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News Brief: Government Funding Lapses, Market Volatility, Syria

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 8:28 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Months of false starts, political battles and missed deadlines in Congress culminated overnight with one more missed deadline.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. The Senate did not pass a spending bill before midnight, and so government funding lapsed. And this was largely symbolic because most federal offices were already closed for the night. The reason for all this, though - Republican Senator Rand Paul. Even though the Senate had enough votes to pass a budget bill, Paul delayed the vote. He wanted to make a point about increased spending.

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RAND PAUL: Well, you know what? I think the country is worth a debate till 3 in the morning, frankly.

INSKEEP: And he just about got his wish. The Senate reconvened at 1 a.m., and by 2 o'clock in the morning, they had passed their version of the spending bill.

GREENE: And so that tossed it over to the House, which is now holding a vote on this bill - a bill, we should say, that does not include changes to immigration policy that Democrats badly wanted.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here to guide us through all this. Sue, you've been up all night.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I have not been up all night, but, you know, I tuned in early.

INSKEEP: OK.

DAVIS: And it seems like we should have a resolution to how this is going to go very soon. I think what this bill and the angst overnight tells us is that when you do craft big bipartisan deals, it does tend to leave a lot of lingering, hard feelings on both the left and right.

INSKEEP: And it's a situation where the margins are narrow, especially in the Senate. And so one person can say, wait a minute, wait a minute, I need to gum the works up a little bit here because I have a point to make.

DAVIS: He did gum up the works, although he never really changed the outcome. They always knew from the start that this bill was going to pass by a big margin in the Senate. It did with 71 votes. That's a lot in the Senate these days. But Rand Paul also has a point, right? His point that he was making is that Republicans in a Republican-controlled government are voting for more spending than they ever agreed to under Barack Obama.

INSKEEP: Which is something that we've heard from other lawmakers. Warren Davidson of Ohio - Republican of Ohio - was sitting in the very chair where you're sitting the other day saying I don't understand what's going on here. This is not something we would have done with a different president.

DAVIS: It's also very possible that this is a vote - no matter the outcome - is not the last we'll hear of it. This is a vote that Republicans could face primary challenges over, that Democrats may try to make an issue of in the general election to say, look, you - they ran on these promises that won the majority in 2010 - of fiscal responsibility, of reducing the size of government. And so far, they have not done that.

INSKEEP: Wasn't the forecast for the federal budget deficit - the amount that they spend beyond what they take in in tax revenues - already going up really fast - dramatically - for this year even before this spending deal came through?

DAVIS: It was because of the passage of the $1.5 trillion tax cut, which even congressional estimates say are expected to add $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. You throw in what is essentially a $400 billion spending package, and that's just read and read and read as long as the eyes can see. And just a few months ago, the United States crossed a $20 trillion debt rubicon. It was also frustrating to fiscal conservatives that in the State of the Union address, President Trump never brought up the debt and the deficit.

INSKEEP: The debt rubicon - I think that could be title of the book you write about your years....

DAVIS: (Laughter) A very dull book...

INSKEEP: ...Covering Congress, I would think.

DAVIS: ...But a very important book.

INSKEEP: Exactly. And there's lots of crossings involved. So just very briefly, here's the situation as we're talking now. The House has yet to pass this spending measure. But let's stipulate, let's presume for the moment, that it does pass. You have a general idea of what is in this bill. What is in this bill?

DAVIS: It essentially will get us off this roller coaster of shutdown threats for the next two years. It sets topline spending levels for 2018 and 2019 and should give Congress the ability to write budgets and spending bills to stop these very conversations. The big question now about this bill is what happens on immigration. Their two fates have been linked because Congress is going to move next to immigration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before - shortly after the Senate passed their bill, made a motion on the floor. They will begin that debate on immigration next week. We have no idea how long it takes or where it goes.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Susan Davis.

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INSKEEP: Next, we have a correction - not of the fact-checking kind, though.

GREENE: No. We're talking about the financial term and, you know, Steve, it sounds a little bit like a euphemism. A correction is when the stock market falls at least 10 percent from a recent high, and that happened yesterday after another big sell-off. And we should keep this in perspective here. These are not historically bad days for the market, which had been on a really hot streak. But it is enough to make you wonder about the health of the U.S. economy more broadly, and certainly, it's worth asking what's next.

INSKEEP: Which is what we will ask NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie, who's on next. John, good morning.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Good morning, guys.

INSKEEP: Are you feeling a little panic?

YDSTIE: I'm not feeling panic, but I think there are lots of investors and traders on Wall Street who may be feeling some panic.

