STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's your first word on this day's news. We start the same way as some other days lately, with Republicans desperate to pass a health care bill.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, Steve, they are desperate because repeal and replace was such a central promise of President Trump's campaign - so far, though, hasn't gone well. Republicans tried to pass that bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, but they didn't have the votes for it. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is suggesting now that they're close to another try. But he basically passed the buck to Republican congressional leaders.
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SEAN SPICER: We're not there yet. And that - that decision is going to be wholly within the speaker, the majority leader and the whip to let us know when they're going to open that vote up.
INSKEEP: Let us know, he says. Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team is here to let us know what he can about this situation. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello again, Steve.
INSKEEP: So another health care bill. What's the basic idea of this one?
MONTANARO: It's not really another health care bill. It's basically the same health care bill we've been talking about for a week (laughter).
INSKEEP: That keeps not getting the votes in the House of Representatives, OK.
MONTANARO: Correct. And it has, you know - the difference here, what's new, is that the president is weighing in, saying that this plan guarantees coverage for preexisting conditions. You know, there's a clause in this - in this bill that states, nothing in this act shall be construed as permitting health insurance to limit access to health coverage for individuals with preexisting conditions.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but experts, including the American Medical Association, warn other parts of this amendment would weaken protections for those with preexisting conditions. It allows states to opt out of requiring coverage based on people's, quote, "health status" and whether they have continuing coverage. Now, states would have to set up high-risk pools to bring on those sicker individuals. But they can be costly, and there's questions about their effectiveness.
INSKEEP: OK, this is getting really complicated, and it's only one, tiny part of a complicated proposal. But it's vital to think about this because there are basic principles that were in Obamacare, the law they say they want to replace, that are popular and that President Trump has said that he likes. Here's what the president said on CBS this past weekend when asked if preexisting conditions should be covered.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Preexisting conditions are in the bill. And I mandated - I said, it has to be.
INSKEEP: I mandated, the president says. And yet, you mentioned maybe not so much for so many people.
MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, this is the big problem when it comes to health care. You know, President Obama ran into this issue of messaging. Every time he tried to go out there, he had to make the case. But health care, as President Trump has figured out, is complicated. And it's real easy to poke holes in it.
INSKEEP: And the same basic problem - if you make the bill more conservative to appeal to conservative Republicans, it makes it less appealing to moderates. Can I just throw out one quick crazy question? Have any Republicans, Domenico, embraced the idea that they just don't have the votes on their side for a bill, that they need some Democrats and that they should work out improvements to the existing bill that Democrats might tolerate?
MONTANARO: Embraced is too strong a word (laughter).
MONTANARO: In theory, sure, in reality, two words - not really.
GREENE: Yeah, I just want to talk about the pressure that Republicans are under right now. I looked at this Gallup poll - this month. Fifty-five percent of Americans now support Obamacare. Before the election, totally different - it was just 42 percent. So you wonder if the dislike of Obamacare for some was more about just disliking President Obama when he when he was in office. So Republicans are trying to replace a law that is growing more popular. They really need to make the case, as you said, Domenico.
INSKEEP: OK, Domenico, stay with us.
This next story brings to mind three friends on a playground. And you wonder which is going to be the odd one out. Let's call these three friends Vladimir, Angela and Donald.
GREENE: I don't know if I like this image, but I would want to be on that playground.
GREENE: So yeah, President Trump has this phone call - not a meeting in the playground - scheduled with Vladimir today. That would be Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is actually the first time they have spoken since Russia denounced the U.S. military strike that Donald Trump ordered against Syria last month. Putin is going to talk to Trump from the Russian resort city of Sochi, a place he loves. And that is also where he is meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
INSKEEP: OK, Domenico is still with us. And NPR's Lucian Kim now joins the conversation. He covers Russia for us, and he's in Moscow. How's the weather there, Lucian?
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Oh, it's actually very warm and spring-like.
INSKEEP: OK, heading...
GREENE: No, you're lying, Lucian. It can't be true.
INSKEEP: Long days - long days in Moscow. OK, so the common thread in both of these conversations coming up is President Putin, who really seemed like he was in the driver's seat of events not very long ago. How's he looking now?
KIM: Well, I think after Rex Tillerson's recent visit to Moscow there was certain disappointment. There wasn't a great breakthrough. But I think really, out in the Kremlin, they're really holding out hope that there will - that there will be a restart for relations once Putin personally meets Trump. There have been reports in the Russian media that that meeting could come as early as the end of May, when President Trump comes to Europe for a NATO summit. Or that could be later in the summer, when Angela Merkel hosts the G20, the group of 20 developed economies, in Hamburg.
