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News brief: Mitch McConnell, 5 House Republicans Subpoenaed, Wall Street

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No one person may have done more than Mitch McConnell to change the Supreme Court.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Senate Republican leader held open a court seat in 2016 until a Republican president could fill it. He raced through a Supreme Court confirmation in 2020 so a Republican president could fill that seat too. He ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, and his party gained a total of three seats. Now a conservative supermajority appears close to enacting his party's view of abortion rights.

INSKEEP: Two weeks after a draft opinion revealed the court's possible direction, McConnell spoke with NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hey, if this leaked opinion ends up becoming the final ruling, I guess we should just note the Supreme Court would be out of step with most Americans because polls show most people favor the abortion rights that are protected under Roe v. Wade. How did McConnell answer that?

WALSH: He defended the conservative majority on the court and said it wouldn't be the first time that the high court and the American public weren't in sync. He pointed to a case from 1989 when the Supreme Court struck down a Texas state law banning flag-burning. The court held then that burning the flag was protected speech. Here's what McConnell said.

MITCH MCCONNELL: If you took public opinion polls on that issue, people would overwhelmingly support a legislative prohibition of flag-burning. But the Supreme Court interpreted that as a violation of the First Amendment freedom of speech. So for the Supreme Court to - on any issue, to reach a decision contrary to public opinion is exactly what the Supreme Court is about. It's to protect basic rights, even when majorities are in favor of something else. It happens all the time. So I don't think that's particularly unusual.

INSKEEP: He's correct, of course, that this does happen all the time. But whose rights would be protected by that decision, according to McConnell?

WALSH: He didn't really get into that. He did say he expects this debate to go back to the states.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about that, then. How does this affect the fall elections, where many state and federal officials will be on the ballot?

WALSH: McConnell acknowledged abortion is going to be an issue in many races, especially at the state level. But he really appeared to downplay what would happen in congressional races. Let's take a listen.

MCCONNELL: In terms of the politics of it, if, in fact, this becomes a final decision, I think it will be certainly heavily debated in state legislative and governor's races because the court will have, in effect, returned this issue to the political process. My guess is, in terms of the impact on federal races, I think it's probably going to be a wash.

INSKEEP: And we'll hear this fall if his prediction is correct. Deirdre, I want to ask about something else. McConnell has been a central figure on Ukraine. He has a particular position on this for his - as a party leader.

WALSH: He does. The Senate's expected to pass a nearly $40-billion package in security aid for Ukraine next week. McCain - McConnell gave the administration some credit for its handling of the situation and supporting a key ally. Here he is talking about his conversation with President Biden on Ukraine.

MCCONNELL: I think we're all in the same place. In fact, I called the president to suggest, in the strongest possible passion, that we separate this issue out from the other discussions we're having with regard to the COVID package and Title 42 and all of that, and move it quickly because the Ukrainians need it and because we have plenty of time to sort out the other issues. He called me back in 15 minutes, agreed, which I deeply appreciated, and so we're all on the same team on this. The Russians need to lose. The Ukrainians need to win.

INSKEEP: Some of an interview with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke with NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thanks for your work.

WALSH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: OK, the Congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol has subpoenaed five House Republicans.

MARTINEZ: One subpoena went to Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader. Committee chairman Bennie Thompson says he asked his colleagues to appear voluntarily, and they didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNIE THOMPSON: It's our intention, and I hope that the members of the committee will receive testimony from the members we subpoenaed.

INSKEEP: NPR Congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has the details. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's being subpoenaed, and for what?

GRISALES: In addition to McCarthy, there's Jim Jordan of Ohio, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Mo Brooks of Alabama. After the committee asked them to appear voluntarily, they all quickly refused, so now the committee wants to compel this testimony by month's end. And we should note, one other Republican refused to voluntarily testify. That's Ronny Jackson of Texas, who was not subpoenaed. But he argued the panel had bad information about his connection to January 6. As for McCarthy, the panel wants to talk to him about what he was saying privately about former President Trump right after the attack. And we're somewhat familiar with some of those conversations, thanks to a wave of recent leaks of tapes where we hear McCarthy saying Trump took responsibility for the siege and perhaps could be removed from office. They also want to talk to these other congressmen about their roles in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election result. For example, Mo Brooks has now broken with Trump and talked about the pressure he even recently faced to try and put him back in office.

INSKEEP: This is all very compelling, but are there pitfalls to House members subpoenaing other House members?

GRISALES: Yes. Members of Congress usually testify voluntarily, and while they have been subpoenaed, for example, in House Ethics Committee investigations, this is in no way common. Republicans have warned that if they take control of the House next year, as is projected, they'll issue subpoenas to investigate Democrats. But committee member and Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin says that's not a worry. He told reporters the stakes are much higher than any new, awkward dynamics with these members of the GOP.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE RASKIN: Nothing's more awkward than a violent insurrection where people died. So we're trying to extricate ourselves from the politics of violence, insurrection and coups. And the way to get out of it is through the truth.