INSKEEP: So people say, correction, no big deal. This is just one of those natural things that happens in the market. But I guess if you're the guy whose portfolio just went down by 10 percent, you don't necessarily feel that way.

YDSTIE: Yeah, and it's possible that all of our portfolios have gone down by that, but some people have lost way more than that, so they're the panicked ones.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We've been clear in recent days that not everybody is invested in the stock market. Only a little more than half of Americans either own stocks directly or through some kind of fund, but that's still more than half of Americans who have probably lost some money here. So what is prompting another down day? What prompted yet another down day on Wall Street?

YDSTIE: Well, I think - you know, there are several things that are at work here. First of all, how many times have you asked in the last year are stocks overvalued? Well, turns out, they are.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

YDSTIE: They were - at least they were. There was a lot of exuberance in the market, a lot of enthusiasm about the tax cuts. That drove stocks up 7 percent in January - an incredibly fast rate of growth. Then, interest rates are moving higher. You know, they were near zero for years. That helped make stocks the only place to get a decent return on your investment. And investors are concerned rates are going to be moving higher faster. A week ago, we got a strong job growth number and a strong wage number from the jobs report. That suggested the Fed might raise rates faster, and that helped trigger - really triggered this sell-off.

And then the market is actually worried about the Fed. We have a new Fed chair, Jerome Powell, and he says he will follow Yellen's gradual approach to raising rates. But, you know, there are several open seats on the Fed's policymaking board, and the market doesn't know who's going to fill them and whether they might want to raise rates faster. And then, Steve, we still have these people who are involved in this investment scheme betting on low volatility in the market.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

YDSTIE: They're still selling stocks to cover their losses. At least we think they are. It's not very transparent what they're doing. And then, you know, we've got this budget thing that Sue Davis was talking about. Investors are concerned about the long-term health of the economy as a result of that.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll leave it there and continue to watch the markets as they go through another day. John, thanks very much, appreciate it.

YDSTIE: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Ydstie.

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INSKEEP: OK. There are some 2,000 United States troops in Syria right now, and earlier this week, some of them came under fire.

GREENE: And we should say fortunately no Americans were killed, and they fought back with some massive air power. But here's the thing - this attack was not launched by ISIS, and this is a sign of just how complex this war is becoming.

INSKEEP: Yeah. There are not two sides. There are many, many sides. And we'll go through them a little bit here with NPR's Tom Bowman, who has just spent three dramatic days inside Syria and had a look at all this. He's out now. Hi there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So if it wasn't ISIS attacking American troops, who did attack?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, they were Syrian regime militias backed by Russia, and 500 of these fighters using tanks and artillery, they attacked a U.S.-supported Syrian rebel base. And there were some American military advisers there. Now, these artillery attacks came, Steve, within just a few hundred yards of that rebel base. We talked to the commander of the Syrian rebels in the area. He said he called the Russians because there's a formal process in place to avoid any military mishaps.

INSKEEP: Sure.

BOWMAN: And that's kind of routine. He said the Russians denied there was any attack. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They deny. They say we don't have any information about this attack (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: Here's the thing, Steve. This Russian guy was just six miles away. He would likely have heard something going on. And after the U.S. responded with air attacks, killing a hundred of these fighters, this commander said the Russians called and said, can we come pick up the dead?

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So just to review here - you've got two countries, the United States and Russia - which could each destroy the world - and they have allies of one country attacking the troops of the other. That's one of many things going on in Syria. You also have ISIS fighters, as we mentioned. We've got regime forces. And that's just the beginning because there are also Turkish forces around and also Kurds. What's going on with them?

BOWMAN: Well, we actually went up to the front with the Turks - the Turkish rebels - and we did talk with Kurdish commanders and troops that are worried even more now. Hundreds of their fighters are heading up north to fight the Turks who consider all these Kurdish fighters terrorists. And at this outpost in the north, the Kurds said they often come under fire. And now, with this Syrian militia attack farther south we were just talking about, the Kurdish commanders are sending their reserve forces down to that base to shore up the defenses. And all of this is pulling resources away from the fight against ISIS.

INSKEEP: So if you have this chaotic situation, is the United States determined to remain in Syria, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, what the American military say is it's going to take about two to six months to defeat ISIS, they say another year or more to stabilize the area with humanitarian aid. But this is where it gets complicated, Steve - Syrian government and the Russians say you're here illegally. Even some on Capitol Hill are saying you could be stumbling into a broader conflict without clear objectives.

INSKEEP: Also if you're talking about stabilization, the U.S. is still trying to stabilize Afghanistan 17 years out.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Tom, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for your reporting.

BOWMAN: OK. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman has been reporting from inside Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWUAN'S "NAH MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.