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Morning news brief

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Christmas morning in Bethlehem is somber, not the usual joyful town with parades and bands in Manger Square. Church leaders canceled celebrations there because of the Israel-Hamas war. Some Palestinian Christians say they are not celebrating when, according to health officials in Gaza, more than 20,000 people have been killed since Israel began its offensive after the October 7 Hamas attack on Southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people.

Joining us now from Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is NPR's Jason DeRose. Good morning, Jason.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KHALID: So what is the scene like in Bethlehem this morning?

DEROSE: Well, Christmas cheer is definitely not in the air. There are about 200,000 Palestinian Christians who live in and around Bethlehem, the Galilee region and Gaza. And usually, crowds of them would be packed into Manger Square for celebrations on Christmas Day, loudspeakers would be blaring carols. But now the mood is subdued, and Manger Square is essentially deserted this morning.

KHALID: And what have you been hearing from the people that you've spoken with?

DEROSE: Those I've spoken with bring up the war immediately. You know, Bethlehem is just 45 miles from Gaza. People here have friends and family there, and they say they just can't celebrate knowing conditions for people there. I met Kudi Zara in Manger Square. He's a 22-year-old electrical engineering student.

KUDI ZARA: In this war, and it's really bad days, you know? Even if we make some parties, we are not happy from our heart, you know? But if Jesus is still in our heart, like, it will be happy.

DEROSE: As he says, it's the parties that are canceled, but people are still observing Christmas as a religious holiday. The Catholic midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity was full.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing, inaudible).

DEROSE: I was at another worship service earlier last evening where the pastor said he wasn't expecting many people, maybe 25 or 30, but instead, the church was packed with about 200 people - so many, they were printing extra bulletins as the opening hymn began. In fact, mine was still warm from the printer.

KHALID: Wow. So it sounds like people are finding some solace in those worship ceremonies at this point. I understand, Jason, that the only Christmas decoration in Manger Square is a Nativity this year. Is that right?

DEROSE: That's right. But it's not your typical, cozy manger scene. It's this destroyed Nativity statues of Mary and Joseph and Jesus encircled by razor wire. There's rubble everywhere, big pieces of broken concrete. The shepherd is turned away in despair. The artist who created this Nativity is Tariq Salsa. He says he wanted to show the holy family as Palestinian refugees - oppressed, rejected, displaced.

TARIQ SALSA: (Speaking Arabic).

DEROSE: He says, "pain is there as long as the occupation is there. If the occupation withdraws, then the pain is over."

KHALID: And, Jason, outside of Bethlehem, can you fill us in on the latest developments in Israel's war against Hamas?

DEROSE: Well, the United Nations says more than 80% of Gaza's population is now displaced. Over the weekend, health officials in Gaza say at least 70 people were killed on Sunday alone, and the Israeli military says it sustained some of its heaviest losses since the war began. Also, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Food is scarce. The U.N. says starvation is happening in Gaza. And clean water is a huge problem. The average person uses about 17 liters of water a day. Right now, the World Food Program says each person in Gaza is getting less than 2.

KHALID: That is NPR's Jason DeRose in Bethlehem. Jason, thank you so much for your reporting.

DEROSE: You're welcome.

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KHALID: The last thing you all probably want to talk about right now is politics. But for those of us who cover this all the time, it's clear a presidential election year is upon us. And 2024 is promising to be like no campaign we have experienced so far.

My friend and colleague NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following the Biden campaign and joins us now with a preview of the year ahead. Good morning, my friend.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Asma.

KHALID: So the campaign is still in its early stages, but what can you tell us about how Biden plans to run based on the kinds of things that he's been doing?

KEITH: Well, we've all seen polls showing Biden may have serious trouble with younger voters and voters of color. They are turned off from politics and, in some cases, disillusioned. So the Biden campaign is already spending money on advertising directed to Black and Latino voters in key swing states. And part of that is trying to figure out which messages will work and how to get them to people. Not a lot of them are likely to vote for Trump or a Republican, but they could stay home or vote for a third-party candidate. And the Biden campaign needs to get them engaged so they do vote and vote for Biden.

KHALID: So how does what we are seeing now compare to Barack Obama's reelection campaign in 2012?

KEITH: Well, they had a ton of people out in the field, organizers in these key states. The Biden campaign just doesn't have that yet, and that makes some Democrats nervous. But the Biden team says they have to do things differently because the way people get information has changed so dramatically since then. And they have begun announcing some new hires in swing states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada. We'll be talking about them a lot in the year to come, and we can expect to see more of that. Interestingly, they also have staff now in South Carolina. That's a state that is definitely going to go Republican in the general election, but it holds the first officially sanctioned Democratic primary of the year in early February. And the Biden team wants to win.

