News Brief: 3 Members Of Congress Out In One Week, California Fires, Jerusalem

Dec 8, 2017
Originally published on December 8, 2017 6:21 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are ending a week in which three members of Congress announced their plans to resign.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. First, there was John Conyers of Michigan, who announced his retirement Tuesday. This followed allegations of sexual harassment by former aides. And then yesterday, Minnesota's Al Franken announced that he is going to step down amid a growing number of complaints from women who say that he either touched them or tried to kiss them inappropriately.

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AL FRANKEN: Over the last few weeks, a number of women have come forward to talk about how they felt my actions had affected them. I was shocked. I was upset.

MARTIN: And then last night, Trent Franks, a congressman from Arizona, put out a statement saying that he too is going to resign. This comes after he was told that the House Ethics Committee was going to investigate complaints that he had had with female staffers about surrogacy as he and his wife struggled to conceive.

GREENE: OK. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is in the studio with us.

Kelsey, good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Wow. What a week on Capitol Hill (laughter).

SNELL: Yeah.

GREENE: What is the mood amid all this?

SNELL: I - the best way to describe it is people are shocked. People feel like these accusations and these resignations are coming so rapidly that there's a feeling of waiting for another shoe to drop, which is a strange time when people in Congress don't want to be talking about this. This is not - I mean, at any point in time, is this ever something that people want to have as the main conversation? But they've got a long list of policy priorities that they'd much rather be focusing on. But this has become the thing that is discussed at every watercooler and in every hallway. And it's a real question about what this does to the boy's club feeling of the Hill.

GREENE: I mean, there's no way around it. This is a part of a national conversation. And if this is happening on Capitol Hill, I mean, there's an obligation to discuss it, I guess at watercoolers and also publicly.

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. And that's part of what's happening here is that people feel - I think we're hearing a lot about women feeling emboldened to speak up after feeling that they had been retaliated against or that their careers had been inhibited by some event of sexual harassment or just being made very uncomfortable by powerful men in the workplace. And as more people feel empowered, we're seeing more people coming out.

GREENE: And we should say - I mean, this keeps going. We have the Ethics Committee in the House now investigating another member, Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas, a Republican. This is over complaints not just about what he might've done but complaints that may have - this all resulted in a taxpayer-funded settlement, which is raising a lot of eyebrows.

SNELL: Right. So one of his staffers sued him in December of 2014 - well, the settlement was issued in 2014. She received $84,000. And the Ethics Committee apparently did look into this at some point in time, but the accuser didn't really want to participate. She said she wanted to move on. She had left Washington, and she wanted to establish her own life outside of this accusation and this experience she had had. But based on new reporting after this woman came forward to Politico and CNN and talked about her experience, the Ethics Committee is reopening their investigation.

GREENE: Well, they are getting some kind of work done on Capitol Hill. There's a temporary spending bill that looks like the government is not going to shut down at least not for now, but there's a lot of tough negotiating that might have to make this longer term, right?

SNELL: Yeah, they passed a spending bill late on Friday - sorry, Thursday evening. And the government will stay open until December 22. And in the meantime, they need a bigger, longer spending agreement hopefully to keep the government open through September or at least until January.

GREENE: So we'll still be talking about, when might the government shut down?

MARTIN: We will.

SNELL: We're going to be talking about it all the time (laughter).

GREENE: It seems like the conversation never ends.

MARTIN: Right.

SNELL: Right.

GREENE: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks a lot, and have a good weekend.

SNELL: Thank you.

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GREENE: And let's go now to California, where the governor is requesting a presidential emergency declaration as those wildfires just continue to rip through the southern part of the state.

MARTIN: Fire crews are up against extremely dry conditions and strong Santa Ana winds expected to continue over the weekend. The largest fire, David, is burning in Ventura County. This is about an hour north of Los Angeles, as you know. This is a massive blaze, about 115,000 acres have burned so far. And it's only 5 percent contained.

GREENE: Well, Mary Plummer is joining us. She's a reporter from member station KPCC in Pasadena.

Hi, Mary.

MARY PLUMMER, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time for us. It just sounds like the winds are such a big part of this story, those Santa Ana winds just fanning these flames. They're continuing to remain high, those winds. How big are these fires?

PLUMMER: Yeah, the winds really have been a challenge. You know, right now, we've got four serious wildfires raging in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. There's also a new fire that's burning in northern San Diego County right now. A few people were injured in that fast-moving fire and were hospitalized yesterday. We've still got, you know, thousands of people who've evacuated from their homes. Air quality has been a real challenge.

