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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

After a surprise visit to the nation's capital, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not heading home empty-handed.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Your money is not charity. It's an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

MARTÍNEZ: After many months of pleading from the Ukrainian government, the U.S. announced it will send a sophisticated air defense system to help Ukraine weather a storm of withering attacks from Russia. It's called a Patriot, and it's a long-range, high-altitude missile system that can target incoming missiles and aircraft. It was first used by the U.S. during the 1991 Gulf War and is now considered the premier air defense missile in the world. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about this. Tom, tell us more about the Patriot.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, A, it's kind of now the gold standard for air defenses. It can hit a target from as far away as 100 miles in altitudes up to 79,000 feet. It has a sophisticated radar that can track multiple targets. Now, during the 1991 Gulf War, it didn't work that well, actually, and improvements were made over the years. So now it's really in high demand. Besides the U.S., Germany and many other countries use them. Israel has deployed Patriot in the past to shoot down drones, aircraft, other threats. Saudi Arabia, by the way, is making use of it today to target missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Ukraine is getting pummeled by Russian attacks. How quickly will the Patriot get there, and will it make a difference?

BOWMAN: Well, one of the reasons the U.S. was reluctant to send the Patriot is 'cause it takes a long time to train on this system, usually about six months. So that's way too long a time to wait for the Russian air attacks. So the U.S. will take two months or so to train Ukrainians at a facility in Germany. The expectation is a Patriot system won't make it to Ukraine until sometime in February. Already the Ukrainians are shooting down 80 to 90% of the drones and missiles coming in. So the Patriot system will help, but it's not a game changer. That's according to the think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The center says a Patriot will fill some gaps in Ukraine's air defenses and provide more capability. But it can only defend a relatively small area, probably, you know, just the capital, Kyiv, But it's important to note the U.S. and its allies have sent other air defenses, some quite good, over the past year that are helping as well. And most recently, the Pentagon announced some defenses against those Iranian-made drones. Some of these defense systems will not shoot down the drones but actually - get this - interfere with its electronic signal and cause it to crash or go off course.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, a concern by the U.S. has been to not antagonize Russia and making sure that the U.S. and NATO aren't drawn in to a larger war with Russia. Will sending the Patriots be seen as an escalation?

BOWMAN: Well, Russian officials have repeatedly said that more sophisticated weapons like the Patriots sent by the U.S. will be seen as provocative, and there could be consequences. But Russia said the same thing about these other systems that were sent, such as one called HIMARS, which is a precise rocket artillery system that's been very successful at hitting Russian command centers, troops and supplies - really helped the Ukrainians push back the Russians. And there were really no consequences from Russia after the HIMARS were sent months ago. By the way, the U.S. argues that Patriot is a defensive system, not offensive. Now, the other thing is some defense analysts, like retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, are saying even more offensive weapons should be sent to push back Russian forces further. They're saying they need longer-range rocket artillery and even American F-16 warplanes. But, A, at this point, the White House is really not ready to go that far.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: Congress is trying to wrap up its work for the remainder of the year, on the heels of a historic joint address from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Members are now hoping to approve a massive government funding measure this week that includes billions for Ukraine, as well as defense spending and discretionary programs. But that isn't all that's on Congress's plate.

MARTÍNEZ: No, a House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol is set to release its full report Thursday. Here to walk us through lawmakers' busy week is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. All right, so let's start with the spending bill - up against a Friday deadline that comes with the threat of a government shutdown if it's not passed in time. Is it on track to pass?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: It could, but it could be tight. The Senate started the process to move this legislation earlier this week, but it hit some snags along the way, and it got snagged once again last night. It's a $1.7 trillion bill that's more than 4,000 pages long. And it also still needs to get through the House. A few hours ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said they were close to moving this through his chambers early as today. Overall, it directs $850 billion to defense spending and $773 billion to discretionary programs. It funds the military, government agencies, includes pay raises for service members and government workers, and it directs $40 billion in emergency aid to areas struck by public disasters and more than 44 billion in aid for Ukraine. But even if this bill has been stuck a few times, it is the holiday season, and it's those deadlines that often get Congress moving.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That was a lot, but what else is at stake here?

GRISALES: Well, it covers some critical initiatives, including reforms to the Electoral Count Act. This would safeguard presidential elections. It's a bipartisan plan that would strengthen this law by making it clear the vice president can only play a ceremonial role in the counting of votes, and it significantly raises the threshold for members to raise objections to those votes. And this is one of those major bipartisan legislative recommendations to come out of the January 6 attack.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the committee is expected to release its final report. What could we see there?

