News Brief: Border Wall Issue, GOP Health Care, North Korea Anniversary

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 25, 2017 8:06 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. And, David, we're going to start this morning with President Trump's promised border wall with Mexico, right? What's going on?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. So President Trump is still pushing very hard for that border wall. You know, Congress needs to pass this funding bill by Friday to keep the government running. And Trump had said no deal if there's not money in there for a wall. He is backing away from that a little bit. But now there could be this other obstacle in front of his wall. There are these engineers in Mexico who think that if the president builds onto that barrier at the border, he might be violating a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that was signed back in 1970. This is an agreement that says both countries have to agree to any kind of structure that would affect the flow of the Rio Grande River or its flood waters. And we should say we're learning about this based on the reporting from one of our colleagues.

MARTIN: That colleague is NPR's John Burnett.

GREENE: Yeah.

MARTIN: He's with us now on the line. Hi, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Walk us through this. How could expanding the border barrier affect the flow of the Rio Grande?

BURNETT: Well, first, this comes from an institution between the U.S. and Mexico called the International Boundary and Water Commission, which is based in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It's usually very quiet. It just deals with issues of, you know, allotting water. But there's this treaty that they have to - they have to order. And it says that you cannot build an obstruction in the floodplain that would, as David says, would restrict the water flow.

And if you put a wall down in the lower Rio Grande Valley, in the floodplain, which is actually on the drawing board - there are blueprints for this that have been pre-approved - it would act like a dam. It would deflect water into Mexico. And so this could cause an international protest from these Mexican engineers.

MARTIN: Is it a question of what materials are used?

BURNETT: They were shocked when they saw that these requests for proposals came out for something as large as a 30-foot-tall concrete wall, which they said would just completely obstruct water that needs to flow freely back and forth across the border. And even if it were a permeable fence, it could get caught and clogged with all this debris. And so it would stop the flow of water. I even talked to officials in Rio Grande City, a little town down on the border. And they said, we don't want this thing here because it's going to prevent floodwater from draining back into the Rio Grande.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BURNETT: So there's local opposition too.

MARTIN: So if President Obama finds a way to pay for this, does Mexico have any recourse to shut the project down, shut the wall down or at least change it so it doesn't create these environmental problems?

BURNETT: They do. It's an international treaty. And so both sides have to approve of this wall if it goes in the floodplain. I found an expert on water diplomacy named Stephen Mumme. He's with the - he's at Colorado State University. And here's what he had to say about it.

STEPHEN MUMME: I think that showdown is coming. This is supposed to go forward on a binational, cooperative basis. And that's not happening.

BURNETT: So he thinks that Mexico will file a protest under this treaty violation. If this thing goes forward.

GREENE: You know, showdown - if that comes - I'm going to go out on a limb here. I don't think President Trump minds a fight, even a legal fight. If this wall ends up in court, I mean his hardcore supporters might get to see that I-won't-back-down approach they elected him for. But I mean, this is no small thing. I mean, the risk of undermining the U.S.-Mexico relationship is real. And this is a relationship that so many people, including former President George W. Bush, on our air recently, says is just so, so critical.

MARTIN: Yeah, so we'll continue watching us. NPR's John Burnett talking to us from KCUR in Kansas City. Hey, John, thank you so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And just a few more days before President Trump gets to that 100th-day milestone.

GREENE: Yeah, it's incredible that we're there, isn't it? And he really wants to cross health care off his list of accomplishments. Trump set the bar pretty high when he said he is hoping for congressional votes on both a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act and a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we want to keep the government open. Don't you agree? So yeah, I think we'll get both.

GREENE: But it is really hard, Rachel, to know if House Speaker Paul Ryan is really on board with this. He seemed optimistic last week when he said Republicans were putting the finishing touches on another health care plan. Over the weekend, though, he changed his tune. On a conference call with Republican lawmakers, he said there will be a vote on a new health care bill only when he is certain that there is enough support to get it passed.

MARTIN: That's the key. OK, Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team is here with us in the studio. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So are Republicans giving up on health care, or are they delaying it? What's going on?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, there's no bill. There's no legislative language written. So I think it's pretty safe to say that the idea that something is going to pass this week is not going to happen.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: No matter what the president or the White House says or wants. You know, what we do have is some floated language that would keep a lot of the popular Obamacare requirements in place, like denying - like not denying people with preexisting conditions and guaranteeing emergency services, maternity care. But critics say there are big loopholes in that because it would let states decide and allow insurance companies potentially to charge more for - to charge sick people more.

