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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden met for four hours yesterday with China's leader Xi Jinping.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. The goal was to stabilize a complicated relationship that has been especially tense over the past year. And afterwards, President Biden held a wide-ranging news conference.

MARTIN: NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith was there, and she is with us now from San Francisco to tell us about it. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So first of all, were there any significant agreements that came out of these talks?

KEITH: Well, the main development was on the synthetic opioid fentanyl. And Biden said that Xi agreed to take steps to significantly reduce the flow of precursor ingredients that are used to make fentanyl, many of which come from China. And Biden was quite passionate about this, saying that he knew families who had lost loved ones to the deadly street drug fentanyl. A senior official who briefed us after the meeting said they really have to see whether China follows through on this and whether these efforts will succeed at getting the precursor ingredients - whether that will disrupt the fentanyl trade, as they hope it does.

Another development was on restarting military-to-military communications. This has been closed off for some time now between the two countries, and there will be steps to resume that line of communication. And the importance of this is that there have been some close calls between U.S. and Chinese military vessels, and they're hoping to avoid that in the future or avoid that tipping into conflict. Biden said that he and Xi also agreed to have more communication between each other when there are problems.

MARTIN: Well, speaking about, you know, the two of them together, you know, you had a chance to see the two of them together 'cause you were in the room at the start with, you know, what reporters would call a spray. You saw them together. How did they seem?

KEITH: Well, they've known each other for a long time, but they also haven't talked for a year. They sat across from each other. And Biden's team, according to a senior official, made a real effort to rekindle the familiarity between them. For instance, Biden and Xi's wife share a birthday. It's next week. Biden reminded Xi about the shared birthday. Biden later told us that he brought a photo of Xi from when the leader last visited San Francisco as a young man and showed it to him.

But in terms of the business of the meeting, Biden said that it was very direct, even blunt conversation. And as I said, they did agree that in the future, they will pick up the phone and call each other, which is something that has not happened in a year.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that the press conference did not just focus on China. There are a lot of questions about Israel and Gaza. And I do want to note that there are real concerns within the Democratic Party about the number of civilian casualties that have occurred since the October 7 attack by Hamas and Israel's very aggressive military response. The president has taken a very strong pro-Israel position. I was just wondering if he talked about that last night. What did he say?

KEITH: Yeah, he continued that strong position. He did talk a lot about the Israeli military operation at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, and he made it clear that he believes that Hamas is using the hospital as a base for weapons and fighters. But, you know, he was asked how long he thought this wrenching conflict would last.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So it's - but I can't tell. I'm not a fortuneteller. I can't tell you how long it's going to last. But I can tell you I don't think it ultimately ends until there's a two-state solution. I've made it clear to the Israelis I think it's a big mistake for them to think they're going to occupy Gaza and maintain Gaza. I don't think that works.

KEITH: All along, Biden has had a strategy of publicly standing with Israel and privately delivering tough advice. We got a little hint of that private advice.

MARTIN: Any update on the hostages?

KEITH: He said that he was mildly hopeful - those are his words - about a possible deal brokered with Hamas that could lead to as many as 50 to 100 hostages being released. And he said that Israel had agreed to a pause in fighting long enough to get people out. But as he was saying this, he looked directly at his secretary of state, who was sitting in the front row, caught himself, and stopped short of sharing any more details. I think he - he gave the impression he didn't want to jinx anything. I think the reality here is that there's a lot of uncertainty. This is not anything close to a done deal. And the work continues to try to figure out how to get these hostages out.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: As we've said, Israeli soldiers remain inside Gaza's largest hospital today. Hundreds of patients, doctors and evacuees are there, too.

MARTÍNEZ: Al-Shifa Hospital was surrounded by gun battles for days. Yesterday, Israeli troops went in. It's part of what Israel says is a deepening invasion into northern Gaza.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, residents in the south of the strip say Israeli forces are dropping leaflets urging evacuations. They're suggesting the ground war in Gaza may soon expand. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been following all this from Tel Aviv. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: What's the latest from Al-Shifa today?

FRAYER: So today, Gaza's health ministry says Israeli troops are searching the underground levels of that hospital. It says they've detained technicians who run equipment there. Israel's military, meanwhile, has been issuing videos produced - highly produced videos with music showing what it says is evidence of militant operations inside Al-Shifa Hospital. Here's one of them.

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JONATHAN CONRICUS: There is a - an AK-47. There are cartridges and ammo. And all of this was hidden very conveniently, secretly, behind the MRI machine.

FRAYER: This is an Israeli military spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, giving a video tour of guns, grenades, uniforms he says Israeli troops found. Now, NPR can't independently verify this. Human rights advocates say what Israel is showing us there doesn't amount to a Hamas command center, which is what Israel has alleged. And they say that even if Hamas did have fighters in there, it doesn't mean Israel can endanger civilians at the hospital.

MARTIN: So that's the situation at the hospital. What about all the people who've been told to leave? Where are they able to go?

FRAYER: Yeah, Michel. Like, Gaza's 2.3 million people are being squeezed into an ever-smaller area in the south of the strip. It's away from the ground invasion, but it's not safe. It is still under Israeli bombardment. NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, went to a school housing displaced people, and he met a 12-year-old girl there named Mariam. She didn't want to give her full name out of fear of reprisals. But she said, you know, she slept in a school. Then, a bomb went off and she had to flee again. And here she is describing what it was like to see her first tank. She's 12 years old.

