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News Brief: Budget Deal, Britain's Next Prime Minister, Tensions With Iran

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back when the president was a Democrat, Republicans were very concerned about deficit spending.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Republicans pushed through a big tax cut, Democrats grew concerned.

INSKEEP: Now both parties have agreed on a budget deal that substantially raises spending and borrows even more.

MARTIN: The president announced the agreement on Twitter yesterday, calling it a real compromise. The deal would provide more than $1 trillion for defense and domestic spending over the next two years.

INSKEEP: Where's your money going? NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us now. Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: If we talk about this budget deal - more than a year - a two-year budget deal - don't we have to begin with the political effect?

RASCOE: Yes. So this deal basically takes off the board some really tough issues that neither party really wanted to face ahead of the 2020 elections. I don't think either side wanted to risk the U.S. defaulting on loans and the threat of what that might do to the economy ahead of this big election coming up. And this also had some agreements that will, in theory, help with getting future spending bills done.

There is an agreement between the White House and Democrats not to include poison pills in future spending bills. That means that Democrats have agreed not to add controversial items that could derail spending legislation. Now, it's not clear how that will actually be enforced, but that is the idea. And so that's part of what I think they were trying to get at with this, was kind of take these really tough issues off of the table.

INSKEEP: And also taking some spending limits off the table, right?

RASCOE: Yes, absolutely. That's the thing. So basically, this would kind of blow through those spending caps that were negotiated back during the Obama administration. And as you say, it seems like no one at this point is really concerned about controlling that spending anymore or it's not the top priority that it once was. And so - and they're not paying for these increases in spending. They're raising spending limits by about $320 billion but only offsetting about 77 billion.

INSKEEP: And just to remember - when President Trump took office, his budget director was Mick Mulvaney, who put out a budget proposal that just slashed government spending massively. Even an all-Republican Congress didn't have a lot of interest in that. I suppose one that is one house controlled by Democrats and one house controlled by Republicans hasn't been interested in that approach either.

RASCOE: No. And so the White House had called for $150 billion in spending cuts, but they backed down from that. And maybe it seemed like that wasn't really realistic at this point. But at this point, it seems like they are on the same page as far as getting this bill done - at least with leadership. But there is some grumbling from fiscal hawks and from some on the Democratic side.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk about that. Just because the majority and minority leaders of both houses have agreed, does that mean that this measure is likely to pass?

RASCOE: Well - so it has a good shot. The House and Senate still have to vote on it. But both - and both chambers right now are trying to get out before the August recess, so they have that pressure. The House is scheduled to vote first because their recess starts at the end of this week, and the Senate will vote after that. They're supposed to go out next week.

There are Democrats who are unhappy because this increases spending on defense and doesn't necessarily deal with some of their priorities. And obviously, the deficit hawks feels like this is too much spending. But since no one is completely satisfied that may be a sign that this compromise will work because no one can say they got the upper hand. So barring a revolt on either side, this should come to fruition. But we'll have to see.

INSKEEP: Ayesha, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.

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INSKEEP: When Theresa May became Britain's prime minister in 2016, she inherited a problem so vast it consumed her entire tenure. Today Britain chooses her replacement, who will face the same problem.

MARTIN: Members of the Conservative Party have been voting for a new leader. Boris Johnson is the clear favorite. He's a former journalist who rose to become the mayor of London. He later campaigned in favor of Brexit, which has become a long-running British political crisis. That is the problem that defeated Theresa May. Now it will be issue No. 1 for her successor.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in London just ahead of the announcement. Hi there, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What made Boris Johnson the favorite?

KAKISSIS: Well, so to use one of the slogans of the Brexiteers - they want Brexit, and they want it now. And negotiating, you know, Britain's departure from the EU has become this long, drawn-out process. The British are sick of it. And the Brexiteers in particular want a timeline and a definitive plan to get out of the EU.

And Boris Johnson, he's their guy. You know, he's the face of the "leave" campaign in 2016. He's a guy who thumbs his nose at the European Union and its bureaucrats. And Johnson spent years in Brussels defining this anti-European Union sentiment, in part by writing these frequently false newspaper columns about how the EU was stifling its member states. So you know, those who want Brexit now believe he's the guy who will deliver it by October 31, no matter what.

And this political science professor I spoke with, Andrew Russell of the University of Liverpool, he put it this way.

