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News Brief: House's Jan. 6 Probe, Opioid Settlement, ESPN Departure

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Plans for a House select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol are moving ahead.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, but there will only be one Republican on the committee. Here's what happened. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy picked five GOP members. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi then blocked two of them, and McCarthy responded by pulling all five.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republicans, we will not participate.

KING: Now, Pelosi says she did what she did to ensure the integrity of the investigation.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined by NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Claudia, tell us more about what happened there, Pelosi deciding to block these two members from the committee, a little push and pull here.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Exactly. She says she rejected these two GOP picks - that's Representative Jim Banks of Indiana as the panel's top Republican and Jim Jordan of Ohio as a member - because of their past statements and actions. We should note both voted against the certification of President Biden's election on January 6. And Pelosi said this is an unprecedented investigation that calls for an unprecedented decision.

McCarthy was visibly angry and repeatedly highlighted this was the first time a member has blocked another party's appointments to the panel, so setting up a pretty tough precedent here. And the committee's members already appointed to the panel - this is by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and that includes seven Democrats and now the panel's lone Republican; that's Congresswoman Liz Cheney - lauded the decision. Cheney talked to reporters about McCarthy's role in all this. Let's take a listen.

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LIZ CHENEY: At every opportunity, the minority leader has attempted to prevent the American people from understanding what happened, to block this investigation.

GRISALES: She also went on to say that McCarthy has not demonstrated a commitment to the Constitution or the rule of law.

MARTINEZ: All right, so what's next for this probe?

GRISALES: Now, as is often the story on Capitol Hill these days, both parties will largely go in different directions. Democrats will lead this probe on what apparently will now be an eight-member panel, and now they'll hold the first hearing on Tuesday. They're going to hear from several members of Capitol Police, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. These are officers who were defending the Capitol that day.

Meanwhile, McCarthy and other Republicans who were going to serve on this panel vowed to conduct their own probe, raising the partisan pressure surrounding this investigation. But, of course, the Republican-led effort won't have the subpoena power or the level of influence of a congressional committee.

MARTINEZ: But wait; there's more because on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Republicans blocked a vote to move forward on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan. So what does this mean for President Biden's top domestic priority?

GRISALES: Yes, this was a procedural vote that failed, and it was expected. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed ahead because he wanted to keep this process moving, but the bipartisan group putting this bill together is still hashing out the details of the plan. There's actually no text to this bill to see at this point. So Schumer moved immediately to say he plans to bring this bill up on the floor again. We should also note that 11 Republicans sent Schumer a letter saying they're prepared to back a vote next week to move forward on this bill, and Democrats need at least 10 GOP members to move forward. So that's a positive sign for now.

Last night, President Biden expressed optimism in a town hall in Ohio, saying he thinks this will finally get over the finish line eventually. But that said, it appears Schumer's still trying to corral all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to agree to a larger $3.5 trillion spending bill. He says he wants the Senate to move forward on both before they leave for their August recess, meaning there's plenty more to come on this in the coming days, weeks and months.

MARTINEZ: All right, that's NPR's Claudia Grisales. Claudia, thanks.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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MARTINEZ: Four of the nation's largest health corporations have agreed to pay $26 billion for the role in the opioid crisis.

KING: Yeah, it's a lot of money. The only settlement of this kind in U.S. history that's ever been bigger was the one that tobacco companies agreed to back in the 1990s. Ninety-three thousand people died of drug overdoses in 2020. That's a national record.

MARTINEZ: For more on this, we're joined by NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Now, Brian, 26 billion bucks sounds like a lot of money, but how will this money be used to respond to the opioid crisis?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, so AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson - these are the companies that have been accused of flooding communities with these opioid pills. And now most of the money they'll pay - roughly $23 billion of the total - will go to fund addiction treatment and health programs all over the country. And the need is urgent right now, A. Tennessee's attorney general, Herbert Slatery, talked about this yesterday. He said roughly 3,000 people died from drug overdoses in his state last year.

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HERBERT SLATERY: 2020 was the deadliest year on record for opioid overdoses in Tennessee. This was a 44% increase. So the urgency of this problem continues. It's just relentless.

MANN: And especially after the pandemic, public health departments nationwide are just desperate for cash right now to help with their addiction programs.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, but there's a catch - right? - because before this deal moves forward, states and local governments have to buy in and agree to drop their lawsuits. How likely is that to happen?

MANN: Yeah, there is this next big step of the process before this is final. Thousands of governments that sued these companies have about 150 days to agree to sign on to the deal. The way the settlement is structured, the more governments that opt in, the more of this cash the companies will have to pay. Joe Rice is an attorney with Motley Rice, one of the firms that represents dozens of governments suing the drug industry over opioids. He supports this deal. And he told reporters yesterday that a campaign will now begin to get government officials on board.

