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News Brief: Texas Power Outage, Biden Town Hall, Troops In Afghanistan

NOEL KING, HOST:

The situation for people in Texas is still perilous today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Millions of people don't have electricity and many haven't for up to three days. It's freezing outside. There's no water for many people. Grocery stores are running out of food. And in a big winter storm, many elements of the state's electrical grid have failed.

KING: Joey Palacios from Texas Public Radio is on the line with us from San Antonio. Hi, Joey.

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: I know your power has been on and off. Do you have electricity right this moment?

PALACIOS: No, actually, I don't, haven't had power for about 48 hours now.

KING: Oh, my goodness. And so how are you adapting? What are you doing? Are you OK?

PALACIOS: I'm under, like, three blankets right now. I have a sweater. I have jacket. I have a robe. I'm wearing two layers of pajama pants right now. So it's an all layered affair at the moment.

KING: OK. I can hear you shivering a little bit. And I know that this is happening for millions of people across Texas. Talk to us about how things got so bad.

PALACIOS: So we have to go back a couple of days because this has been a slow-motion crisis. On Sunday and into Monday, it was snowing in Texas, and that is really rare. The cold weather caused two things to happen - power plants started to fail, and second, the cold caused the demand for electricity to spike. And that reduction in power combined with the jump in demand caused the near collapse of the state's energy grid. Now, the grid is run by an organization called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. And they're the ones who, in emergency situations like this, force local utilities and the cities to start rolling blackouts to keep from overwhelming the grid.

KING: OK, so the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, not a group that anyone had - most people had heard of before 72 hours ago, they say the grid is about to collapse. We have to cut power to some people. It's worth asking, in a big, prosperous state like Texas, why weren't they out in front of this?

PALACIOS: Well, so everyone had known for several days that Texas was going to be walloped by this winter storm. But it really doesn't seem that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, also known as ERCOT, made sufficient preparations or warned the public how bad it might get. As you mentioned, Noel, you know, ERCOT went from being one of the most obscure organizations in the state to becoming one of the most heavily criticized. They've received so much disdain from the general public right now. For some people, it feels like they may have appeared out of nowhere. But this organization has been around for a long time. And even around 10 years ago, there was a similar rolling blackout crisis, but that one only lasted a few hours.

KING: OK. So the general public, ordinary people, are very upset. What about state leaders? What are they saying to and about this group about fixing this problem?

PALACIOS: They want answers. Members of the state legislature want answers. Members of Congress want answers. People are not happy with Governor Abbott. The governor didn't really say anything public until several hours into the crisis. And right now, Abbott has actually asked for an investigation of ERCOT, and he's even made reform of ERCOT an emergency item for the legislature. And he himself has said that ERCOT has not been very reliable right now.

KING: Joey, just real quick, when have you and others been told that you might get power back?

PALACIOS: It's really going to depend on the weather. I woke up to freezing rain today, so it could be several days before things get back to normal.

KING: Freezing rain in San Antonio. Joey Palacios, Texas Public Radio. Thank you, Joey.

PALACIOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: President Biden is on the road this week pushing his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

INSKEEP: And trying to instill confidence in his administration's vaccine strategy. Last night, Biden was in Wisconsin for a CNN town hall with host Anderson Cooper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON COOPER: When is every American who wants it going to be able to get a vaccine?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By the end of July of this year.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: In this town hall last night, did President Biden answer the questions that people are most sort of worked up about, including the vaccine?

LIASSON: Yes, he did. One of the big topics was school openings. They'd been very controversial, a potential vulnerability for the White House because Republicans are trying to say the Biden administration has not been aggressive enough on something that to many Americans is the most important signal of getting back to normal, in addition to all the other reasons why it's important for kids and parents to get schools open. And one of the reasons that this is a potential vulnerability for the White House is because the president's press secretary had set a remarkably low bar of what Biden meant by school openings. She said he wants half of them having in-person instruction one day a week by the end of his first 100 days. But last night, Biden said that was a mistake in communication. He wants to see K-8 classes back five days a week. Here's what he said

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We'll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days. You'd have a significant percentage of them being able to be open. My guess is they're going to probably be pushing to open all for - all summer to continue like it's a different semester.

