospital admissions have dropped about 16% over the last week. And Dr. Marc Boom, who is CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, says there's a sense that the worst could be behind them.

MARC BOOM: We're in the right direction, and we still need the community to do the right things. We still vociferously recommend people go get their first and second doses. And while I applaud all these booster decisions, the most important thing is that the people who haven't gotten vaccinated go get vaccinated.

AUBREY: His hospital has already begun giving boosters, too. Millions of people who received the Pfizer vaccine are now eligible if it's been at least six months since their second dose.

KING: OK. So a big development is that the strategy for booster shots is now a lot clearer. Who gets to go first?

AUBREY: Well, the way the booster recommendations are written, there's really two categories - people who should get a vaccine and people who may opt for one. In the should category, the CDC says anyone 65 and up and people 50 and older with underlying health conditions who may be at higher risk of serious illness. Also eligible - so people who may opt to get one - are younger adults with underlying medical conditions. And the CDC says this should be based on, you know, individual assessment of your risks, perhaps in consultation with a medical provider. Right now, a booster is not recommended for younger, healthier adults because, so far, it looks as if we're still well-protected against serious illness and hospitalization. And that seems to be the main goal of the vaccination campaign, not to prevent every infection, but to limit the serious ones. Now, this recommendation could change as time goes on.

KING: Yeah. What about health care workers and other people who are much more likely to be exposed to the virus?

AUBREY: You know, this was an area of some controversy. CDC advisers weren't convinced that there was enough evidence yet to recommend a booster for everyone at risk due to workplace exposure. But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky really broke with that guidance. Speaking on CBS yesterday, she explained people can make the decision based on their own individual risks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I felt it was appropriate for those people to also be eligible for boosters. That includes people in homeless shelters, people in group homes, people in prisons, but also, importantly, are people who work with vulnerable communities - so our health care workers, our teachers, our grocery workers, our public transportation employees.

AUBREY: Now remember, so far, it is just the Pfizer booster authorized. People who got Johnson & Johnson or Moderna may have to wait until the FDA reviews data and more decisions can be made, Noel.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.