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News brief: high court retirement, Russia-Ukraine crisis, economic growth data

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back when he was a U.S. senator, Joe Biden led the judiciary committee. And he presided over several Supreme Court nominations.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of those hearings was in 1994 for then-nominee Stephen Breyer. More than a quarter-century later, Breyer is retiring. And Biden will name his replacement. Another liberal justice will not change the ideological dynamic of the high court. But the president does have a chance to replace an 83-year-old justice with one who may serve for decades.

INSKEEP: Who might that be? NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow gets us started on that conversation. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess the president has already said one thing about who he might nominate. So who are the possibilities here?

DETROW: Yeah. He promised that if he got a chance to, he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. That's something that Congressman Jim Clyburn had urged Biden to do during the Democratic primaries. And Press Secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday Biden is going to stick to this promise. The two names that come up are U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. She is the front-runner. And she was recently elevated to the seat formerly held by Attorney General Merrick Garland in the federal courts. She got 53 votes last summer, which means three Republicans voted for her as well. Jackson has been on the federal bench since 2013. The other name that comes up is California Justice Leondra Kruger.

And look; as you mentioned, when it comes to the raw numbers, this pick would not change the court that much. It would still be a 6-3 conservative majority. But this justice would be just the third Black person to sit on the court, the first Black woman. It would bring the number of sitting female justices to an all-time high of four, nearly half the bench. And worth pointing out, both Jackson and Kruger are relatively young. Jackson's in her early 50s. Kruger's in her mid-40s. Either could serve on the court for decades.

INSKEEP: We haven't actually heard, though, from Justice Breyer. So how does this all unfold?

DETROW: So NPR and other outlets are reporting that Breyer is going to make an announcement at the White House today. But it's been interesting. The White House has been pretty quiet about this, at least publicly. And they're refusing to say much about this vacancy to the point where there's no event with Breyer on Biden's public schedule yet. Here's how Biden talked about this yesterday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There has been no announcement from Justice Breyer. Let him make whatever statement he's going to make. And I'll be happy to talk about it later.

DETROW: So the key question I think I have is how quickly Biden moves here. We've seen a lot of tension lately between Joe Biden, the longtime D.C. institutionalist, and the Joe Biden who's trying to deal with this more entrenched and hyper-political and partisan modern Senate, you know, a place where, for instance, this would probably be a party line vote no matter what - or mostly. So this is an interesting test case. Does this longtime judiciary committee chair take time, deliberate, have long interviews with contenders, really think this out - or move quickly and try to get some momentum going to get this seat filled?

INSKEEP: The next question once Biden names a justice, of course, is how quickly the Senate takes it up.

DETROW: Yeah. And this is interesting and indicates that Biden's Senate allies do want him to move very quickly. According to our colleague, Kelsey Snell, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to move fast. And his office has floated the very quick timeline that Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed on ahead of the 2020 election, which is just over a month. But look; the theme of the year when we've talked about the Senate - in a 50-50 Senate, aspirational goals are very rarely a reality. A lot of senators could weigh in on this timeline.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks for the insights.

DETROW: Sure thing.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: OK. Diplomats from the United States and Russia are talking slowly. And both those things are important, that they're talking and that they're doing it slowly.

MARTIN: Right. So a slow rhythm of demands and responses builds, in time, to find a resolution to this crisis over Ukraine. Last week, the U.S. gave a face-to-face response to Russian demands that were made many weeks ago. Yesterday, the U.S. answered again in writing. The U.S. is urging diplomacy while also, though, sending Javelin anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the Kremlin saying initially, at least, about this U.S. letter?

MAYNES: You know, just minutes ago, we heard from the Kremlin spokesman, who said the U.S. responses didn't give much hope for optimism, in his words. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also weighed in, saying Russia was still studying the American answers, but noted that they - even though they warranted serious discussion, they were what he called of a secondary nature. So Russia clearly not pleased that its primary demands about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Eastern Europe haven't been met. Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday rejected those on principle, and instead offered more discussions to find areas, such as, say, arms control, where they could meet halfway.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We're open to dialogue. We prefer diplomacy. And we're prepared to move forward where there is the possibility of communication and cooperation - if Russia deescalates its aggression toward Ukraine, stops the inflammatory rhetoric and approaches discussions about the future of security in Europe in a spirit of reciprocity.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to sum this up then, Charles. The U.S. says, let's keep talking. Russia says, well, you're not meeting our demands. So what happens next?

MAYNES: Well, Blinken says the ball is in Russia's court. It really comes down to Russian President Vladimir Putin, probably always has - whether Putin is prepared to entertain some of these American-suggested compromises. Or - and what - and that really determines the next phase of the crisis, you know? Does Russia try and negotiate to get some of what it wants? Or, as it has insisted, does the Kremlin move to what Putin calls military technical means now that its demands aren't being met?