COOPER: Do you think that would be five days a week or just a couple?

BIDEN: I think many of them five days a week. The goal will be five days a week.

LIASSON: So a much more ambitious goal. But as Biden pointed out, education is a state and locally controlled thing. He can set goals, set guidelines, but it's not up to him.

KING: Getting the schools open will require money. Joe Biden has said he wants $1.9 dollars. Critics say that's just too much money. It's going to overheat the economy. Is he and his administration, are they still saying, no, it's $1.9 trillion, that's what we need?

LIASSON: Well, he's still pushing for the big package. He said last night that he feels his package is broadly popular. He cited polls that show Republicans and even Trump voters like it, if not Republican members of Congress in Washington. He defended the price tag. He said there's a consensus among economists about spending more rather than less. Both Biden's treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, and the Fed chair, Jerome Powell, seem confident that a bigger package is better. And if it does spark inflation, they can handle it. It's unclear if it's going to get any Republican support despite those bipartisan talks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Wall Street Journal that the first step to unifying Republicans, who, of course, are very badly divided, is to unify around opposing Biden's relief package. That's the same thing McConnell and the Republicans did in 2009 when Obama asked for bipartisan support for his stimulus.

KING: As McConnell is trying to hold his party together, he's now in, I guess, what you could call a fight with former President Trump. What's happening there?

LIASSON: You could call it a fight. Trump put out a lengthy statement yesterday. He blasted McConnell. That's, of course, after McConnell blamed him for the January 6 riot. The statement said, quote, "Mitch is a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again." The statement went on to threaten that Trump would where, quote, "necessary and appropriate, back primary rivals." It's unclear exactly what that means. But Donald Trump once again proving that he's not just the most important factor in Republican politics but also potentially the biggest source of division and chaos in the Republican Party. And now he's aiming his anger at Mitch McConnell.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks for this, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: The U.S. and the Taliban made a crucial agreement last year.

INSKEEP: If the Taliban were to meet certain conditions, the U.S. said it would withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops out of Afghanistan by May 1. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the Taliban have not met those conditions yet. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will begin talks with NATO today on how to move forward.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following this one. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: What were the conditions that the Taliban agreed to?

BOWMAN: Well, the two main conditions were a break with al-Qaida and a commitment not to attack cities, neither of which they've lived up to. A recent Treasury Department report said al-Qaida is gaining strength in Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to threaten cities. All we heard yesterday from a defense official is violence must go down but not much more about the way ahead. Now, there is a sense with people I talk with in the military and on Capitol Hill that the U.S. and NATO will not pull all troops out by the end of April because, again, the Taliban is just not holding up to their side of the agreement but no final decision right now.

KING: OK. Biden is relatively new in office, and that does matter. But before he was sworn in, Congress ordered a study about withdrawal of American troops and the wisdom of it. What did they conclude?

BOWMAN: Well, retired Marine General Joe Dunford, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took part in that study ordered by Congress. And it suggested extending that withdrawal date to give the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government enough time. And he painted a bleak picture if all troops leave. Let's listen.

JOE DUNFORD: Here's what we know. If we walk away, we'll leave behind chaos, if not civil war. If we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now, then there is at least a prospect of achieving that end state, even as we recognize how difficult it will be.

BOWMAN: Now, Dunford said there's a real opportunity to work with regional powers, including China, India, as well as Pakistan and maybe even Iran, to come up with a good settlement and one that could include a continued international assistance. And he said that a continued military presence by the U.S. and NATO can help all that along, including, of course, continuing to train and assist the Afghan army. The U.S. can't, General Dunford said, just simply hand a victory to the Taliban.

KING: And, you know, he said we'll leave behind chaos, if not civil war, if we leave. What are the specific worries? How might the Taliban react if U.S. and NATO forces stay?

BOWMAN: The specific worries are that, you know, the Taliban have not attacked U.S. forces now. But if they say Americans are reneging on the agreement, they could start attacking Americans once again. Now, the hope is the Taliban will be - eventually be willing to adhere to a peace deal because they want international recognition, international aid. But then again, we could just be returning to more warfare, 20 years of it now, and that just continues.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks for this.

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