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News brief: Congress returns, Arizona governor's race, voices from Kherson

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

While votes are still being counted in the midterm elections, Congress is back this week for what is shaping up to be a busy lame-duck session.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

After Democrats clinched control of the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pleaded for both parties to work together.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Let us proceed in the next two years by putting people first and getting things done, even if we have to compromise. We may not accomplish everything we want. But if we can get real things done, that will measure how good a Congress we can be.

FADEL: In the House, Republicans are one win away from taking the majority and a passing of the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to a Republican leader.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more. Claudia, so even now with the Senate race in Georgia in a runoff, Democrats are moving forward on their agenda. What's next for them?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. Last night, they took the next steps to get legislation to codify marriage equality on the Senate floor next. This is an issue Democrats have wanted to take up since before the midterms. It came up as a top issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ushered in new questions about other protections that could be under threat. Schumer also pleaded for Republicans to work with Democrats. This as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted this election was another reminder that the country remains closely divided. And we could have divided government again once these House elections are settled. This leaves a long to-do list in the coming weeks, especially as legislating will become a harder task with the House poised to come under Republican control.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So speaking of the House, where do things stand there?

GRISALES: Right. As you mentioned, Republicans are just one race away from taking control in the House. So House Democrats are getting ready for a transition here to relinquish control of the chamber and making plans for playing defense in the House come next year. But Republicans are projected to gain control of this chamber by a small margin. And this upends all sorts of plans for Republicans, who were expecting a red wave.

MARTÍNEZ: And they're set to hold their internal leadership elections today. So what does it mean for House Republicans?

GRISALES: Yeah, So Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was the presumptive speaker if the GOP saw a red wave. But without it, there's a much more turbulent road ahead. He tried to downplay those worries with reporters at the Capitol last night.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: It's going to be a tight majority. So everyone's going to have to work together. We'll be successful as a team, and we'll get defeated as an individual if we don't all work together.

GRISALES: Yeah, so he's emphasizing there that if they don't work well together, they will be defeated. So McCarthy only needs to get a majority of his conference to vote for him behind closed doors today. But he's going to need a majority on the House floor next year. And it's unclear if he can get that. There are Republican House members considering challenging him here. For example, members of the House Freedom Caucus have made clear they're not ready to co-sign a McCarthy speakership.

MARTÍNEZ: As a lame duck session through the rest of the year, what are we looking at now?

GRISALES: Right. It's going to be busy, perhaps chaotic, because if Democrats do indeed lose the House next year, as is expected, that means they're going to be on notice to get critical legislation through that may not be possible come next year. So it's quite the sprint to the end of the year for both chambers as they head into this new Congress. That includes wrapping up a government funding package this year, a defense bill reforming the Electoral Count Act and also the work of the House Select January 6 Committee.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

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MARTÍNEZ: In Arizona, the governor's race has been called for Democrat Katie Hobbs over Kari Lake.

FADEL: At last count, Hobbs led Lake by less than a percentage point, about 20,000 votes. It was a closely watched race that pitted the Democrat Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, against Lake, who was one of the most high-profile election deniers in this election cycle and was backed by former President Donald Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix has been following the race. Ben, let's talk about the significance of Katie Hobbs' victory. Or maybe a better way of asking is about Kari Lake's loss.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Right. Lake is one of three Trump candidates now who embraced the notion that the election was stolen - it includes Kari Lake, Blake Masters, the Senate candidate in Arizona, as well as Mark Finchem, the secretary of state candidate who would have overseen future elections - all three election deniers. All three now have lost, according to AP race calls. And a fourth, Abraham Hamadeh, is trailing in the race for attorney general, though that's still too close to call. So it looks like a significant rebuke in Arizona of a Trump slate of candidates and specifically a slate of candidates who ran and campaigned on the notion that the 2020 election was stolen. And if you look back nationally a little bit, Democrats have now flipped three governor's seats this election cycle. In addition to Arizona, they've also won in Maryland and Massachusetts, while Republicans did flip the Nevada governor's seat.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, I watched a lot of interviews with Kari Lake on TV. And every time she was asked if she would accept the results of the election, she would not really answer. So how has she responded to these results?

GILES: Well, she didn't make any statements last night except for a tweet in which - her words - she called the results BS. So I don't think we're going to get a concession from Kari Lake any time soon. She has been responding since Election Day, accusing Maricopa County election officials of, quote, "slow-rolling" the ballot counts, accusing them of something nefarious. There's nothing nefarious about the way the county or election officials across the state have been counting results. This is about the same pace as they always do things.