MARTIN: So is this language something the White House is on board with? Like, how much space is between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill?

MONTANARO: Well, what we know about President Trump is what he wants is a win. He doesn't really care, in particular, about the details. But while hardline conservatives really are on board with this, you know, some of these changes moderates are saying that they don't like. So Republicans have the same problem that they started with. The whole thing is like a water balloon. You squeeze one end; the other side pops open. And no matter which end you squeeze, they still have the same problem.

MARTIN: What's the future of health care - of repeal and replace - if they don't get this thing through this week?

MONTANARO: Well, 8-Ball says, reply hazy. Try again.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTANARO: So we'll see.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I'm going to have that water balloon metaphor in my head all week. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Sure.

GREENE: You know, I always think of these government shutdown moments as a different kind of moment in Washington because you've got deadlines - and not just that deadline. You've got the semi-artificial hundred-day mark for the president adding this urgency. And, I mean, you've got one party controlling everything, the White House, Congress. It really is putting their leadership into focus. And they've got an opportunity to seize a moment or not. And if they don't, it doesn't it - it doesn't look great politically.

MARTIN: OK, Domenico, stay with us. We're going to pivot now to the international stage, a birth - a birthday for North Korea's military.

GREENE: Yeah, and when you hear birthday or holiday or anything, you think there's going to be a missile test. So it's been 85 years since the founding of the Korean People's Army. North Korea usually marks these occasions with some sort of big missile test. It did not happen. But the regime did hold this massive artillery demonstration as a show of force. Over the weekend, Pyongyang also detained a Korean-American teacher who was about to leave the country.

And then yesterday, North Korea threatened to sink a U.S. Navy strike group if provoked. The United States now is turning things up a notch. For their part, on the "Today" show yesterday, the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, talked about the conditions under which the U.S. might consider striking North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

NIKKI HALEY: If you see him attack a military base, if you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, then obviously we're going to do that.

MARTIN: OK, Domenico's still here. Joel Wit is joining the conversation. He negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program while he was at the State Department. Thanks for being here, Joel.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of saber rattling over the past few weeks. Is the threat from North Korea really any greater than it's been for years?

WIT: Well, I don't think it's a lot greater than it's been for years. This has been a gathering storm that's been going on for some time now. And the current crisis, I believe, is the result of each side ratcheting up the threats they make against each other. So it seems like it's a greater crisis now. But in fact, it really isn't.

MARTIN: Domenico, what diplomatic options does the Trump administration have at its disposal?

MONTANARO: Well, it's the same that's been available to past presidents - you know, the six-party talks including Korea, Japan, of course, China being the biggest trading partner. President Trump has said he wants to try to put some pressure on them then sort of walked it back because he said that he had just learned how complicated it was from China's President Xi. So, you know, this is not a country you can just militarily strike. They - this isn't Afghanistan. They have complicated terrain, a big military and nuclear weapons.

MARTIN: But then, Joel, he's talking about diplomatic options, encouraging U.N. ambassadors to pass new sanctions. But there is, at the surface of this talk of, oh, we could strike - like, don't get us wrong, North Korea. We could. We have that option on the table. Does that box the administration in? Does that create a red line he doesn't want to cross?

WIT: Well, I think they are creating a red line. And if you listened to Ambassador Haley yesterday, she basically created a red line by saying that if North Korea attacks South Korea or if it launches an intercontinental ballistic missile, we are going to strike them. And the problem with that is there's a lot they can do other than those two things that would advance their nuclear and missile programs. And we're basically telling them, go ahead and do that stuff.

MARTIN: Domenico, tomorrow, an unusual thing is happening, right? The entire 100-member Senate has been asked to report to the White House for a briefing on North Korea. That seems extraordinary.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and you have some pretty heavy hitters who are going to be doing the briefing - General Mattis, a whole bunch of other folks, Secretary of State Tillerson. So presumably they'll talk about what the intelligence says on North Korea's nuclear program, what, you know, other options there are, cyber - and what the state of diplomacy is, you would presume. So I think this will be a chance for the White House to make clear what their strategy is because right now it's not very clear.

MARTIN: OK. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro and Joel Wit. He's a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks to both of you for coming in this morning.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

WIT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "TIRED AND AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.