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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A historic stalemate in the U.S. House is headed into its third day, as Republicans failed again to elect a speaker.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy started Wednesday hopeful that he would have the speaker's gavel by day's end.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: We could go through every name in the conference, and be at the end of the day, we'll be able to get there.

INSKEEP: But if McCarthy does get there at the end of the day, as the expression goes, that day was not going to be Wednesday. Not only did he fall short three more times, as some of his fellow Republicans voted against him; his party barely had enough votes to adjourn last night.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales joins us this morning. So clearly, both sides are dug in here, and that means business is not getting done. Will we see a repeat today?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: It's possible. For example, we saw the 20 conservative Republicans voting against leader McCarthy hold firm for a second day in a row, much more than the four he can afford to lose for a speakership bid. But we did see some small signs of progress last night. After McCarthy lost that sixth round of ballots, he met with his opponents to try to offer up new concessions, and as he was leaving that meeting, he sounded a note of optimism again.

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MCCARTHY: I think it's probably best that people work through it some more. And I think - I don't think voting tonight does any different. But I think voting in the future will.

GRISALES: Soon after, Republicans were able to win a motion to adjourn for the night but only by two votes, another reminder of the razor-thin margins in the House.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, what's the plan for today?

GRISALES: The chamber is once again set to convene at noon today for more votes. But Republicans were still hoping to reach a deal for McCarthy in the interim. But just as we mentioned yesterday, there's still plenty of division and little room for error. McCarthy can only lose a handful of members in his conference to win the speakership. And we saw another sign that his opposition could grow yesterday. In addition to the 20 defectors, a new Republican flipped on him. Indiana Representative Victoria Spartz voted present, depriving McCarthy of yet another vote in his favor. She tweeted that Republicans needed time to deliberate further until they have enough votes to elect a speaker and, quote, "stop wasting everyone's time."

MARTÍNEZ: So what could McCarthy do to get over this hump?

GRISALES: McCarthy has made a lot of concessions to his opponents already, including offering up an option for only five members to move to remove him as speaker, something that would require a much higher threshold normally. And last night, McCarthy's super PAC reached a deal with an influential group, the Club for Growth, in support of his bid, and that was to back off spending in certain, quote, "safe" GOP districts to support a particular candidate, addressing one more demand from these conservatives. One of McCarthy's supporters, Nebraska Representative Don Bacon, who's entertained working with Democrats to elect a unity speaker, said McCarthy just needs more time to reach a deal with his opponents.

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DON BACON: I believe that there would be folks on the other side of the aisle that will make a deal with us when it comes to working on committees and things like that. But we don't want to go down this path too far. This is about Kevin McCarthy right now, give him every opportunity to win.

MARTÍNEZ: So if there isn't a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel deal waiting, how long could this last?

GRISALES: That's a big question looming over the chamber. Democrats have warned their members they should be prepared to even stay through the weekend. But again, we should note, this is an urgent concern. Much of the business of the House is on hold. Members are not getting sworn in. They cannot address a request from their constituents. They cannot form committees or hold official meetings or access intel briefings. In other words, nothing gets done until this gets done.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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MARTÍNEZ: Hurricane-force winds and heavy rain downed trees and left more than 100,000 Northern Californians without power last night. The storm's origin - another atmospheric river.

INSKEEP: That's the technical term for a column of airborne moisture, like a river in the sky. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, and so did local officials in San Jose, Oakland and elsewhere. San Francisco's mayor, London Breed, spoke from the city's emergency operations center.

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LONDON BREED: The biggest issue for us in terms of addressing challenges around floods, which we've been doing all day - cleaning out storm drains and other issues - is making sure that people are not caught in these various floods in other areas and a situation that requires rescue. We want to keep the public safe.

MARTÍNEZ: Climate editor Kevin Stark from member station KQED is in San Francisco, right in the middle of this. Kevin, where do things stand now?

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: Yeah, well, the storm prompted evacuation warnings across the northern part of the state. It triggered landslides. It closed roads, really, all over the place. The winds were particularly strong. They were gusting up to 85 miles per hour in some parts of the Bay Area. One city issued a shelter-in-place order because of all the downed power lines. Rain was just really coming down in sheets. It was like a fire hose at its peak, you know, dropping more than an inch per hour in some places. A gas station roof actually collapsed south of San Francisco. And school districts across the region have canceled school. And remember, this storm is coming on the heels of another really bad atmospheric river that blanketed the region on New Year's Eve. Really, it's like the third significant storm system we've had since Christmas.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it has been wet in California. So what are the biggest things to worry about today?

