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Morning News Brief: Amtrak Derailment Probe, House Tax Vote


Let's begin with the experience of being on board a fast-moving train when it starts to leave the track.


Yeah, we've been seeing these images from Washington state - train cars dangling over a busy freeway, some strewn down a hillside, others turned on their side. Patricia Freeman was a passenger on this train heading home to Portland after she was visiting her sister, and she shared her experience.

PATRICIA FREEMAN: I kind of got flung across the aisle and onto the floor. I was trying to grab the bottoms of the tables as I went by, but I was just going back and forth across that train car like a pinball in a pinball machine.

GREENE: Officials are confirming that three people died in this derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board says a data recorder shows the train was traveling at 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone.

INSKEEP: Wow. Will James of member station KNKX in Tacoma, Wash., has been covering this story. He's on the line.

Good morning.

WILL JAMES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you walk us through what happened when?

JAMES: Yeah. This was the inaugural journey of this new train line between Seattle and Portland, and there was some excitement about that. There were TV cameras seeing passengers off at the station. This train got just south of the city of Tacoma, it reached its maximum speed of about 80 miles an hour, and then it hit a curve where the maximum speed was supposed to be 30 miles an hour. And that is when 13 of these - of the train's 14 cars derailed, including one that spilled off a bridge onto the interstate. And as Patricia Freeman described, you know, that's when passengers were thrown around the train.

INSKEEP: I guess the question for investigators is, why? Why be - why travel so quickly into that curve?

JAMES: Or why the train didn't slow down as it approached that curve - exactly.

INSKEEP: Can you explain to us, Will, what role train travel plays in your region? I'm thinking about the Northeast Corridor here on the other side of the United States where that's a commuter line. It's a central artery. If you're in the Midwest somewhere, train travel is perhaps a little more about vacations. What is that Portland-to-Seattle line all about?

JAMES: Well, train travel is an increasingly important part of this region. Seattle and Portland are two of the fastest-growing cities in the country right now. There are hundreds of people a day moving to the region. And traffic - if you talk to anyone who's been here for 10 years, they'll tell you that traffic has gotten exponentially worse. And so just last year, voters in the Seattle area passed a multibillion-dollar tax to improve train service in the region, so there's an expectation that we'll be relying more and more on trains here in the future.

INSKEEP: Oh, you can see then why Amtrak would've wanted to grab the opportunity to open a faster line between Seattle and Portland. And I guess at the moment, that's a dashed opportunity.

JAMES: Well, this was a $181 million revamp of the Amtrak corridor between the Northwest's two biggest cities, and it's been in the works for about a decade. You know, part of this project was to add some equipment on the trains that could slow down a train in a dangerous situation, but those, unfortunately, were not online at the moment.

INSKEEP: OK, well, that's what we know so far. Will James of our member station KNKX, thanks very much.

JAMES: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: OK, it's a big day for Republicans in Washington, D.C.

GREENE: Yeah, it's sure looking that way. The House is expected to vote today on the GOP tax bill with the Senate soon to follow. And if that all happens, this would deliver President Trump his first big legislative victory about a year into office.

INSKEEP: Let's bring NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson in to discuss this.

Hi, Mara.


INSKEEP: Republicans have the votes?

LIASSON: Republicans have the votes. The Senate has been the big suspense here. But right now, there are no known no votes. We know they were down one vote because John McCain is going - is back in Arizona recovering from cancer treatment. And Bob Corker and Susan Collins, who are two of the holdouts, said that they were going to vote yes. Just in case, the vice president, Mike Pence, is delaying his trip to the Middle East in case he's needed. But it looks like they're going to pass this bill.

INSKEEP: Hasn't Corker been the center of some controversy because of a measure that was added at the last moment that seems potentially to benefit him?

LIASSON: Yes. Corker was the only no vote last time, so there was a lot of question, why did he flip from no to yes? But he insists that provision, which would've benefited people with big real estate holdings, like himself and the president, was not the reason that he flipped from no to yes.

INSKEEP: Mara, I think if you're a Republican thinking about the politics of this, the good news for you is, you're about to pass this major legislation. But the bad news for you is that you're about to pass this major legislation which is quite unpopular.