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JOE RICE: So everyone has a common interest to work together to try to get maximum participation to have the maximum amount of funds available for abatement nationally.

MANN: Now, the AGs who negotiated this deal say they think they'll get at least 40 states to sign on. But I should say two state attorneys general now in Washington state and West Virginia have already signaled they will not accept this settlement.

MARTINEZ: What are the companies saying about this deal?

MANN: Under the terms of this settlement, these corporations don't admit any wrongdoing for their role making and distributing all these pain pills. They issued statements yesterday saying they acted appropriately and just want to put this tsunami of opioid lawsuits behind them. But if this agreement is finalized, it's going to ban Johnson & Johnson from making or marketing opioids for the next 10 years. It also creates a new national monitoring system designed to keep much closer tabs on prescription opioid shipments by these companies.

It is also important to point out that while this deal is huge and resolves a big piece of corporate America's role in the opioid crisis, there's another wave of opioid lawsuits moving forward now, and this time it's against pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. They sold these pain pills directly to customers. And so far, those companies have declined to settle.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks a lot.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Maria Taylor, a rising broadcast star at ESPN, is leaving the network.

KING: Taylor recently co-hosted coverage of the NBA finals, which is a big deal.

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MARIA TAYLOR: History in the making. History has been made because the Deer District is slowly clearing out where over 60,000 fans were here to watch their Milwaukee Bucks. And on the 50th anniversary of their first title, they walk away as 2021 NBA champions.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS REPORTER #1: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS REPORTER #2: Welcome back, Maria Taylor, alongside...

KING: But a few weeks ago, The New York Times reported on some internal fighting at ESPN. Maria Taylor is Black, and one of her colleagues, who is white, was caught on video suggesting that Taylor might've been getting more prominent jobs because of her race. ESPN said in a statement that Taylor and the network just couldn't agree on a contract extension.

MARTINEZ: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us to talk more about this. David, for those who are unfamiliar with this in the sports world, can you tell us a little bit more about Maria Taylor and her history with ESPN?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Sure thing, A. Maria Taylor was, as you suggest, a real coming star at ESPN. And she had been covering college football, the SEC conference in particular, and had more recently arisen as sort of the host of the signature NBA show that ESPN presented, intended to compete with a really popular one over on CBS Sports.

MARTINEZ: All right, so what's the story around her leaving the network?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I don't think we can neglect the cause of money. Last year, ESPN sought to extend her contract, give her a significant raise from about a million dollars to a reported $5 million. She had been wanting something more in the neighborhood of what Stephen A. Smith, a sort of controversialist and host for ESPN, makes, which is closer to $8 million. And then the pandemic hit. She turned down that offer. They came back this year after having asked so many colleagues and prominent hosts to give money back because they had basically been canceling sports for much of the year. And in this case, they said, we'll give you around 3 million. And she didn't want to settle for that.

Then there's the backdrop of race. It didn't help that Rachel Nichols, another host for ESPN, who's white, was caught on the - essentially a hot mic, a video that was uploaded into the ESPN system, saying that while she wanted diversity at ESPN, it shouldn't cause - come at her expense and that basically suggesting the only reason Taylor was promoted to that "NBA Countdown" host role was because of her race. That was loaded up into the system at ESPN and then distributed within the network last year. When it was disclosed this year by The New York Times, it caused an uproar anew.

MARTINEZ: How did ESPN handle the fallout of Rachel Nichols' remarks?

FOLKENFLIK: It doesn't seem particularly effectively. There was a lot of question of whether Nichols could appear on the NBA show. You know, Taylor made clear internally she didn't want to have anything to do with Nichols on the show. And they sort of awkwardly said, well, we won't do it live. Then they would do it. And ultimately, you know, there was a point where Taylor's colleagues on the show said, we're not going to show up on the show if Nichols is on with us. And they kind of removed her as a sideline reporter for the NBA finals - Rachel Nichols.

MARTINEZ: I got to admit it was awkward watching some of this television, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, right.

MARTINEZ: And you suggest that this is largely about money. There are reports that Taylor might end up at NBC, even at the Olympics, which start - the opening ceremony starts this week. What does this tell us, though, about ESPN, once considered really the leader among sports cable networks?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, still dominant cable sports network, still the most valuable property for cable providers. But I think it says two things. I think, first, it says ESPN's economics, despite its status, are under pressure, that it's much more fragile than it was for Disney, even though it's hugely profitable. Secondly, the issue of race is one that looms over ESPN as it does professional sports and leadership positions there. The way they've handled other significant African Americans there has led to fallout. Some have left the network. And they still struggle with this, even as they very much wanted to keep Taylor at the network.

MARTINEZ: NPR's David Folkenflik. David, thanks a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.