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News brief: voting rights, high-filtration masks, U.S.-Russia talks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Democrats are looking for their way forward on voting rights. President Biden this week joined calls to change Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation. And today, he heads to Capitol Hill to drum up new support to move two bills forward.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin is talking here about why the bills are so critical to preserving democracy.

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DICK DURBIN: The greatest possible participation of the greatest number of voters, then let them decide on issue after issue.

MARTINEZ: Joining us to discuss all of this is NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. In the past, Senate Democrats have tried to move voting legislation to the floor but failed. What's the plan now?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a memo to his colleagues outlining a procedural path to use existing Senate rules to start debate on two key pieces of legislation. This is the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But Senate Democrats still need 60 votes to go ahead with this legislation. And in an evenly divided Senate, they fall short with Republican opposition. Schumer told reporters he does not want to delude anyone into thinking that this is easy.

MARTINEZ: OK. So if Democrats fall short due to GOP opposition, what do Democrats do then?

GRISALES: Right. Schumer and the other Democrats have talked about changing Senate rules. But there's even less interest here. And they do not know what a new version of that could look like - for example, if it's a move towards a filibuster, where a member has to hold the floor by talking. Republicans have been very vocal about their opposition here, calling it a power grab. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Biden's remarks this week on voting rights were, quote, "profoundly unpresidential."

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Look; I've known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at the podium.

GRISALES: During a separate visit to the Hill yesterday, Biden said he still called McConnell a friend, while White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was more unbecoming that Republicans continue to push false lies tied to the 2020 election.

MARTINEZ: Now, it doesn't sound like Democrats have the votes to change the rules. So why are they pushing this issue?

GRISALES: This is a marquee issue for the party. And this new wave of election disinformation and the January 6 attack have escalated these concerns. Florida Representative Val Demings touched on what's at stake here.

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VAL DEMINGS: We can talk about civil rights. We can talk about women's rights. We can talk about Social Security, Medicare, education. But all of it is at risk.

GRISALES: Demings joined the House Congressional Black Caucus to say the world is watching the Senate's next steps here and argued, you cannot have a government by the people unless every American can fully participate in democracy. This is something that they argue Republicans at the state level are eroding. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said he does not think there is any issue more emotional for members of the caucus or their constituents.

MARTINEZ: Claudia, while we got you here - the highest ranked Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, released a statement last night saying he would not cooperate with a voluntary request to testify before the January 6 panel. What do you make of that?

GRISALES: Right. This was one significant request we were watching for closely. And this rejection late last night marks a disappointment for the committee that's investigating the Capitol riot. And now they'll need to decide if they will issue a subpoena here for a top sitting GOP member, putting them in a very tricky spot.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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MARTINEZ: So all those colorful and patterned cloth masks may look pretty cool, but thanks to omicron, many experts say it's time to start wearing high filtration masks, like those N95s.

MARTIN: CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that the agency will be updating its mask guidance, which means I'm probably going to have to put away my pink sequins mask. And it is awesome. Anyway, I digress. Walensky also reiterated that any mask is better than no mask. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have already told residents it is time to level up.

MARTINEZ: Send it to me in LA. I'll wear it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

MARTINEZ: Here to give us some practical advice is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Maria, at this point in the pandemic, I take it, you know a lot about masks. So how much more protection does a person get with an N95?

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: You know, yeah, I have spent a lot of this pandemic researching masks and trying different ones on my own family. And I can tell you that N95s and similar respirators offer way more protection than cloth masks. I mean, they're called N95s because they're designed to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles when worn correctly. And they're made with a material that has an electrostatic charge. So basically, it uses the power of static electricity to trap incoming particles. Plus, they have a snug fit. And with masks, a snug fit means better protection.

MARTINEZ: What if you need to wear one, though, for a long time? I mean, are they comfortable enough for that?

GODOY: Yeah, you know, these days, they can be. You can now get N95 masks in different shapes. And that can really affect comfort. For example, I personally find the cup-shaped N95s to be highly uncomfortable. But I do like the ones that fold in the middle.

MARTINEZ: Me, too.

GODOY: Yeah. I spoke with Aaron Collins. He's a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. He's known as the mask nerd because he's been testing hundreds of masks for the last year. And he is a fan of the duckbill-shaped N95s.

AARON COLLINS: These, like, duckbill-style masks, they look a little goofy. But it's ultra-breathable. I'm pretty sure you could run a marathon in that thing and not have a problem.

GODOY: And regardless of shape, N95s are made to the U.S. government NIOSH standard and are rigorously tested. So these are a reliable choice.

MARTINEZ: What about the KN95s and the KF94s? Are those masks just as good?