GRISALES: Raskin went on to say that if they have relevant information, they have, quote, "every legal and moral reason to participate in the probe." But it does get into tricky legal territory if these members don't cooperate. The panel has referred criminal contempt charges when subpoenas are defied, but it's not clear the panel will do that in this case against their Republican colleagues.

INSKEEP: How are Republicans responding?

GRISALES: McCarthy and others reiterated their position that this panel is not conducting a legitimate investigation and attacked them for sharing the news about the subpoena - about the subpoenas with the media first. But none of them would say if they would comply. The committee's top-ranking Republican, Liz Cheney, who was ousted from leadership by McCarthy and others for defying Trump, said these subpoenaed members have an obligation to share critical information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: It's a reflection of how important and serious the investigation is and how grave the attack on the Capitol was.

GRISALES: These subpoenas arrive in what appears to be the final chapter for this panel. They've interviewed a total of a thousand witnesses. They have more than a hundred thousand documents. So they expect to hold public hearings to present their findings next month and issue their final report later this year.

INSKEEP: June's going to be interesting.

GRISALES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

INSKEEP: Fears of recession and higher inflation have triggered a sell-off in the stock market.

MARTINEZ: Economists worry the market could see a serious downturn soon. One of the major economic indicators, the S&P 500, has dropped a lot. So why is there so much financial turbulence?

INSKEEP: NPR's David Gura is following the markets. Hey there, David.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why are stocks continuing to fall?

GURA: Well, the latest rate of the Consumer Price Index showed inflation slowing down a tad. But the bottom line is prices are still rising faster than we've seen in decades, and what Wall Street wanted was to see a stronger sign inflation had peaked. The problem is these prices are not slowing down fast enough, which, of course, you know if you've shopped for groceries recently, bought an airline ticket. And that's fueling fears the Fed Reserve will have to hike interest rates more aggressively. Now, this is scary, because, 1, borrowing costs are going to rise. Mortgage rates are already higher. And 2, there's a real risk this could send the economy into a deep downturn. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Jerome Powell to a second term as Fed chair. And he starts that term, Steve, at a time when investors are really unsure the Fed will be able to raise rates without sparking a recession.

INSKEEP: Does that explain why the numbers are down on the markets?

GURA: Yeah, even market veterans have been taken aback by the volatility. We've seen the Dow gain more than a thousand points one day and lose more than a thousand points the next. And then there's fear. You can see it in a volatility index called the VIX, also known as the fear index. It's now almost double what it was at the beginning of the year. Now, what we're waiting for is to see if the medicine that the Fed has started to administer is working. It's done two rate hikes, and the Fed signaled it's likely to do two more, of half a percentage point each, at its next two meetings. We're not going to know if it's working right away. We're in this period when Wall Street also has to wait to see if the Fed is going to do anything unexpected. Its next meeting is not until June 14, which feels like an eternity here. Eric Freedman is the chief investment officer of U.S. Bank's Asset Management Group.

ERIC FREEDMAN: We have a month-plus of what's called a paucity of conversations, definitive conversations and decisions from Fed, but perhaps more and more chatter.

GURA: Freedman says markets will react to that chatter, to speeches from Fed officials and to each new piece of economic data. So, Steve, that volatility is not going to go away anytime soon.

INSKEEP: Paucity of conversation - something we very rarely have here on the radio, in any case...

GURA: There you go.

INSKEEP: ...Or podcasts or anything else. Can you put market declines in context here? How bad is it?

GURA: We've gone from some pretty incredible gains to these new lows. I mean, remember, the S&P 500 hit a record high in January. So this is a pretty big drop. What also makes this downturn different is the Fed has not aggressively raised interest rates like this in years, and both stocks and bonds are selling off simultaneously. That is usually not what happens. U.S. treasuries are seen as safe havens, and investors turn to them in times of turmoil. Eric Freedman says we haven't seen this happen in a calendar year in at least 46 years. I'll add that crypto is also getting crushed. Bitcoin - down about 35% since the start of the year.

INSKEEP: What should ordinary investors do?

GURA: Financial advisors have always said you don't want to own too much of one thing, and that has not changed. Rick Pitcairn runs an investment company, and he says you want to have a balanced portfolio.

RICK PITCAIRN: I love the old saying, you know, if there's not something that you hate in your portfolio at any given moment, then you probably aren't diversified.

GURA: So in this moment, you don't want to be too invested in Bitcoin, say, or meme stocks or the tech sector, which has gotten pummeled recently, because interest rates are going up. The most vulnerable investors, Steve, are investors who do not have a diversified portfolio.

INSKEEP: Got to drop those meme stocks. David, thanks.

GURA: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Gura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.