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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A handful of Republican-led states are asking the Supreme Court to permanently block the Biden administration's student loan forgiveness program.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The states argue the president exceeded his legal authority when he implemented a program to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for people holding federal student loans.

FADEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins me now to discuss. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So what is this case all about?

TOTENBERG: Well, after the 9/11 attack, Congress passed a law to ensure that federal student loan borrowers would not be economically clobbered in a national emergency. The law specifically says that when the president declares such an emergency, the secretary of education has the power to, quote, "waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision governing student loan programs." Now, during the pandemic, the Trump and Biden administrations both invoked that law to pause student debt payments without penalties. And last year, President Biden went further.

FADEL: The start of a bigger plan?

TOTENBERG: Yep. Students who are economically disadvantaged could qualify for as much as $20,000 in cancellation of their student debt. And bigger earners, those making up to 125,000, could qualify for a maximum of $10,000 in debt relief. Under the plan, 16 million student loan borrowers have already been approved for some loan forgiveness. But before any debt was canceled, six states challenged the program in court, and the plan was put on hold. Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in that case.

FADEL: So as I understand it, these Republican-dominated states are asking, does the president and his education secretary have the authority under the 2003 law to authorize student loan forgiveness? Is that right?

TOTENBERG: That's exactly right. So here summarizing the White House argument is University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

STEPHEN VLADECK: This is a stunningly broad grant of authority from Congress to the secretary of education. It's not vague when it talks about the secretary's power to waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to programs like federal student aid.

TOTENBERG: So countering that argument is Case Western University law professor Jonathan Adler.

JONATHAN ADLER: Modifying and waiving regulations and requirements is different than erasing the underlying loan.

FADEL: Now, I understand there is a question that comes up first in this case, and that is basically whether the states have any right to sue to begin with.

TOTENBERG: Correct. In recent years, Republicans have repeatedly parlayed state lawsuits into a forceful tool to get the conservative Supreme Court to block Biden administration policies. Democrats used that tactic, too, against the Trump administration, and this case offers an opportunity to limit those lawsuits.

FADEL: How?

TOTENBERG: Well, the basic rule of thumb, Leila, is that you can't get into the courthouse door - you have no legal standing to sue unless you can show a concrete harm. And in this case, Missouri makes a bunch of what Professor Adler calls creative arguments. He says their best argument involves a state corporation that services loans and a claim that the state might lose revenue if large numbers of loans are discharged.

FADEL: OK, so, Nina, if the court says the states have no standing, what happens?

TOTENBERG: Well, barring other legal challenges, an estimated 43 million federal loan borrowers will get some loan relief. On the other hand, if the court reaches the merits of the case, a Supreme Court now dominated by three Trump appointees will very likely invalidate the program.

FADEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Leila.

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FADEL: Tonight, Republicans and Democrats are putting the spotlight on an issue they agree needs to be a top priority.

MARTÍNEZ: In a rare display of bipartisanship, a newly created congressional committee will hold a prime-time hearing addressing the strategic relationship between the U.S. and China.

FADEL: NPR's Deirdre Walsh joins us now for more. OK, so what's the goal of this first hearing?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Tonight's hearing is really meant to educate the American people about why U.S. policy towards China matters. The chairman, Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, is planning a series of hearings both in Washington, possibly in the region.

FADEL: Wait - in China? Where in the region?

WALSH: He said they might travel to Taiwan but hold a hearing maybe in Guam, which is a U.S. territory. What he's really trying to do is create this narrative for the American people about the economic threats, the national security threats he sees posed by China. He talked to our colleague Steve Inskeep about the specific focus this week about the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

MIKE GALLAGHER: We don't have a quarrel with the Chinese people, and the Chinese people are often the primary victim of CCP oppression and repression.

WALSH: The first hearing is going to feature testimony from national security officials, two from the Trump administration. There's going to be a business leader. Also, a dissident is going to detail China's abysmal record on human rights. This panel is bipartisan. It doesn't have the authority to pass legislation, but it plans to be the place to come up with some possible bipartisan solutions.

FADEL: Now, Gallagher just got back from a trip to Taiwan. Do we expect the U.S. relationship with Taiwan to be discussed at tonight's hearing?

