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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It is, we are told, like you've left the solar system and are looking back from some other world.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That's how one solar eclipse superfan described totality on NPR's Life Kit podcast. Millions of Americans will get to experience that today when the moon blocks the sun. It will start just before 1:30 p.m. Central Time in Eagle Pass, Texas, and move across the country through Maine. And many towns are hosting special events and watch parties.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now is reporter Shelly Brisbin with the Texas Standard, which is part of the NPR network. She's on the line from Kerrville, Texas. So, Shelly, where in Kerrville will you be watching the eclipse from?

SHELLY BRISBIN, BYLINE: I am at the Kerrville Folk Festival grounds where there is a big eclipse festival going on. It's been happening all weekend. And we are right at the center line of totality, and that's where we'll be. There are NASA scientists here and quite a lot of very excited people here, including Russell Hahn Crosure (ph) from San Antonio.

RUSSELL HAHN CROSURE, BYLINE: If the weather doesn't hold up, I have a backup plan. I am going to try to find a place - to the southwest is almost ideal - where I can see the clouds from a really far way away. And I would really like to see the shadow approach us.

MARTÍNEZ: And that, I guess, is the fly in the ointment, right? I mean, the weather might not be great to watch the totality.

BRISBIN: Well, fortunately, the forecast for rain has been a lot lower of late. We've been concerned that rain was going to happen. There has been a lot of cloud cover, but for Kerrville specifically, the forecast calls for rain at something like 3 o'clock this afternoon. And since totality is at 1:30, that gives people a fairly good window. Cloud cover still could cause a little havoc. But I think in general it's a lot better than the forecast previously, which called for some more extensive rain.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, now I know there have been people camping out all over the totality to try and get a view, but some people might try to go, like, right now to try and get a spot and traffic jams might ruin that for them. How are communities like Kerrville preparing for the traffic?

BRISBIN: Some communities, and I don't believe Kerrville is one of them, have actually declared disaster areas, which means that emergency responders have more latitude in terms of the way they manage traffic. So far the reports we've heard have not mentioned any real severe traffic jams, and so far that's kind of surprising. But I say so far because we have a long morning and early afternoon ahead of us, and traffic could certainly be a problem in particular areas, especially on highways into these small towns where there are a lot of eclipse events.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, a lot of scientists in Texas and all over the place are studying the eclipse to get nature's reaction to it. And science teachers have also prepared students for the event. So what are some of the more interesting things you've heard?

BRISBIN: Well, the NASA scientists are actually here in Kerrville. They're not with us but they're in downtown Kerrville at a park both doing public demonstrations and they're also studying the corona - they have instruments out there to do that - as well as the ionosphere. And so folks are getting an opportunity to see what NASA actually does when an eclipse happens in ways that are not possible in other conditions.

MARTÍNEZ: And just to be clear, you need the glasses, right? You need the glasses to be able to watch.

BRISBIN: Absolutely. Get those glasses. Keep them on until totality. You can take them off when totality begins and then put them right back on when the light returns.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Shelly Brisbin with the Texas Standard. Shelly, thanks.

BRISBIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: The Biden administration is taking another crack at an issue it struggled to get through the courts, and that's student loan debt.

FADEL: The Department of Education is releasing new proposals this morning that could eliminate debt for millions of Americans. It's the latest attempt by the president to fulfill a campaign promise, because the Supreme Court threw out an earlier effort last summer.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR education reporter Sequoia Carrillo joins us now. All right, so student loan relief is back. And we talked about this a lot before the Supreme Court struck it down last year. What exactly is the Biden administration proposing this time around?

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: So this time, the new proposals place a lot of emphasis on reducing or eliminating accrued interest, or what U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona calls runaway interest. Millions of borrowers now owe more than what they initially borrowed.

MARTÍNEZ: And who exactly are the plans intended to help?

CARRILLO: So they're really looking at four separate groups of borrowers, those who owe more money now than what they initially took out, those who started repayment a long time ago - like more than 20 years ago - those who are already eligible for existing forgiveness programs but who haven't applied yet, and also borrowers who are experiencing economic hardship.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so those folks could each expect to see some kind of movement in their student loan balances. How many people are we talking about here in those four groups combined?

CARRILLO: Well, this is a great question. Some people fall into more than one of those groups and so the Biden administration hasn't shared an exact estimate with us. But they do say if the plans go through, it would bring the total number to about 30 million people who've benefited from some kind of student loan relief since Biden took office.

MARTÍNEZ: And how would this proposal work?

CARRILLO: Any borrower, regardless of income, could cancel up to $20,000 in interest. Plus low- and middle-income borrowers could become eligible to have all of their interest forgiven. So that includes single borrowers earning up to $120,000 a year and married borrowers who make $240,000 or less per year. Here's Secretary Cardona briefing reporters ahead of today's announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CARDONA: Now there's an end to the nightmare of working hard, making loan payments and still watching your loan balances get bigger and bigger month after month.

