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News Brief: Texas Voting Restrictions, Biden Voting Rights, J&J Vaccine Warning

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Texas Democrats for the second time this year have staged a walkout in an effort to stop Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, at least 50 of the 67 Democratic lawmakers left Texas and flew to Washington, D.C. yesterday. Their action denies the Texas House, which is in a special session, a quorum of members. That means they can't pass legislation. Unlike a similar walkout in May, this time, lawmakers may have to stay away for weeks in order to thwart Republican efforts.

PFEIFFER: Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin is following the story. Good morning, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: So, as you know, the last time Democrats stopped a voting bill - this was in late May - they walked out of the building right before a vote. Why did they leave the entire state this time?

LOPEZ: OK, so the reason they had to leave the state is that if Democrats set foot in Texas before the end of the special legislative session and if a quorum is called in the Texas House, state police could go around the state arresting these lawmakers and force them back into the legislature to vote. The Democrats I have talked to say they're prepared to stay out of the state that entire time, though, which could be as late as, like, August 6 or 7.

PFEIFFER: So you might even call this fleeing the state. Why did they take this drastic step?

LOPEZ: Well, this was kind of, like, another breaking point for Democrats. Republicans have been passing voting restrictions for years in Texas, and Democrats say this time, they were going too far in proposing massive changes to the election code based on a lie told by the former president, President Trump and his allies, that the 2020 election was stolen. You know, just to give you a sense of what's in these bills, if passed, Texas would have new restrictions on ballot by mail, voting hours. And there would be a bunch of new criminal penalties related to voting. And voting rights groups have warned that could lead to people getting in serious legal trouble for innocent mistakes. I talked to Democratic State Representative John Bucy about this. And I asked him why they're, like, walking away yet again instead of working something out through the legislative process.

JOHN BUCY: There is no bipartisan ground to start with when you're working on a bill that is directly tied to a lie and tied to restricting voting access. So that's why this is different. This isn't based on solving a problem.

LOPEZ: Democrats are also facing a timing crunch because two big voting bills were voted out of committee over the weekend, one in the middle of the night. And both the Texas House and Senate were expected to take full chamber votes on each bill this week. So these bills are moving really fast this time.

PFEIFFER: And Republican politicians in Texas - what are they saying about this?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, Texas Governor Greg Abbott actually issued a video statement yesterday saying Democrats are leaving Texans in the lurch because there's still a lot of work to be done. In his remarks, he accused Democrats of putting politics ahead of their duties.

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GREG ABBOTT: The Democrats must put aside partisan political games and get back to the job they were elected to do.

LOPEZ: I should note that one of the issues that Texas faces is restoring funding for the legislative staff, which Abbott actually vetoed in retaliation for the Democrats' last walkout. I talked to Democrats about whether they were concerned about leaving Texas without making sure their staff is getting paid. And they said that it's Abbott's problem to fix, not theirs. So he's the one who will cut the funding, and he's one who has to fix it. But that's another issue looming all over all of this.

PFEIFFER: So these Texas lawmakers are in D.C. What happens now? Are they trying to do something in D.C.?

LOPEZ: Well, this is also the second time that they've walked out and then headed to Washington. So they say their plan is to talk to lawmakers again. And they want to push them to pass federal voting protections, including the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The last time they did that, though, Republicans in the U.S. Senate closely after blocked consideration of the For The People Act. So it's unclear what, if anything, will change this time around.

PFEIFFER: Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin, thank you for covering this.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thank you.

PFEIFFER: And as Texas lawmakers pressure Congress to act on voting rights, as Ashley just told us, President Biden is under pressure to do the same.

INSKEEP: Yeah, some of the president's closest allies want his stronger support to change rules in the U.S. Senate so that Republicans can no longer block voting rights legislation at the federal level. Congressman Jim Clyburn, a key supporter, is among those who want Biden to back a change to the filibuster. Biden has yet to endorse that, but he is giving a speech today on voting rights. His press secretary, Jen Psaki, says the president will point out that the Republican stance on elections is driven by lies.

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JEN PSAKI: He'll call out the greatest irony of the big lie is that no election in our history has met such a high standard with over 80 judges, including those appointed by his predecessor, throwing out all challenges. He'll also decry efforts to strip the right to vote as authoritarian and anti-American.

PFEIFFER: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins us now. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Texas first. What is the White House saying about these Texas lawmakers who've fled their state and flown to Washington?

DETROW: Yeah, we heard from Vice President Harris yesterday, who's leading the administration's efforts on this issue. And she was actually in Detroit, holding a listening session on voting rights when all of this happened. Harris had met with these Texas Democrats after their first walkout to block an earlier version of this bill. And here's what Harris said yesterday about what's going on now.

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KAMALA HARRIS, BYLINE: I applaud them standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote unencumbered.

DETROW: Harris went on to compare these lawmakers to civil rights activists from the 1960s. You know, but the lengths that these lawmakers are going to really speak to a much larger challenge that Democrats have right now - and that's this. They just don't have the votes to block this Republican push to make voting harder in many of these state Capitols, in Congress and right now in the federal courts.

PFEIFFER: And this topic of voting restrictions is something that President Biden is going to talk about today. Any sense of what he is going to say?