STARK: Well, the weather service is warning that flash flooding in a number of places around the northern part of the state. I'd say the region, you know, was caught a little bit off guard on New Year's Eve. It was worse than officials had anticipated, and the flooding in cities and from small creeks and streams was really bad. Restaurants flooded, major highways shut down - all of it.

We saw a correction in advance of this storm. There was a lot of prep work and early warning, that kind of thing, really across the region, and that's because the ground was so saturated that increases the chances of landslides, and emergency officials were really worried about some of the bigger rivers flooding. Meteorologists are warning that the Russian River could flood in the North Bay area, for example, during this storm. And we've had a number of big wildfires in recent years in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Point Reyes, down in Big Sur. These burn scars can wash out and create slides that are filled with rocks and mud and trees to really be quite dangerous.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Kevin, once the faucet or the hose gets turned off, I mean, what challenges is the region facing?

STARK: Right. Well, first, cleanup - you know, we're assessing how bad the damage is, trying to figure out how people can get the power back on, when that's going to happen. The dollar figure for the damage from these winter storms continues to tick up. We don't know exactly how much yet. One city that's been hit hard is Santa Cruz. It's already estimating damages there up over $10 million. That's not a huge city. That's a signal that economic damage is going to be considerable. Meteorologists here sometimes talk about what they call the storm parade, which refers to us having, you know, a series of these atmospheric rivers back-to-back-to-back. That's really what's happening right now. We're looking at having another series of big storms this weekend and even into next week.

MARTÍNEZ: That's climate editor Kevin Stark from member station KQED in San Francisco. Kevin, stay dry.

STARK: Thanks so much.

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MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. Embassy in Cuba has resumed full consular and visa services in Havana for the first time since 2017.

INSKEEP: The U.S. says the reopening is to ensure the safe and legal migration of Cubans. It comes during a mass exodus from the island.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us now from his base in Mexico City. Eyder, let's start with the basics. Why was the embassy closed? And what does this reopening mean?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah, so there was a huge drawdown of staff in 2017, and that happened after the U.S. accused Cuba of these so-called sonic attacks on American diplomats. And what actually happened remains a mystery. But now the embassy says it is staffed, and it is ready to process all the immigrant visas. And when there was this skeletal staff, if you were Cuban looking for a visa, you had to fly to Guyana. Now Cubans can process their visas in Havana. But as you noted, this comes at an extraordinary time for Cuba. Last year, about 250,000 Cubans left the island. But the Biden administration says it wants to issue about 20,000 visas this year. So there very well might be a huge mismatch between the Cubans who want to leave and the visas that are available.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and those sonic attacks were dubbed the Havana syndrome, very mysterious term there. So, OK, what does this reopening mean, then? It doesn't seem like much is going to change.

PERALTA: No, I mean, I think it's likely that this won't lead to dramatic changes because Cuba is just in the middle of a huge economic crisis, which is a long time in the making. I mean, first, the help it was getting from Venezuela collapsed. Then the Trump administration hit it with new sanctions. Then it got hit by COVID and hurricanes and a huge fire on its main power plants. So Cubans are having a hard time getting the basics, everything from food to fuel.

And this is the worst crisis Cuba has faced since the end of the Cold War. And it's hard to overstate how many Cubans are looking to leave. By some estimates, Cuba lost 2% of its population last year. U.S. Border Patrol says they've seen a 400% increase in migrants in the Florida sector since October. And, of course, we see it here in Mexico. Lots of Cuban migrants make it to Central America, and they walk north. It's worth noting that President Biden will deliver a speech about immigration today, and he will be here in Mexico next week, and certainly, he and his Mexican counterpart will be talking immigration.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Eyder, what's the Cuban government saying about this?

PERALTA: I mean, like they've done in the past, they're blaming the U.S. embargo for the troubles. But President Miguel Diaz-Canel actually gave a realistic assessment in his New Year's speech. He called 2022 one of the worst years in decades, and he warned that 2023 could be worse. Let's listen.

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PRESIDENT MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He called on Cubans to work with passion, to continue defying the impossible. He said that he welcomes hope this new year. So clearly, there are no easy answers in Cuba at the moment.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta from Mexico City. Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, A.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden will speak later today about the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Our live coverage begins at 11 a.m., Eastern Time. 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.
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.