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News brief: Texas abortion law, jobs report, CIA's focus on China

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How are Texas abortion providers responding to a federal court ruling?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A judge paused a Texas abortion law, calling it flagrantly unconstitutional. The judge's ruling was clear, but the outcome isn't. Texas immediately said it will appeal the ruling against its law. The state legislation says random people can sue anyone who aids an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. The law specifically says that if it's temporarily blocked by a judge, as has happened, people can sue retroactively if the law is then restored.

INSKEEP: So Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin has been talking with abortion providers. Ashley, good morning.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, obviously abortion providers say this is a victory for Texas, that the court has intervened. But you know, other states have passed similar bans, but they have been blocked by the courts from enforcing them. Texas, on the other hand, was allowed to enforce this law prohibiting abortions after about six weeks for more than a month, so obviously they're breathing a sigh of relief. Amy Hagstrom Miller is the CEO of Whole Woman's Health, which operates four clinics here in the state. She told reporters yesterday that within hours after the judge's order, they started scheduling abortions for people who had come into the clinic previously, but their pregnancies were too advanced at that point.

AMY HAGSTROM MILLER: We reached out to some of the patients that we had on a waiting list to come in to have abortions today, folks whose pregnancies did have cardiac activity. And we were able to see a few people as early as 8, 9 this morning.

LOPEZ: This is just one provider, though. There are many providers in Texas who do not see this as an open invitation to start expanding abortion services, though. In fact, Planned Parenthood affiliates said they're consulting with patients, but they just don't think they can actually start providing abortions past six weeks yet.

INSKEEP: What stops them?

LOPEZ: Well, there are a couple things at play here. Right? For one, Texas has a 24-hour waiting period for abortion, so this isn't something that can get done quickly. And the assumption here is that abortion providers do not have a lot of time. It's expected that any moment now, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, is going to come in and lift this block by a lower court. And when that happens, abortion providers who did perform abortions past the six-week limit could be retroactively sued by private citizens who, under the new Texas law, are allowed to sue in order to enforce this abortion ban.

INSKEEP: Right. So if this could go back into effect at any time and even reach back in time, what do abortion providers say they need?

LOPEZ: They say the only thing that will stop the law for enough time to actually restore abortion services in Texas past six weeks gestation is for the U.S. Supreme Court to step in. The day the law went into effect, the court declined to stop the law because it was designed to be hard to fight in court, and the justices basically embraced that. But abortion providers have since filed an emergency request again to get the court to reconsider blocking the law. However, so far, the court has not done anything.

INSKEEP: Suppose this law goes back into effect and stays. What are the long-term implications?

LOPEZ: I mean, we're looking at more weeks like the nearly five that just passed. Hundreds of people seeking an abortion in Texas have not been able to obtain the procedure. That includes people who are victims of rape or incest because the law doesn't make exceptions for people who are sexually assaulted. And that means more people will go to another state to get their procedure, or the many Texans who simply cannot afford that will be forced to carry a pregnancy they don't want.

INSKEEP: Ashley, thanks so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Ashley Lopez of KUT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Well, we can tell you the United States will not default on its debts - at least not for a couple more months.

MARTIN: Yeah. Lawmakers passed a plan that allows the government to keep borrowing money. That, in turn, allows the U.S. to meet its spending commitments. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said it was essential to keep borrowing and also said he would block it with every means in his power. He wanted Democrats to do it alone. Facing a possible crisis, lawmakers agreed on a plan, but it extends borrowing only until December.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about that and the economy more broadly with NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So one immediate threat has gone away. How important is that?

HORSLEY: It's certainly good news that Congress is on track to avoid a default in mid-October. That would have made for a very scary Halloween. But assuming the House goes along with this deal, it only pushes the problem off to December. And so we could still be looking at a big lump of coal in people's stockings if lawmakers don't find a more lasting solution. We've actually heard a growing chorus of voices this week saying Congress should just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether so we don't have to go through this periodic political game of wondering, is the government actually going to pay the bills that it's already racked up?

INSKEEP: OK. So let's widen the lens a little bit here, Scott, because we've got a jobs report out today. It's an opportunity to take stock of the economy as we head here into October. I do notice that the delta variant numbers have finally been dropping. What's the economy looking like right now?