WALSH: Definitely. There was also another bipartisan group that visited Taiwan last week. There's really growing concern in the region and among lawmakers on Capitol Hill about a possible military attack by China against Taiwan. But there's no consensus about whether or when this could actually happen. Taiwan is a self-governing island, but China claims it as its territory. The issue of Taiwan has been a long-standing sticking point in terms of the relationship between the U.S. and China for decades. The U.S. continues to say it's sticking with what it calls a One China policy. But what Beijing thinks about what the U.S. has actually been doing in terms of authorizing weapons sales to Taiwan and these visits by U.S. lawmakers - they see those as a violation of that policy. Gallagher has been arguing that the U.S. needs to, quote, "arm Taiwan to the teeth" to avoid a war. He says doing that will deter Chinese aggression.

GALLAGHER: Nobody wants war in the Pacific. We need to prevent war by putting hard power in Xi Jinping's path.

WALSH: Congress already approved authority to have the U.S. send defensive weapons like Javelin or Stinger missiles. But there's been some delays in actually getting those delivered.

FADEL: OK. Well, this is something, as you point out, Democrats and Republicans agree on and they're talking about. What other bipartisan efforts are going on right now?

WALSH: There's a growing push for Congress to ban TikTok operating in the United States. Lawmakers say the parent company of the social media app, ByteDance, has top leadership reporting directly to the Chinese Communist Party. They say the app has too much control over how the data is pushed out and how users' data is stored. But like everything, Leila, politics and the looming 2024 presidential election does pose an obstacle to bipartisan action on China. Republicans will likely want to make this as an issue, a contrast with the Biden administration in that campaign, so it could complicate any prospects for actually getting bipartisan bills to the president's desk.

FADEL: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thanks, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you.

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FADEL: Thousands of people marched in Mexico City over the weekend to protest a decision that would overhaul the country's independent body that oversees elections.

MARTÍNEZ: Protesters say the decision to reduce the National Electoral Institute's staff and independence is a threat to the country's democracy and could return Mexico to the days of one party rule. Mexico's president says the reforms are about cutting costs.

FADEL: Leila Miller is a correspondent for the LA Times, and she joins me from Mexico City. Good morning, Leila.

LEILA MILLER: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So let's talk about these reforms, if you could just lay out what they do and what people are worried about.

MILLER: Sure. These are reforms that were passed last week that would dramatically reduce the size of Mexico's electoral institute and would also remove a lot of autonomy that it has. It gets rid of, you know, what - the officials from the electoral institute say that thousands of jobs, people that organize elections on the ground across the country would be removed. And what it also does is it removes the power that the institute has to discipline candidates if they violate campaign finance laws. People are basically worried about is that the electoral institute won't have the manpower to organize elections and that this is essentially a threat to Mexico's democracy.

FADEL: What has the president, the government, said about why they're doing this?

MILLER: So the president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said the electoral agency needs budget cuts. He's been, you know, pushing austerity measures across the board, across his government. He's tried to discredit the people that are protesting by, you know, saying that these are people that have, you know, somehow benefited from corruption in the past and want to have a system in place that will benefit them that way. You know, there were thousands and thousands of people that were protesting this reform over the weekend. He's even tried to connect the protesters to Genaro Garcia Luna, the former top Mexican law official that was recently convicted of taking bribes from drug traffickers in New York.

FADEL: Just to clarify - he's trying to connect them to undermine the protests, saying that they're not legit protests.

MILLER: Exactly. He's saying that the protesters really don't care about democracy. This is not what this is about. He's saying that the protesters want to keep a corrupt system in place.

FADEL: And what concerns might the U.S. have about these changes, these election changes in Mexico?

MILLER: U.S. officials have spoken out about the reform. They've been saying that the president is trying to sabotage democratic institutions. You know, there's a worry that changes like this could return Mexico back to the days when it was under a one-party system, when the same party was in power for decades because of corruption and because there wasn't a strong electoral institute.

FADEL: Leila Miller is with the LA Times, and she's based in Mexico City. Thank you so much for your time.

MILLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.