You know, at the moment, San Diego County has been dealing with the worst of the high winds that you mentioned. We've had a bit of a break further north, but today, San Diego County and that new fire are expecting gusts of up to 60 miles per hour. They have a high-wind warning in effect in that area.

GREENE: You mentioned the evacuations. I mean, there are evacuation orders in place across the region. I mean, this has to be in that - I mean, just uprooting lives right now.

PLUMMER: It certainly is. KPCC spoke with Kris Pantalone (ph), an ER nurse at Ojai Hospital in Ventura County, as she's dealing with the Thomas fire there, which is by far the largest and it's done the most damage - hundreds of homes have been lost. She says - she told us she hasn't been into her home since Monday night. That's when she left her overnight shift at the hospital. Here's what she had to say.

KRIS PANTALONE: Yeah, I have four brothers and parents that live in Ojai. But again, with the winds, the evacuation areas have changed back and forth so much that we've bounced around pretty much everywhere.

GREENE: Oh, so it's not just - you need to get out of your home. It's confusing following exactly what neighborhoods might be endangered, who has to leave. I mean, that just sounds - it sounds really terrifying.

PLUMMER: There's been a lot of confusion for residents. And just to give you a sense of how serious and how disruptive this fire has been, she says about two-thirds of her co-workers at the hospital are out of their homes.

GREENE: Wow.

PLUMMER: You know, many have been displaced for several days now.

GREENE: How are firefighters holding up through all this?

PLUMMER: Everyone's, you know, working so hard right now. Firefighters and residents - it's just been such a challenging week. It looks like we'll get a break in the winds later this afternoon and this evening. But that said, conditions continue to be very problematic. It's so dry here. No rain in the forecast. The hope is that no additional fires pop up today or over the weekend.

GREENE: We'll keep our fingers crossed and hope that those winds die down at some point soon. Mary Plummer from member station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., thanks.

PLUMMER: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So it's been two days now since President Trump reversed longstanding U.S. policy and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

MARTIN: Yeah, and Israelis naturally view this move as endorsing their position and religious ties to the city. Palestinians obviously have deep roots there, too. And they want part of Jerusalem for their own capital. In the Arab world, more broadly the question is whether the U.S. can still be a mediator in the entire Mideast peace process that was supposed to resolve this issue. The region is watching to see if protests that began yesterday intensify as many Muslims attend Friday prayer services today.

GREENE: And NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem today.

Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So I guess worshippers for midday prayers have gathered and, you know, everyone is sort of bracing. So what's happening?

ESTRIN: Well, things could change, but this morning, everything's been pretty quiet. The church bells rang just a few minutes ago. The hummus shops are open. I'm sitting on a balcony looking at the Golden Dome of the Rock, the iconic holy site. Thousands of Muslims are at the holy site praying. And Israeli police say they have made no restrictions whatsoever on people going to pray there, which is a very different response than what the police has done in the past. Like this summer, when there were tensions surrounding the holy site, they restricted many Palestinians' entry there. So right now, the streets are bustling.

GREENE: So what - give me a sense of how Palestinian leaders have been responding to President Trump's decision in the last two days. What are they saying?

ESTRIN: They're saying the U.S. is not a neutral broker anymore. They say the fate of Jerusalem was supposed to be decided in peace talks, but now, Trump has taken Israel's side on Jerusalem. And the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is calling for a summit meeting of Arab leaders. And meanwhile, a Palestinian official says Vice President Mike Pence is not welcome here. Pence is coming to the region this month. He is expected to visit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where tradition says Jesus was born. He was supposed to meet with the Palestinian leader, and now it's unclear if that is going to happen.

GREENE: OK. So tough language from the Palestinians, but - what does that mean? How could this all play out? Could the peace you're seeing today hold?

ESTRIN: Well, we're waiting to see how the Palestinian leadership reacts diplomatically. Are they going to cut off contact with the U.S, like some have suggested? And then here - it's a crucial day today to see if the protests that we saw yesterday in the West Bank and Gaza are going to happen again. I mean, controversies over Jerusalem have sparked violence several times in the past. And so we're waiting to see, is this proclamation - Jerusalem proclamation - a political proclamation going to enrage people the way that, you know, religious sensitivities have enraged people here?

GREENE: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem this morning. Daniel, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

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