GRISALES: This is expected to establish a historical record of the panel's investigation into the Capitol attack, and it comes a few days after their final public presentation. It will include evidence to back up criminal referrals the panel is issuing against former President Trump for four crimes. This is insurrection, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to make false statements. Now, criminal referrals do not have legal weight. They don't force the Justice Department to act. But the panel's evidence is what could persuade DOJ special counsel that's overseeing their criminal probe on this to act.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, last night, the committee released its first tranche of witness transcripts. What can you tell us about those?

GRISALES: Yes, 34 transcripts to start. These are tied to the more than 1,000 witnesses the committee interviewed. This tranche of documents included key figures who took the Fifth, including Trump allies such as Roger Stone. Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin said this is a big reason the panel was stymied from pursuing more referrals and recommendations, because of significant witnesses who declined to cooperate. That all said, the panel will release a lot more of these transcripts that will include more substantial interviews in the coming days.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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MARTÍNEZ: Today was expected to be one of the busiest travel days for those getting away for the holidays.

FADEL: But a huge frigid storm system may put many would-be travelers' plans on ice. Heavy snow, strong winds and life-threatening cold temperatures - even 20 to 30 degrees below zero in some places - could paralyze travel.

MARTÍNEZ: On ice - I heard what you did there, Leila. All right, joining us now from Chicago is NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, give us a sense of the size of this storm.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah, it's just a massive cold weather system, A, that it's moving through - from the Pacific Northwest, through the northern Rockies and the Great Plains and into the Midwest and Great Lakes today. It'll eventually chill the Southeast, and it'll effect dozens of states, if not with snow, then with bitter cold. Temperatures in Texas and along the Gulf Coast and even in parts of Florida will plummet below freezing, and the East Coast and Northeast will be hammered probably with high winds and heavy rain.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, cold, snow, wind - common in the Northern states and in the Midwest, so what makes this particular storm different, and why is it posing such a threat to travel?

SCHAPER: Well, meteorologists say what's unique about this winter storm is not the heavy snowfall amounts. In fact, we're going to probably see less snow than initially predicted, but that this system is exceptionally windy and extremely cold with temperatures falling dangerously fast, dropping 20 to 35 degrees in just a couple of hours - in some parts, yesterday, the record-setting plunges of up to 40 degrees in just half an hour. And that sharp drop in temperatures is accompanied by these wicked winds, sustained winds of up to 40 miles an hour with gusts near 60 miles an hour. National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Bardou says for drivers that means blizzard conditions and possibly sudden whiteout.

MIKE BARDOU: There's going to be enough snow that - combining with the winds to create treacherous driving conditions, at minimum, as you go to outer areas, more open areas, significant blowing and drifting is going to be possible, to the level where people may get stuck in drifts and then perhaps be stranded in the now bitterly cold temperatures.

MARTÍNEZ: What about flying? I mean, this has got to just put a crimp in people's travel plans.

SCHAPER: Yeah, especially for the holidays. It's already affecting air travel, forcing significant flight cancellations the last few days, most notably in Seattle, Denver, now today in Minneapolis. FlightAware says about 500 flights both Tuesday and Wednesday were canceled. More than a thousand are already canceled for today. Chicago's O'Hare Airport is one of the nation's biggest hubs. Delays and cancellations here tend to cause flight disruptions all across the country from coast to coast. And so Chicago's deputy aviation commissioner, Andrew Velasquez, says crews are working around the clock to keep runways clear.

ANDREW VELASQUEZ: These hardworking individuals will have at their disposal more than 350 pieces of snow removal equipment, more than 400,000 gallons of liquid de-icer for runways and taxiways and more than 5,000 tons of salt.

SCHAPER: You know, despite all that work, nonetheless, nearly 20% of flights going into and out of O'Hare today are already canceled, and some experts expect thousands more flights to be canceled over the next couple of days. Most airlines are waiving rebooking fees if travelers want to change their flight. But if you don't rebook and your flight is still canceled for any reason, you are entitled to a full refund. The airline may offer you a credit or a voucher, and you could take that if that's what you want, but you don't have to.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Schaper in chilly Chicago. Stay warm, David.

SCHAPER: I'll try. Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.