DETROW: We expect some pretty stark language, like we heard just now from Jen Psaki. You know, Biden is expected to call these moves authoritarian, among other things. But in terms of action, especially new actions, probably not that much. The White House keeps talking about how President Biden is using the visibility and power of the presidency to push for voting rights and to call out what's going on in these Republican-controlled states. But today's speech has been promised for weeks now. And in the meantime, the president has gone overseas and back. He's negotiated infrastructure deals. And he signaled a lot of other priorities while having Harris take the lead on this voting issue. And that's frustrated a lot of progressives. They've been really worried that Biden has not been doing more. And some are even protesting outside the speech in Philadelphia today.

The White House does point to steps that Biden has taken, specifically an executive order and a Department of Justice lawsuit against another one of these new laws in Georgia. But that lawsuit is another sign of how hard this is for Biden right now. That recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling about Arizona made it pretty clear the federal judiciary is going to be pretty skeptical of challenges to voting laws. And, of course, we keep coming back to this. Even though Democrats control the House and the Senate, because of the filibuster, they cannot get these bills through the Senate right now.

PFEIFFER: And on that filibuster, there are people, even progressives, who say if this is such a big priority, maybe it's worth getting rid of the filibuster. Maybe Joe Biden needs to do that. What is the White House saying about that pressure?

DETROW: The same conversation we've been hearing on so many other fronts - that he's hesitant to fully push for a change. The White House points out there aren't 50 Democratic votes on the Senate to make a change anyway. We did hear a new iteration of this conversation recently, James Clyburn, a close Biden ally, making the argument that maybe a very narrow exemption just for bills related to the Constitution or voting rights could could become exempt from the filibuster.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Scott Detrow, thank you.

DETROW: Sure thing.

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PFEIFFER: The FDA is requiring vaccine maker Johnson & Johnson to put a new warning label on its COVID-19 vaccine.

INSKEEP: This warning concerns an increased risk of a rare neurological disorder in the 42 days following vaccination. This is a single-dose vaccine, you'll recall. It suffered production problems in the past, and it was paused back in April after a few recipients developed a rare blood clotting disorder.

PFEIFFER: Here to talk about this and other vaccine developments is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So more bad news for the J&J vaccine. Tell us about this neurological disorder and how serious it is.

PALCA: Well, it's called Guillain-Barre syndrome. It's an autoimmune syndrome. And what that means in this case is a person's own immune system damages its nerves, the person's nerves, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most people fully recover. Some do have permanent disability. And some have even died. Nobody knows exactly what causes it. It has been associated with vaccines in the past, but the connection isn't that clear.

PFEIFFER: And even without that clarity, some people are certainly going to be reluctant or unwilling to take the J&J vaccine. What's the guidance on whether people should be taking it?

PALCA: Well, every COVID expert I talked to says absolutely yes. From a risk point of view, it's completely clear that the risk of getting sick or dying from COVID-19 is much higher than the risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome. But, you know, people aren't calculating machines. And, sometimes, risk is only one of the factors they weigh in making decisions. And if you want proof of that, just look at all the people who buy lottery tickets. But a rational choice at this point is to take the vaccine.

PFEIFFER: Right. The guidance being the risk is so tiny, go for it.

PALCA: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: So other vaccines news - Israel has said it will be offering a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for people who have compromised immune systems. Why are they saying that?

PALCA: Right. Well, you have to understand that vaccines work by sort of training a person's immune system to recognize a virus, in this case, the coronavirus. But some people don't have a properly functioning immune system. And some people who've had organ transplants take immune-suppressing drugs, so their bodies won't reject the transplanted organ. Dorry Segev is a transplant surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins.

DORRY SEGEV: We know that the protection the transplant patients are getting is much lower than that of people with normal immune systems. So then the question is, what do we do next? And it's not uncommon in transplantation for us to give extra doses of vaccines to our transplant patients.

PALCA: And that extra dose can be enough to kick off the immune response that would protect someone from a particular virus.

PFEIFFER: I imagine that immune-compromised people in the U.S. will be wondering if they should take a third dose. Is the U.S. advising that?

PALCA: Well, the answer here is not yet. They are in France. And patients are doing it privately in this country. Dorry Segev has done some research on patients who've managed to get a third dose or decided to. And for some, it's prompted the kind of immune response that would protect someone from COVID-19 but not for everyone.

SEGEV: I don't think that a third booster dose is necessary for every single immunosuppressed patient. I don't think that a third dose will necessarily be the solution for every immunosuppressed patient. But that's a good place to start. And we need to understand the impact of these and the safety of doing these.

PALCA: And he's about to launch a study that will try to get answers to that question.

PFEIFFER: And, Joe, what's current thinking about whether people who've already gotten vaccinated need a booster shot?

PALCA: Well, all the manufacturers are considering booster strategies. Pfizer has been the most aggressive. They've told the government they they want to apply for an emergency use authorization for a third dose of their vaccine. Pfizer representatives met with federal officials yesterday. But for now, the government scientists are saying a booster just isn't needed for people who've gotten a full vaccination.

PFEIFFER: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, thank you.

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