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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There was a moment of relief for two Israeli families as they were reunited with loved ones taken by Hamas on October 7.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two elderly women were released yesterday on humanitarian grounds, according to a statement by Hamas, apparently through mediation by U.S. allies. This comes after two other Israeli American hostages were released on Friday last week. Negotiators are trying to secure the release of more hostages held inside Gaza, which continues to face heavy bombardment by Israeli forces.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jackie Northam is in Jerusalem. Jackie, tell us about the released hostages.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, one of them is a 79-year-old woman. The other is in her mid-80s. And they were kidnapped from their kibbutz near Gaza on October 7. And the release was brokered by Egypt and Qatar. And there's video of the handover, and you can see one of the women takes the hand of a Hamas militant and says, shalom, peace. Their husbands are still being held captive in Gaza. In fact, there are about 220 other hostages - Israelis, but also foreign nationals, and that includes 10 Americans. There are also several hundred Palestinian Americans still stuck in Gaza, and one of them is Mahmood Khuwaiter (ph). And he described to NPR what conditions are like there. Let's have a listen to him.

MAHMOOD KHUWAITER: There is a sound of bombs everywhere. People are trying to find water just to wash their faces. I charge my phone by the car battery, and maybe tomorrow the battery will be empty.

NORTHAM: The Biden administration says it is working around the clock to get all Americans out of Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: Nearly three weeks into this, Israeli airstrikes have been happening nonstop on Gaza. They say they want to uproot Hamas - has not happened yet, probably can't happen unless Israel's military walks in. Any sign of that actually happening anytime soon?

NORTHAM: Israel's military seems poised to go in. It's, you know, amassed troops and tanks along the border with Gaza, but nothing has happened yet. And certainly the hostage situation complicates things. It takes time to negotiate the release of these people. Israel also wants time to take out as much of Hamas's underground tunnel system as possible. And to that end, Israel's been pounding Gaza with airstrikes, 400 airstrikes just overnight. But the collateral damage is enormous. More than 5,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed so far, and many of them are children. And there's more than a million people displaced in Gaza. The other factor delaying an incursion could be splits within the government here about when to go in. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel's longest-serving leader, but he has never initiated an act of war. Yet he has hard-right members in his government who are pushing him to go into Gaza. Finally, the other factor here is that the U.S. and other allies are urging Israel to go slow.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, why? What are the concerns of the U.S. and those other allies?

NORTHAM: Well, the concern is that Israel doesn't have a well-thought-out strategy about how it's going to carry out a ground invasion - you know, how long it could take - or its endgame in Gaza other than just to eradicate Hamas. You know, this will be urban warfare. And Hamas, as I said, has a whole underground network of tunnels from which it can operate. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been in regular close contact with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, about America's experience and challenges conducting urban warfare, and particularly in Iraq.

You know, the other concern is whether this conflict will spread throughout the region, bringing in players like Iran and Hezbollah. So there's been a daily stream of world leaders traveling to Israel pledging support, but also urging restraint. France's President Emmanuel Macron is here in Israel today, likely pressing the government not to rush into what will be a complicated and prolonged operation in Gaza. You know, even former President Barack Obama has weighed in. He issued a statement last night where he expressed support for Israel, but said its decision to cut off food and water and electricity to the people in Gaza threatens not only to worsen the growing humanitarian crisis there, but that it could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations, and he also warned that it could erode global support for Israel, so a pretty strong statement by former President Obama.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jackie Northam in Jerusalem. Jackie, thank you very much for the info.

NORTHAM: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. House of Representatives has now been without a speaker for 21 days, leaving Congress virtually paralyzed.

MARTIN: Republicans will try again to elect their nominee for speaker today. There are now eight candidates in the race, and each of them made their pitch behind closed doors last night to their fellow Republicans. Some, like Don Bacon of Nebraska, are hoping that this time they can come together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON BACON: I feel optimistic we'll have a speaker.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us now. So he's optimistic, Congressman Bacon, optimistic. Any front-runner that can bring them all together?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, the closest person to that in this race is probably Tom Emmer. He's a Republican from Minnesota, and he's currently the majority whip. That's the No. 3 elected leadership position whose job it is to basically know where the votes are in the conference. Prior to that job, he ran the House Republicans' national campaign operations. So he has the most natural position of strength based off of both his resume and certainly his fundraising record. But, A, establishment Republicans have struggled in this fight. You know, Kevin McCarthy was removed from the job. Majority Leader Steve Scalise dropped out before his nomination could even go to the floor. And Emmer isn't considered an ally of former President Trump the way failed nominee Jim Jordan was considered an ally. So he's a front-runner with a lot of caveats.

Other members I would note in this race are Mike Johnson of Louisiana. He's a lower-tier leadership position, and he has relationships with the party's base and a lot of party activists. Georgia's Austin Scott is making a second run for speaker after initially losing the nomination to Jim Jordan. And Florida's Byron Donalds - he's a junior lawmaker, certainly for the position of speaker, but he's part of the Freedom Caucus. He's popular there, and if he were to win the nomination and win on the floor, he would be the first Black speaker of the House. The rest of the candidates in this race are not particularly well known, but with no very clear front-runner, obviously upsets are always a possibility in this race.

MARTÍNEZ: So tell us how this internal vote process works.