INSKEEP: So how are things evolving on the ground even as these talks continue?

MAYNES: Well, you know, both Ukraine and Russia accuse the other of continuing to build up forces in preparation for an attack or, perhaps, even staging some kind of provocation that could set off a wider conflict. Russia continues to carry out mass land, air, sea drills all this week. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, there was a strange incident overnight. A Ukrainian national guardsmen opened fire at a missile and rocket factory in the east of the country. And that killed five Ukrainian soldiers. Now Ukrainian officials are investigating.

INSKEEP: Wow. So a mass shooting in the midst of all of this.

MAYNES: Right.

INSKEEP: Amid all of these fears of violence and shifts on the ground, isn't there other diplomacy simultaneously going on?

MAYNES: Well, there is, you know? Yesterday, we saw France and Germany host officials from Russia and Ukraine in Paris for peace talks. These are tied to the Donbass peace talks to try to end the war in east Ukraine. Yesterday's talks ended with no progress except for this, a promise to meet again in two weeks' time, this time in Berlin. Now, interestingly, Blinken also spoke yesterday with China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, who urged all parties involved in the Ukraine crisis to remain calm and refrain from actions that might inflame tensions.

Now, that message coming, of course, as athletes arrive to Beijing for the Olympic Games. Putin has said he'll join the opening ceremonies on February 4. There have been all these reports - vehemently denied by the Kremlin, I should add - that Chinese leadership has asked Putin directly not to do anything in Ukraine that would upstage the games. You know, true or not, Russia and China are allies. And you have to think the Kremlin is at least sensitive to the idea of ruining China's party.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We just got to remember the games start on February 4. They last a couple of weeks. So if Russia were to hold off for the games, that would push this back a month or so. Charles, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes.

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INSKEEP: Just looking at the basic numbers, the U.S. economy remains strong. Although, the pandemic keeps slowing it down.

MARTIN: We're going to get a check on its progress today when the Commerce Department reports on economic growth for the fourth quarter and all of last year. We'll also get a sense of the economic momentum heading into the New Year, as the Federal Reserve tries to regain control over all these rapidly rising prices that we're seeing.

INSKEEP: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is here. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Of course, the experts try to prognosticate what the numbers will show. So what are the forecasts?

HORSLEY: Well, the top-line number is expected to show solid growth for the fourth quarter. But, you know, Steve, that growth was not consistent. If you think back, for example, employers hired three times as many people in October as they did in December. Chief Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics says that's just one illustration of how the economy has been moving in fits and starts.

MARK ZANDI: Q4 started with a bang and ended with a whimper. October was a fantastic month for the economy. Consumer spending, investment, everything was kind of firing on all cylinders. And then by December, of course, omicron came on the scene quickly and did a lot of damage.

HORSLEY: And that damage has continued into the early weeks of the new year. Zandi, like some other forecasters, thinks we could see a net loss of jobs for January. Although, the coming months could be better as the omicron wave recedes.

INSKEEP: How does 2022 look now that we're in it?

HORSLEY: Forecasters expect this to be another year of above average economic growth, although, not as strong as we saw in 2021. You know, last year, the economy actually grew at the fastest pace since Ronald Reagan was president. Admittedly, it might not have felt like it because the recovery was so uneven. Zandi highlights the economy is still tethered to the pandemic.

ZANDI: When we're suffering a wave of the virus, the economy struggles. People get sick, can't go to work, supply chain gets disrupted. And then when the wave passes through and we get back to work, the economy revs right back up. You know, it's just quite amazing that despite the pandemic, we were able to enjoy such very strong growth last year.

HORSLEY: It does seem as if each new wave of the pandemic does somewhat less damage to the economy than the one that came before. But of course, we still face additional challenges, not the least of which is high inflation.

INSKEEP: Which the Federal Reserve is charged with containing. And they do plan to start raising interest rates soon, they say. What are they thinking?

HORSLEY: Yeah. The Fed telegraphed yesterday that it's likely to start raising interest rates at its next meeting in March. Prices have been climbing fast, as anyone knows who's been to the grocery store or the gas station lately. And while the Fed initially thought inflation would settle down on its own as the kinks in the supply chain get worked out, that's taking a lot longer than officials had expected. At the same time, the unemployment rate has dropped pretty sharply. So Fed Chairman Jerome Powell says the economy doesn't need the kind of life support that the central bank's been offering throughout the pandemic. He and his colleagues expect to start raising interest rates pretty rapidly.

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JEROME POWELL: We have our eyes on the risks, particularly around the world. We do expect some softening in the economy from omicron. But we think that that should be temporary. And we think that the underlying strength of the economy should show through fairly quickly after that.

HORSLEY: Powell acknowledged, though, this is just a very unusual, unpredictable economy. And so he and his colleagues are going to have to be nimble and ready to shift gears as the roller coaster recovery unfolds.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks.

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