INSKEEP: You're reminding me, Lucian. Right after the election, President Trump said he wanted better relations with Russia. But after some time had passed, you began seeing statements from Russian officials. You could imagine them kind of tapping their foot, saying, OK, we're waiting. We're waiting for the new policy. You get a sense of some frustration.
KIM: There's definitely frustration here. But when you read the state media, they're also saying, well, these are the enemies of Donald Trump inside the U.S. that are pressuring him. And they still want to wait and see what he actually does when he meets President Putin.
INSKEEP: Domenico, has the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election made it a lot harder for President Trump to be that friendly with President Putin?
MONTANARO: Absolutely. Trump had said very nice things about Putin, as you might remember, during the campaign. But not just this investigation into Russia, but Russia continuing to help Syria militarily, even after the U.S. says Syria's leader, Bashar Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people - it certainly put the relationship somewhat on ice.
INSKEEP: And then there's Angela Merkel. What does Putin want from Germany's leader, Lucian?
KIM: Well, I think the main thing that he wants from Merkel and from Trump, for that matter, is a lifting of sanctions. Those sanctions were imposed, now three years ago, after - after Russia annexed Crimea. And so Merkel is really seen as the key figure to getting at least the European Union to relax those sanctions or lift them all together.
GREENE: You know, Steve, you mentioned that investigation into hacking. I'm just going to say it. Isn't it amazing to think about the questions not likely to come up in this phone call with Putin? Like, did you - did you hack into a U.S. election? Did you try and help me become president, Trump might say.
GREENE: I mean, there's sensitive diplomacy to work through. There's Syria. There's terrorism. But my goodness, I mean, these conversations are going to go on - there's an elephant in the room.
INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, Domenico Montanaro of our Politics team here. We'll continue this discussion. Thank you, gentlemen.
MONTANARO: Thank you.
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INSKEEP: And now this news, a big trial gets underway today in South Korea.
GREENE: Yeah, so this is the corruption trial of South Korea's former president, Park Geun-hye. She was accused of corruption and removed from office back in March. Her trial is starting just a week before an election to replace her. So a lot swirling here. And the leading candidate in that campaign has opened the door to direct talks with North Korea. And that's interesting because it gives him something in common with President Trump. This is Trump speaking to Bloomberg about North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.
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TRUMP: If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely - I would be honored to do it. If it's under the - again, under the right circumstances.
INSKEEP: And on this program last week, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said what the circumstances might be. He wants direct talks about ending North Korea's nuclear program. Well, NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Seoul. And she's here to talk about this. Hi, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, guys.
INSKEEP: So let's talk about talks because this liberal candidate, the leading candidate in South Korea's race, Moon Jae-in, wants dialogue, as David mentioned. How much, though, do South Koreans really want a gentler approach to their neighbor?
FRAYER: So it's really generational. Older people here who lived through the Korean War remember South Korea when it was a poor country - the Cold War, after that. They tend to be more conservative, more pro-U.S., anti-communist. And they fear change from the conservative outgoing government of Park Geun-hye, who's - went on trial today - to the left. They fear dialogue with their enemy. But I have to say, younger people have grown up in such a modern, sophisticated, affluent place.
I'm - I'm sitting here talking to you from this gleaming skyscraper. I've got the window open - maybe you can hear some high-speed trains buzzing around outside. Seoul is an incredibly modern, high-tech place. And war just feels unfathomable here. Young people are worried about corruption, youth unemployment, regular old election issues. And they say, you know, why not talk to the North?
INSKEEP: Although, there is the question, Lauren, do the young people that you're referring to think that talking with Kim Jong-un is actually going to work?
FRAYER: It hasn't been tried.
FRAYER: I mean, the six-party talks with Kim Jong-un's father broke down. And since then, there's - South Korea's had a very staunch hard line against North Korea. The outgoing president, Park Geun-hye, her father was a military dictator during the Cold War. She was sort of part of this dynasty which was really hard-line against North Korea.
And it's interesting. North Korea has been reporting on this strife in South Korea. North Korean state media are taking delight in making fun of Park and her downfall, reporting on her corruption. But what's interesting is that North Korean media have been very careful not to mention that it was a free press and public protests that led to the impeachment of the South Korean president.
GREENE: Lauren Frayer, it just sounds like the election in that country, it's such a passing of the baton from one generation to another, which is just a cool dynamic when an election takes place.
FRAYER: It feels like it. And just - so just in case you think people are sort of huddling...
FRAYER: ...Under their desks Cold-War style, people are parading in the streets with these election campaigns. It's really a dramatic moment.
INSKEEP: And we've got to stop the conversation there. That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Seoul. Lauren, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.