DAVIS: So each candidate will have a fellow lawmaker give a nominating speech, and as many as two additional lawmakers can speak on their behalf. And then they start voting behind closed doors. Republican conference rules say the candidate with the least votes will drop off the subsequent ballot, and they just keep doing this until someone wins a majority of the conference. Right now, there are 221 House Republicans if everyone shows up to vote, so half of that plus one. If no one drops out along the way, this could take eight or nine rounds of voting, so it could be a very long day, but it has been three weeks of very long days for House Republicans. They could also hold other votes today. They've used these secret ballots to get temperature checks on whether lawmakers would vote for a nominee on the floor, even if a nominee should drop out of the race, which was ultimately what the conference voted about Jim Jordan just last week, which has led them here.

MARTÍNEZ: So, as we know, being a nominee is one thing. Winning over a majority of the House in a floor vote is quite another. How confident are Republicans that they can wrap this thing up?

DAVIS: It's certainly not a sure bet. You know, if Republicans can pick their nominee today, they could go to the floor pretty quickly and see where the votes stand. They could go as early as today, but more likely tomorrow. There is the school of thought - and it might be overly optimistic - that enough Republicans are so exhausted by this public drama, they're just ready to unite behind anyone and get on with governing. But the party's divided in pretty critical ways over what exactly their governing agenda should be right now. The immediate work facing the Republican majority is legislation that almost certainly will need Democratic support - to keep the government open, to pass spending bills and to pass foreign aid to Israel and Ukraine. And it's really hard to win what is essentially a party purity challenge, and yet have the very first test of that person be figuring out how many Democrats the speaker will need to get its work done.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Sue, what if Republicans are not able to elect a speaker again this week? I mean, how much urgency is there for them to figure it out?

DAVIS: Well, Congress doesn't always act until there's a hard deadline. And frankly, the next hard deadline is November 17. That's when the current stopgap spending bill runs out and the government would shut down. Now, House Republicans obviously want to get this done more quickly than that because they realize this is politically very bad for the party, but it's unclear what's possible at this point. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told "Face The Nation" over the weekend he hopes the speaker drama is resolved soon and said it's clearly a problem when Congress can't function.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: The bond market may not get as much attention as the stock market, but a steep sell-off is underway.

MARTIN: Governments issue bonds to raise money for public services and projects, and the United States needs to borrow extensively for a variety of reasons. Bond yields have risen recently, and that threatens to have a big impact on the economy and what people pay to borrow money.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Gura joins us now to explain what's driving yields higher and what it means for you and me. David, so why does the bond market matter?

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Well, you know, A, so many of us have bonds in our retirement portfolios. So if bond prices go down, our accounts are going to take a hit. No one likes to see that. But beyond that, the interest we pay on so much of what we buy is tied to yields on longer-term Treasurys, on these U.S. government bonds that mature in two years or 10 years. So higher yields affect credit cards. They affect car loans and home mortgages. They affect businesses that borrow money to grow. And of course they affect the government, which issues this debt. It also has to pay higher rates, which means it costs us taxpayers more money and adds to the deficit.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what's behind the bond market sell-off?

GURA: Well, first and foremost it's due to the resilience of the U.S. economy. And as I say that I realize you may be thinking, hey, that doesn't sound like such a bad thing, but you have to keep in mind, we have been through this stretch of high inflation, and the Federal Reserve has been hiking interest rates aggressively to lower that rate of inflation. It's been trying to slow down the U.S. economy. But when you look at the economic data recently, A, there are signs policymakers are not making enough progress. Katie Nixon is the chief investment officer at Northern Trust Wealth Management.

KATIE NIXON: My goodness. We've had continuous and surprising resilience in the labor market, surprising resilience in consumer spending. So I think growth has surprised on the upside too.

GURA: Now, Wall Street doesn't expect the Fed is going to raise interest rates again at its meeting next week, but investors do expect the Fed will keep interest rates higher for longer. This is a phrase I hear all the time now covering Wall Street, and what it means is the Fed is not going to feel comfortable enough to reduce interest rates until there are more signs the economy is cooling, A, and inflation is coming down closer to its target of about 2%.

MARTÍNEZ: So, I mean, how bad are things in the bond market?

GURA: You know, it's been pretty bad. And this sell-off comes after a pretty miserable year. 2022 is one of the worst years on record for bonds. And right now things are not looking much better. We just hit this big milestone. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which is a key benchmark, just topped 5%, which is something we haven't seen since the summer of 2007, back when George W. Bush was the president and Ben Bernanke was the Fed chair. With bonds, when yields go up, as they have, prices go down. And here's how John Canavan describes what we've seen lately. He's the lead analyst at Oxford Economics.

JOHN CANAVAN: It has been a tremendously bad sell-off. It has been historically one of the worst sell-offs we've ever seen.

GURA: Now, other factors are behind it, and a big one is growing concern about the government's finances. The U.S. just reported its budget deficit ballooned over the past year. And there's concern as Washington continues to spend a lot of money at a time when tax revenues are down.

MARTÍNEZ: So this doesn't sound great, David. I mean, what's the outlook for the bond market then?

GURA: Yeah, things are looking pretty rough, and there's no indication that's going to change any time soon. But, you know, U.S. government bonds are seen as some of the least risky investments in the world. And that is especially true when there is global turmoil. Right now, of course, there are two big conflicts - Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas. We could see investors flock to U.S. Treasurys once again. And if that does happen, yields would fall, A, and prices would go up.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Gura. David, thanks for explaining this.

GURA: Thank you. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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.