GODOY: They can be pretty close. Both of those mask use ear loops, which makes them more comfortable. But it means they don't seal quite as tightly to your face. One thing to know is that KF94s are made to a Korean standard. And these are regulated by the South Korean government. They've got a pretty good reputation. Now, KN95s are a Chinese standard. But the Chinese government doesn't regulate them strictly. And while there are some good KN95s, there's also been a lot of low quality or just fake ones on the market.

MARTINEZ: Oh. So how do you know if you're getting a fake mask?

GODOY: Yeah. It can be hard to tell. So the experts I spoke with say, make sure to buy from a trusted source. The nonprofit Project N95 sells masks from vetted distributors. There's also Home Depot and Lowe's. Aaron Collins says if you're buying from Amazon, go to the manufacturer's shop - so the 3M store or Kimberly-Clark store on Amazon - rather than a third-party vendor. For KF94s, Collins says, Korean importers like Be Healthy USA and KollecteUSA are a good bet.

MARTINEZ: What about for kids and their little faces? Which ones are the best for them?

GODOY: Well, N95s aren't regulated for children. So if you need a smaller respirator, you have to look at KN95s and KF94s for kids. The mask nerd says he's tested a bunch of brands. You can find a link to his results on his Twitter profile at @masknerd.

MARTINEZ: NPR's health correspondent Maria Godoy. Thanks a lot.

GODOY: My pleasure.

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MARTINEZ: Russia and the West go into the third and final leg of a diplomatic triathlon today. It's part of a series of talks this week over the fate of Ukraine.

MARTIN: The first two rounds produced no agreements that would lead Russia to stand down the 100,000 troops deployed near its border with Ukraine. One of the sticking points here has been Russia's demand that Ukraine never be allowed to get into NATO. The alliance's entire reason for being, back when it was established, was to be a check against Russian aggression. So what is the way forward here?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Charles Maynes is following the developments from Moscow. So why hasn't there been any progress in these talks between Russia and NATO allies?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, the two sides seem to be really talking past one another. The West wants Russia to deescalate its forces near Ukraine. They're fearing of an invasion, of course. Russia, clearly using the threat of force while claiming not to, is demanding Ukraine be barred from NATO membership, as you mentioned. It also wants the alliance to roll back its presence in Eastern Europe entirely. Now, the U.S. and its allies clearly see these Russian demands as mostly nonstarters. Ukraine may or may not become a member of NATO. But it's not up to Russia to decide, they say. And they're warning of massive sanctions and adding forces in the region should Russia pursue aggression. Yesterday, we heard from Russia's chief negotiator, this is Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who said NATO - that if it did come to that, Moscow would hit back.

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ALEXANDER GRUSHKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Grushko here says that if NATO chooses a policy of trying to contain Russia, Russia will respond with countermeasures. And if they try to intimidate Russia, they'll respond back.

MARTINEZ: OK. So what happens today in this third and final round of talks?

MAYNES: Well, you know, today is in a bigger venue. This is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, with its 57 members. That includes Ukraine. This is the first time they've been present in all these talks about their future. But Russians have really signaled that they see the U.S. as the key decision-maker here. They seem to prefer, you know, the optics of a bilateral talk with the U.S., the old Cold War superpower format for engagement.

MARTINEZ: How closely are Russians following all this?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Ukraine is routinely portrayed on state media as this dysfunctional place where nationalists run amuck. There's certainly a lot of talk about how disruptive any new sanctions might be among Russians. And there's also concern about the possibility of conflict with NATO. A recent poll found that over 50% were worried about the outbreak of a world war. That said, frankly, a lot of coverage has been devoted to other issues, for example, what's happening in neighboring Kazakhstan. This is where Russia deployed troops as part of a regional security force to quell protests last week.

MARTINEZ: Speaking of that, Russia still has forces there. So where do things stand with that?

MAYNES: You know, the Russia-led troops began their formal withdrawal this morning, handing over posts to the Kazakh army with a ceremony in Almaty.

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MAYNES: And so as what you're hearing suggests, the Russian-led mission has been portrayed here as a great success, Moscow Coming to its neighbor's aid in preventing both what the Kremlin and the authorities in Kazakhstan now say was an attempt by foreign-backed terrorist to overthrow the government. And going forward, Russian President Vladimir Putin says this Russian-led security force is ready to defend other former Soviet states from Western-backed...

MARTINEZ: Quickly, what has this meant for Putin?

MAYNES: Well, you know, this operation in Kazakhstan in some ways projects onto Russia's negotiations with the West over Ukraine. It signals that Russia is ready to defend what it sees as its sphere of influence, whether the West likes it or not.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Charles, thanks a lot.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.