LIASSON: That's right. This has been a long and winding path for this bill. But with each tweak, the bill tilted a little more towards the wealthy - less real reform, more just plain old cuts. And this is not the revenue-neutral tax reform once promised, not the kind of simplification once promised. But it is a big test of supply-siders' belief that if you give tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, it will help the economy. Very few economists say that, but now we're going to test it. And that is one of the reasons the bill is unpopular.

In the short term, many Americans will get a tax cut. Of course, in the long term, those individual cuts expire, and the corporate cuts remain. And the big questions for Republicans is, once Americans start to get the cuts, will they change their minds about this bill? Will they feel more favorably toward it? There're a lot of people in blue states, including in Republican districts, who are going to get a tax hike. And Democrats are feeling pretty confident that they can drive home the message that Republicans are just doing favors for the wealthy.

INSKEEP: So I'm just thinking through the next few days in Congress. The House votes today on this huge tax bill, the Senate tonight or tomorrow - sometime pretty soon. And that leaves them a whole couple of days to avoid a government shutdown by the end of the week.

LIASSON: Yes. That's not a lot of days. December 22 is the deadline. It sounds like what Republicans probably will do is pass another short-term government funding bill. That means they're going to kick the can down the road and revisit this whole government funding issue sometime in January. The big question is what they're going to attach to this next temporary funding bill.

You know, Susan Collins, in return for her yes vote, was told that she was going to get some fixes to Obamacare. The Obamacare mandate disappears in this tax bill. It's eliminated. But the question is, will the Obamacare fixes be attached to this government funding bill or not? And then there's the bigger question about what to do with the DREAMers. That's the Democrats' demand. They're saying in order to pass government funding bill, they need some relief for those young people brought here illegally and had been protected from deportation by President Obama.


LIASSON: So those are all questions. But I think they're kicking the can down the road again.

INSKEEP: Each of those questions a subject of its own discussion - or it could be. Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.


INSKEEP: OK, now let's turn to the ongoing House investigation into Russia and the 2016 election.

GREENE: Yeah, today, a House Intelligence Committee is going to hear from the FBI's No. 2 official. That's Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. His appearance - and we should say, it's going to be behind closed doors - comes as some Republicans have been stepping up their criticism of the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller's team, alleging what they say is an anti-Trump political bias.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas has been following all this, and he's in our studios.

Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Andrew McCabe - some people will know the name. Others won't. Who is he?

LUCAS: Well, McCabe is the deputy director of the FBI, which makes him the No. 2 official at the bureau. He's not a political appointee. He is a career bureau guy. He's been there more than 20 years. His role as deputy director gives him a job kind of overseeing domestic and international investigations that the bureau conducts. And, of course, the biggest domestic investigations in the past couple of years have been, one, Hillary Clinton's email server, and, two, of course, the Russia investigation. So his job has put them kind of smack dab in the middle of these two enormous, politically charged worlds.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking, when Jim Comey was fired, he's the guy who stepped up and was the interim director for a while. So...

LUCAS: That's correct.

INSKEEP: We presume that whatever the FBI knows, he knows it. So what are lawmakers wanting to know from him?

LUCAS: Well, one big reason that lawmakers - particularly, Republican lawmakers - want to talk to McCabe is a senior FBI agent by the name of Peter Strzok. Strzok, of course, is the guy who's been in the news as of late because of text messages that he sent that included politically charged language. Republicans say that Strzok also played a role in changing language in then-FBI Director James Comey's statement wrapping up the Clinton investigation.

Strzok, of course, was removed from Mueller's team - because he was a member of special counsel Robert Mueller's team - over his text messages. And the GOP says that - or members of the GOP say that these texts show political bias. There's one in particular that talks about an insurance policy in - and this took place in Andy's office. That is believed to be Andrew McCabe's office. And they also want to talk about the Trump dossier. They want to know whether the Trump dossier played a key role, if any role, in the FBI's decision to launch its Russia...

INSKEEP: Oh, the dossier that was put together by Christopher Steele, that former British spy.

LUCAS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So is any of this criticism of Robert Mueller's investigation gaining traction?

LUCAS: It's gaining traction in Republican circles and among the president's allies in the conservative media. They have certainly grabbed onto that and are running with it. But, you know, this is something that is going to be part of the political battle around this investigation going forward for as long as it lasts.

INSKEEP: Ryan, pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN FREEMAN'S "FLY YOU FOOLS!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.