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Politics chat: Biden travels to Brussels; Supreme Court confirmation hearings start

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

To demonstrate support for U.S. allies in Europe, President Biden will travel to Brussels this week to meet with other heads of NATO countries. It'll be his first trip to Europe since October, which was months before it became clear that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine. Joining us with details about the upcoming visit and other political highlights of the week ahead is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Welcome, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So with this meeting on Thursday, what does Biden hope to accomplish?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, in many ways, this is a symbolic show of support for Ukraine. The United States and its allies have worked together on one of the toughest set of economic sanctions ever against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. But also, NATO members are worried about being drawn into a bigger military conflict against Russia, you know, a nuclear power. White House press secretary Jen Psaki says Biden will join NATO leaders to discuss ongoing defense efforts and expressed the U.S. commitment to the alliance. Biden has repeatedly said that the United States will not send forces into Ukraine but at the same time will defend, quote, "every inch of NATO territory."

NADWORNY: Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have also made trips to Europe recently. Why is it so important for the U.S. to make these demonstrations of support? I mean, is the audience really our allies, or is it Russia?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. The White House likes to say that Biden is a believer in face-to-face diplomacy, and he talks a lot about how aligned allies have been during this crisis. And they have been aligned. But yeah, there are multiple audiences. You know, it's a chance to send another message to Russia and to Putin that the West is not backing off. It's also, though, an acknowledgement that there's only so much the allies can do. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked for jets and a no-fly zone. And so far, Biden has said no. I mean, the White House worries that enforcing a no-fly zone could lead to a direct confrontation with Russia, and even saying that could turn into World War III.

NADWORNY: Yeah. The other big question facing the U.S. is whether it will receive more refugees. Some 2 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland, hundreds of thousands to other countries but very few to the U.S. Why, and will that change?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, President Biden says the U.S. is ready to accept more refugees, but officials have emphasized that Europe should be the primary destination. And the White House said Friday that those who come will have to apply through regular refugee channels. And that's a yearslong process. It's not easy. The administration does plan to provide $186 million in humanitarian assistance to support refugees who have fled into Europe. But there is also growing pressure from activists and some Democratic lawmakers to grant those fleeing a quicker path to the U.S., such as humanitarian parole, like was offered to the Afghans last summer and actually even heads of state. The president of Poland, where the vast majority of refugees have arrived, has also pushed pointedly the United States to do more.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Here in Washington tomorrow, historic confirmation hearings will begin for the first Black woman nominated to the highest court in the land, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. What are those hearings going to be like?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, we're talking about the Supreme Court, so I think you can expect some fireworks. You know, Jackson should be confirmed. She only needs a simple majority, meaning as long as all the Democrats and the vice president, Harris, vote in favor, she should be safe. But some Republicans have signaled they will raise some uncomfortable questions. You know, Senator Lindsey Graham has said her nomination means, quote, "the radical left has won." And Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, once called her the choice of far-left dark money.

NADWORNY: So what's with that idea? I mean, what do we actually know about Judge Jackson's politics?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, actually, she's actually considered a safe choice. She's been confirmed by the Senate three times before, but Republicans are expected to grill her on allegations that she's soft on crime. As a former public defender, she's represented indigent criminal defendants and worked to reduce sentences for crack cocaine. And while Jackson has also ruled against the Trump administration, she's also ruled at least one time in favor of the administration. And I'll just note that Lindsey Graham voted for her last year, and McConnell has also acknowledged that she is - no question she's qualified.

NADWORNY: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much for joining us.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.