MARTÍNEZ: Democrats have won several key statewide races, as we mentioned, including U.S. senator and secretary of state. What are people in Arizona saying about Democrats outperforming expectations?

GILES: You know, I keep thinking back to something a Democratic consultant told me a few weeks before the election. She said, it's not the number of people you can get to come scream at your rally that matters. It's the number of people you can get out to vote. And Democrats seem to have a winning formula in getting out the vote and convincing voters in Arizona that this slate of Trump-backed, election-denying candidates was dangerous for the state. And now you've seen Democrats flip seats in major statewide races in Arizona. For the first time, a governor is going to be Democratic for the first time in Arizona since 2009.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, even though the race has been called, there are still ballots being counted. What's the likelihood of a recount?

GILES: Well, a recount could be automatic here in Arizona if the margin of victory for Hobbs is less than half a percentage point. Unlike other states, candidates cannot request a recount.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Ben Giles of member station KJZZ. Ben, thanks.

GILES: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit yesterday to the city of Kherson in the south of the country.

FADEL: Russian troops retreated from the city on Friday, giving up the only provincial capital they had seized since they invaded in February. Zelenskyy called it the beginning of the end of the war.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien was in Kherson as crowds welcomed their president. Jason, so how significant is this visit by the president?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah, I mean, his arrival into Kherson really underscores how the momentum of this war is now very much in the Ukrainians' favor. Two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Kherson was officially being annexed into the Russian Federation. And Putin vowed at that point that it was going to be part of Russia forever. So it's quite embarrassing to the Kremlin to have Zelenskyy wading into huge crowds of people waving Ukrainian flags in the center of this city that Putin claims to be part of Russia.

MARTÍNEZ: What are things like in the city right now? How are the conditions?

BEAUBIEN: Conditions are tough at the moment. You know, there's no electricity or water. The retreating Russian forces - they destroyed the electrical power facilities before pulling out. And the water system works off of electricity. So the pumps haven't been going. So there hasn't been any water for about a week. And that's a change because for a lot of the time that the Russians were in control, these things were working. But now there's also no cellphone service. Ukrainian military officials are attempting to bring in these mobile Starlink connections. They've set up several of them in the center square. People can come in and get Wi-Fi and be able to actually communicate with friends and relatives back in Ukraine, something they were unable to do for months on end.

Most buildings in the center of the city remain intact, which is somewhat surprising. The city was spared the intense shelling and airstrikes that we've seen in so many other Ukrainian cities. But generally, things look pretty good in the middle of Kherson.

MARTÍNEZ: What about the people? What are you hearing from them about life under Russian occupation?

BEAUBIEN: Hearing the words that it was isolating, that it was scary but also that it was stable. Russia cut off Ukrainian cellphone service and internet, so people only had access to Russian communications. They weren't able to communicate with their friends and family, even just 40 miles away in other parts of Ukraine. So I kept hearing the sense of being cut off from the world. A lot of people also told us about being pulled off the street and interrogated or disappeared by the Russian forces. They also said there were a lot of explosions on the edges of the city. But as I mentioned earlier, not a lot of damage in the city itself.

Right now, you've got aid groups bringing in food. But people also said, you know, this is an agricultural region. There was always plenty of vegetables in the shops. Russia seized Kherson in the very first days of the war. And one resident I met, Evgeniya Belonogova - she said that she and her family always believed that, eventually, their world would return back to being normal.

EVGENIYA BELONOGOVA: We just waited. We thought maybe a few weeks, one months, two months (laughter). Later, in summer, it was not bad here. I even went to the seaside (laughter). It was calm, really calm here. And we were waiting for Ukraine.

BEAUBIEN: But she says that she never thought it was going to be eight months that they were waiting for Ukraine to come back and retake the city. But as you can hear in her voice, she was really thrilled that Kherson is now back as part of Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Jason, it's about to get cold in Ukraine.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: So what happens from a military perspective once that happens?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I mean, some military analysts have been predicting that there's going to be a pause or a letup in the fighting ahead of the winter weather. The Russians have moved to the east bank of the Dnipro River, and they blew up the bridge behind them. That creates this very formidable natural barrier. That said, Ukraine's armed forces have been on a roll. And we're hearing from them that they're launching airstrikes deeper into Russian-controlled parts of the region around Kherson City. So this is definitely something we'll be watching in the coming weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Odesa, Ukraine. Jason, thanks.

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

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