KHALID: Yeah. Tam, you and I hear the president talk every day, trying to convince voters to give him credit for the policies that he has enacted during his time in office. How do you expect that to shift at all once the campaign kicks into full gear?

KEITH: We're going to see him draw a lot of contrasts with Trump and Republicans on everything from health care to abortion to green jobs. And reporters like us have been hearing some of this in campaign fundraisers already, where he is refining his stump speech, talking about the stakes in 2024. These are off camera, but here's a taste from a recent Boston fundraiser. The audio is a little hard to hear because it was filmed on a phone by someone in the audience.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Donald Trump poses a lot of threats to our country, from the right to choose, the Affordable Care Act, health care overall to America's standing in the world. But the greatest threat he poses of all is toward our very democracy.

KEITH: Our very democracy, he says. In these remarks, he talks about Trump's authoritarian language and his promise of retribution. The Biden team expects this election will be incredibly close, especially in those swing states.

KHALID: So, Tam, let's go back to where our conversation started in terms of what makes this such an unusual election cycle.

KEITH: First, there are essentially two incumbents - President Biden and, unless something dramatic changes, former President Trump, who still claims, falsely, that the last election was stolen from him. To be blunt, both are older than any president elected to a second term. They are also really unpopular, and a large share of voters say they are not looking forward to a rematch. Then you have Trump's indictments, and House Republicans have now voted to formally open an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. His son is facing tax evasion and gun charges. All of this just introduces a massive amount of uncertainty.

KHALID: All right. A lot to keep an eye on. NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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KHALID: Lawmakers have fled Washington, and Congress has officially wrapped up its business for the year. It was a year full of drama, fraught with fights over the speakership and government funding. A lot happened, even if little legislation was actually passed.

NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel is here to help us make sense of the year that was and set expectations for the year ahead. Eric, it's great to have you with us.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Hey there, Asma.

KHALID: How should we break down what happened in 2023?

MCDANIEL: I think we can do it with three F's. We've got fired, we've got fraud, and we've got funding. Where do you want to start?

KHALID: (Laughter) Let's start with fired. And I assume that you're talking about the former speaker of the House here, Kevin McCarthy.

MCDANIEL: That is right. The California Republican - he became the first-ever speaker of the House to be axed by his colleagues. Eight Republicans, if you remember, with a mixture of personal and policy disagreements with McCarthy chose to remove him from the top job. Then, after the weeks of turmoil it took to replace him, he decided to quit Congress altogether, leaving his successor, Mike Johnson, with an even smaller majority to pass bills.

And someone else was notably fired, but let's go ahead and save him for the fraud section.

KHALID: I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume that you're referring to George Santos from New York.

MCDANIEL: That is right. We're talking about a first-term New York Republican in the House. Colleagues ousted him after three tries from Congress last month. That came after he was exposed by The New York Times for lying extensively about his background and then later indicted by federal prosecutors for various financial crimes, mostly connected with his campaign. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is the first Congressperson ever ousted, other than Confederate sympathizers, without having been fully convicted of a crime.

Also in the fraud section here, over in the Senate, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is facing criminal charges. He and his wife were charged over allegedly accepting luxury goods and large sums of money and gold bars in exchange for committing corrupt acts, prosecutors say, including providing sensitive information to the government of Egypt. They have both pled not guilty, and the senator has so far refused to resign.

KHALID: So, Eric, I believe this leaves us with your final F of the year. That is funding. How do you want to explain that to us?

MCDANIEL: So they haven't been able to pass the 12 annual federal spending bills. Instead, they passed two short-term extensions, the most recent of which will expire in two stages next year. That's January 19 and February 2 are government shutdown deadlines now. That is, of course, unless Mike Johnson can unite his House Republicans in a way he hasn't been able to so far.

KHALID: Yeah. Eric, I actually was just thinking of one more F - foreign aid. That's another major issue that - it seems unresolved as we wrap up the year.

MCDANIEL: Right. That's another F. So it's been a year since Congress approved any military aid to Ukraine. They're currently negotiating in the Senate, even though they're on break, on a big combined aid package that includes Israel and the Indo-Pacific as well, and also, kind of strangely, immigration policy reform. Right now, a record number of migrants are crossing the border, often in excess of 10,000 people each day, seeking asylum. That negotiation has been all extremely slow-going, though Senate negotiators, I'm told, are still working by the light of their holiday decor over Zoom. We should know more by early January.

KHALID: Yeah. We jest, but it's all very serious issues.

MCDANIEL: Yeah.

KHALID: NPR's Eric McDaniel, thank you so much.

MCDANIEL: Thanks, Asma. 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.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.