MARIAM: I was so afraid it come at me. It was so big. And it make me feel so afraid.

FRAYER: Our producer Anas spoke to her parents, too. They were carrying her school certificates. They were super proud because Mariam, they say, had the highest grades in all of Gaza last year. Her family is now in the south of Gaza, which is where Israel told them to flee to. And now leaflets have been falling there telling people to evacuate again. And people are asking, where? Where can they go?

MARTIN: So Israel yesterday allowed fuel into Gaza for the first time since October 7. Do you have any sense of whether that's making any difference?

FRAYER: Not a lot. Israel has earmarked that fuel only for the U.N. and only for transporting aid, so not for things like running water treatment plants and sewage plants and hospitals. Regular folks don't have fuel for cooking. They're scavenging through the wreckage of buildings to find furniture to burn. Here is NPR's producer Anas Baba.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Now I'm standing on the seventh floor in my friend's house. I kind of smell, like, fire smoke everywhere.

FRAYER: He says people are cooking on open fires in the street. The U.N. says the fuel that Israel has allowed in is not even 10% of what Gaza needs every day. Palestinian officials are warning that Gaza is on the verge of a total communications blackout now for lack of fuel.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Lauren, thank you.

FRAYER: Thanks, Michel.

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MARTÍNEZ: An NPR investigation has found that thousands of U.S. military service members and veterans are at risk of losing their homes.

MARTIN: The Department of Veterans Affairs says it is working on a fix, and now a handful of U.S. senators are getting involved.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR's Chris Arnold. Chris, I understand this involves people who have VA loans, and a lot of people in the military have those.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: That's right. Veterans can get a good deal on a mortgage that way, and it's one of the perks for being in the military. But over the past few years, tens of thousands of people with VA loans took what's called a COVID forbearance. And that allowed them to skip mortgage payments if they lost income during the pandemic, had some kind of financial hardship. And many were told that they would not have to pay that back in a big lump sum. So the missed payments would just get tacked on at the end of their loan term, and they could just go back to their regular mortgage payment, nice and easy, when they get back on their feet financially.

But then a year ago, the VA ended the program that let people do that. So many are now being told that they need to pay a lot of money - like, say, $25,000 - that they don't have to get current, or they could refinance at today's interest rates, which many can't afford 'cause that would mean an $800 more a month payment or something, or they can lose their house.

Kristi Kelly is an attorney in Virginia. She's been hearing from a lot of people who are in this situation.

KRISTI KELLY: Service members are in a position where they're going to lose their home.

MARTÍNEZ: So what does the Department of Veterans Affairs have to say about all this?

ARNOLD: Well, the VA says it had no choice but to end the program. There's some dispute about that, actually. But the VA is now very aware of the problem and is working on a fix. But that fix is going to take, like, four or five months to roll out, and that's just going to be too late for a lot of people.

I spoke with Becky Queen in Bartlesville, Okla., and she and her husband, Ray, just got a foreclosure letter in the mail last week.

BECKY QUEEN: My heart dropped. And, like, my hands were shaking. It was scary.

RAY QUEEN: How does that happen? This is supposed to be a program that y'all have to help people in times of crisis so you don't take their house from them.

ARNOLD: And, A, there are 6,000 homeowners like the Queens in the foreclosure process right now and more than that who are delinquent, so they don't have time to wait five months for the VA to roll out this new program.

MARTÍNEZ: But can the VA maybe hold off foreclosing on all these people until that program's up and running?

ARNOLD: There are people who would like to see that happen, for sure. Becky's husband, Ray Queen, is an Army veteran. He was wounded in Iraq. So pausing the foreclosure sounds like a good idea to him.

R QUEEN: Let us keep paying towards our regular mortgage between now and then. And then once the VA has that fixed, then we come back and we address the situation. That seems like the adult, mature thing to do - not put a family through hell.

ARNOLD: And I interviewed the top official in the VA loan program. His name is John Bell. And this is me asking him directly about what Ray Queen just said.

Why put families through hell, he said, if you don't have to, if there's going to be help in a few months?

JOHN BELL: I have never - I haven't said through this interview that, you know, that we aren't exploring all options at this point in time, because we certainly are. We owe it to our veterans to make sure that we're giving them every opportunity to be able to stay in the home.

ARNOLD: And since we broke this story, a group of U.S. senators has just sent a letter to the VA asking them to immediately stop foreclosing on these veterans so they don't needlessly lose their homes.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Chris, thanks for your reporting on this.

ARNOLD: Thanks, A.

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MARTIN: And here's a final note. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 87-11 to approve a stopgap spending bill ahead of a Friday deadline. Here's Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer before the final vote.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Because of bipartisan cooperation, we're keeping the government open without any poison pills or harmful cuts to vital programs.

MARTIN: The bill was already passed by the House and now heads to President Biden's desk. The legislation funds four federal agencies until January 19 and the rest until February 2, 2024. The goal is to give Congress more time to negotiate long-term spending bills. If that doesn't happen, an across-the-board spending cut of 1% hits all agencies in April. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.