HORSLEY: Well, we expect to see better numbers than we did in August. But if you look back at June and July, we were averaging about a million new jobs each month - you know, really making big strides in the direction of full employment, which is where we were before the pandemic. And then, as you say, the delta happened. And we kind of hit this pause button on the recovery in late summer. Hiring slowed sharply in August. We actually saw a loss of jobs in restaurants and bars that month. Those industries are particularly sensitive to swings in how people are feeling about the pandemic. Now it looks as if people are feeling somewhat better. Real-time data shows an uptick in restaurant dining and air travel. And Nela Richardson, who's with the payroll processing company ADP, thinks September's jobs numbers will be a lot stronger than what we saw in August, though not as robust as we saw back in June and July.

NELA RICHARDSON: I think it's just a bumpy recovery. And it's a recovery that's still linked to the pandemic and to the delta variant.

HORSLEY: The good news, Steve, as you say, is vaccinations are up; hospitalizations and deaths are down. And if that continues, we should see further improvement in the job market as we move farther into fall and winter.

INSKEEP: For those people who are still collecting unemployment, what's happening?

HORSLEY: You know, during the pandemic, Congress dramatically expanded the safety net program for people who lost jobs, including gig workers and the self-employed. But those emergency benefits ended in about half the states over the summer, and they expired nationwide during the first week of September. Since then, we have seen a really sharp drop in the number of people receiving unemployment aid. About 7 million people fell off the rolls in September. Most, like Tom Guffey of Los Angeles, have not yet found new work. Before the pandemic, Guffey was a gig worker, doing a lot of odd jobs for people on TaskRabbit. Now he's hoping to move in a different direction.

TOM GUFFEY: I'm still not feeling super safe about, you know, going into strangers' homes. So working in an environment where there's clear rules around COVID and stuff, that's kind of my first choice.

HORSLEY: You know, some employers are hoping the end of those extra unemployment benefits will push more people back into the workforce. Obviously, though, it's going to take some time for 7 million people to find new jobs.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: William Burns, the director of the CIA, is making it clear that China is now the spy agency's main focus.

MARTIN: For the past two decades, the CIA's top priorities were the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with terrorism threats throughout the Middle East. The pivot to China, so to speak, begins with a new mission center at CIA headquarters outside Washington, D.C.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre covers the CIA from our own intelligence agency mission center. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's actually just wherever you are, I suppose; that's the mission center. In any event, this is the CIA mission center. They don't make a lot of public announcements. So what's it about that they're actually telling us this in public?

MYRE: Right. It's really a formal recognition that China cuts across so many key issues - U.S. national security in Asia from Taiwan to North Korea, this battle for political influence around the globe, from economic competition and next-generation technology. And it also really reflects President Biden's larger effort to pivot to Asia, that Asia in general and China in particular are going to be the center of gravity for many of the most important developments in the 21st century. And this really doesn't come out of the blue. Back in July, NPR interviewed William Burns, and he suggested something like this was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAM BURNS: The first thing I'd stress as you look at the CIA's role, you know, over the next decade is that all of us in the United States, I think, are at a really important moment of transition in the world. You know, we're no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, especially with the rise of China.

INSKEEP: So what does a pivot to China mean or look like in practical terms for this agency?

MYRE: So this - setting up the mission center will take place at the CIA headquarters. And what it means is obviously more staff and resources, but in particular recruiting more Mandarin speakers, people with specialized expertise on Chinese issues, from its economy to its technology. But here's the really hard part. It means a bigger China operation out in the field - sending more U.S. officers abroad to China, if possible, and elsewhere in Asia and to recruit people that are willing to work with the agency and spy on China.

And I can't emphasize this enough - China's one of the hardest targets in the world from a spy agency perspective. A decade ago, China uncovered and dismantled a significant part of the CIA's network there. And its vast surveillance web has only become tighter since then, just a very difficult place for spies to operate. And William Burns also spoke about this in his interview with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURNS: ...How we innovate and how we deal with phenomena like ubiquitous technical surveillance, which is basically what happens when you have smart cities and, you know, very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese intelligence service to make it much more complicated to do espionage overseas.

INSKEEP: As big as it is, China is just one part of the world. Do you have a sense of - more broadly of how William Burns is approaching the world?

MYRE: Yeah, he wants the CIA to be more attuned to a wider range of sort of nontraditional threats. And the best example here is the coronavirus. The pandemic really upended the entire world, and yet it hasn't been the kind of threat that the CIA has aggressively monitored in the past. There's also climate change, which can cause political instability, create huge refugee flows, things like that. So Burns has actually created also another mission center. It comes with a pretty unwieldy name - the Transnational and Technology Mission Center.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, if you expand your efforts in some areas, do they reduce them in others?

MYRE: Yeah, they have to. And they've downgraded two existing mission centers, Iran and North Korea. These were both set up at the beginning of the Trump administration to keep an eye on those countries' nuclear programs.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.