MARTÍNEZ: So why does the Biden administration think that this plan might have a chance at surviving legal challenges when the last one didn't?

CARRILLO: So it's using a very different process this time around. It's called negotiated rulemaking. It's a very slow and far more traditional path to change higher education policy. Now that these plans are announced, they have to go to public comment for a while. Department officials haven't given us the exact timeline yet, but it will definitely be closer to months than weeks. The hope is that the path they took this time will have stronger footing, but new legal challenges do seem likely. But according to senior department officials, they have been studying the Supreme Court decision very carefully and feel confident with these new plans.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. But politics, of course, has a big role in all this.

CARRILLO: Yes, definitely. I mean, the political timing is much more pressing now. When the first student debt proposal was announced in 2022, we were in the lead up to a midterm. Now we're closing in on Biden's bid for a second term. The stakes are much higher, and student loan borrowers are a pretty young group, which is a key demographic the president is hoping to keep in his camp. I think you can see that very clearly in the unveiling of this plan. Today, the president, vice president, second gentleman and education secretary are all in different corners of the country talking about these proposals to voters. Unfortunately, the pressure is going to be on to be quick with this rollout, but it's going to be a very, very slow process. And November is not that far off.

MARTÍNEZ: No, it's not. NPR education reporter Sequoia Carrillo. Thanks a lot.

CARRILLO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: It's been six months since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel began its military response in Gaza. And this half a year has seen the deadliest violence in Israeli-Palestinian history.

FADEL: On October 7, 1,200 people were killed, according to the Israeli government. Since then, more than 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to health authorities there. And despite increased pressure from the U.S., the on-and-off-again cease-fire negotiations have failed to bring a new pause in fighting and a hostage exchange deal, although those talks are continuing in Cairo. But that pressure from the U.S. may be making other inroads.

MARTÍNEZ: For more on this, we go now to NPR's Carrie Kahn in Tel Aviv. Carrie, over the weekend, Israel withdrew a significant number of troops from Gaza and allowed in a large boost of humanitarian aid. Tell us more about that.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Yes, they did. Israel did pull out significant forces out of the southern city of Khan Yunis, and this is where the most intense fighting has been for the last four months. They'd left just a fraction of soldiers in Gaza when you compare that to the beginning of the war, and in the past 24 hours, Gaza health officials reported 38 people were killed. That's one of the lowest daily death toll so far. You know, but of course, as Leila said, the death toll is staggering. More than 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza in the past six months. And as you said, there's also a significant increase in the number of aid trucks allowed into Gaza to about 300 yesterday.

All this after President Biden, you know, publicly called on Israel to do more to lessen the suffering in Gaza. But yesterday, several Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, again stated their goal of this complete elimination of Hamas in all of Gaza, and including the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's displaced population is now living just in deplorable conditions with very little food.

MARTÍNEZ: What did Palestinians in Gaza make of this troop withdrawal down?

KAHN: Well, some people were trying to return to homes in Khan Younis, where the Israeli troops have left, but it's just unclear if there are homes to return to and if there's any infrastructure there, and of course, if it's safe. NPR's producer Anas Baba was out talking with people on the six-month mark of the war. He met Nidal Mohammed (ph). He's a father of three, lives in this sprawling tent camp in Rafah. He was trying to negotiate with vegetable vendors on the street for food and had only about the equivalent of $13 to do that.

NIDAL MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

KAHN: Anas Baba asked him if he was afraid of Israel's threatened invasion of Rafah and he said, no, one gets to a point where death no longer matters and seems more comfortable than this life we are living.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow, that's rough to hear. What about Israelis? I mean, how are they feeling about the six-month mark of the war?

KAHN: Israelis have become more outspoken and divided about the war, especially after the united response after Hamas' brutal attack on October 7, which Israel says killed 1,200 people. Polls show most Israelis want Netanyahu gone. They blame him for the original security breaches that allowed for the attack and they're just livid that about 100 hostages remain in Gaza. At a very large protest over the weekend, Avishay Gal-Yam (ph) said he is fed up with Netanyahu, who he says has no plan for Gaza even if he could eliminate Hamas.

AVISHAY GAL-YAM: This government is not able to even discuss what that replacement is going to be. And any solution has to be led by capable people, by good leaders, which we don't have.

KAHN: Many protesters are just demanding new elections right away, A.

MARTÍNEZ: And what do we know about the state of cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas that are taking place in Egypt?

KAHN: Well, U.S. pressure on Netanyahu is strong to reach a deal and the mediated talks do continue, but the major sticking points remain also. Hamas demands a permanent cease-fire, and Netanyahu says that's unacceptable and says he will only agree to a six-week pause.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Tel Aviv. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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