ANDREW RUSSELL: The appeal of Boris Johnson to conservative members is precisely the fact that he is unusual, that he offers them, right now, the potential, the possibility that he can reach the parts that, you know, the rest of the establishment cannot reach, that he can, you know, sell Brexit to a largely skeptical British public.

INSKEEP: OK. Boris Johnson did help sell Brexit to just over 50% of those who voted in a referendum three years ago. But the British public remains divided. Theresa May could never come up with an exit deal that would satisfy both Parliament and the European Union, partly because Boris Johnson resigned in protest in the middle of that process. Can he deliver any better?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, it all depends on how he handles these first few weeks. You know, those - the people who like him really like him and think he can do it. You know, they think he can deliver. But a lot of the British think, you know, he's a dangerous guy - he's careless, that he makes decisions without thinking through the repercussions. And they worry that this fly by the seat of your pants style is just going to be disastrous for Britain.

INSKEEP: Aren't the challenges pretty stark for any new prime minister?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. You know, Brexit is going to consume any new prime minister right now. As you mentioned before, it consumed and destroyed Theresa May. And he's going to - Boris Johnson and whoever is going to be prime minister has to manage this exit very well; otherwise, Britain's going to suffer economically. And you know, we don't even know how - we don't have details on how badly Britain's going to suffer...

INSKEEP: Britain itself could crack apart. I mean, Scotland is talking about independence again to stay in the European Union.

KAKISSIS: That's right. You know, separatist rumblings have started again over Brexit because Scotland wanted to stay in the EU. So - and there are lots of other issues, too. There are domestic problems, international problems, like tensions with Iran. And you know - and there's also a sense that maybe Johnson won't last as prime minister and there'll be general election.

INSKEEP: Joanna, thanks.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in London.

Now, Britain's new prime minister also inherits a confrontation with Iran.

MARTIN: Right. So Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker last week. That has brought Britain closer to conflict. The U.S. has its own challenges with Iran, but Britain disagrees with the Trump administration about how to respond to all this. The U.S. wants a coalition of countries to protect commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. But British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that Europe will create its own maritime coalition.

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JEREMY HUNT: It will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.

MARTIN: President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement last year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam has been following developments and joins us now. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So at least in terms of protecting oil tankers, protecting shipping - that narrow issue - the U.S. and Britain have similar goals. But they're going to have separate naval forces going after them. Why?

NORTHAM: Well, Foreign Secretary Hunt made it clear. It goes back to this 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration pulled out of just over a year ago and has been following up with increasingly stiff sanctions, which is crippling Iran's economy. You know, the Europeans believe the deal was working, and they want it to remain intact. And they also feel that Iran's recent aggressive behavior in the Gulf can be traced back to the decision to pull out of that nuclear deal.

Steve, I spoke with Sanam Vakil about this, and she's a senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. And here's what she had to say.

SANAM VAKIL: The Trump administration has not really looked to Europe as being a relevant player or partner and instead pursued a unilateral policy on many important issues.

NORTHAM: And now it seems, you know, Steve, the U.K. is worried that a U.S.-led force could be seen by Iran as inflaming tensions in the Gulf. And Hunt did say the European maritime coalition would be complementary to the U.S. plan.

INSKEEP: Is that a really polite way to say we're just doing something different?

NORTHAM: It could be. You know, Foreign Minister Hunt didn't explain much more except to say that both plans will be focused on freedom of navigation. Pentagon officials say the U.S. model will be called Operation Sentinel and could include having ships at both ends of the Strait of Hormuz along with drones and surveillance. The administration, on Friday, met with representatives of about 60 countries to talk about this. But they did not say which countries have signed on.

So it's unclear how all this will work now with the European model. And one analyst told me the U.S. might be turning to Asian and Middle Eastern countries who don't have the same military ability as Britain.

INSKEEP: I guess we should point out the U.S. is continuing this maximum pressure campaign. And it's not just pressure on Iran. They're also trying to pressure European nations and China and India and other countries to stop doing business with Iran.

NORTHAM: Yeah. That's right. And the U.S. can expect to ratchet up pressure, both on Iran and certainly other countries. Just yesterday, the administration sanctioned a Chinese state-backed oil company and one of its top executives for skirting U.S. sanctions by buying Iranian crude. Now, China is Iran's biggest oil customer. And so you know, if it keeps - if it starts sanctioning China, this could very well increase tension with Iran but also China.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks very much for the update - really appreciate it.

NORTHAM: Yeah. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "NO GIMMICKS [INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.