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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's been no letup in the heavy artillery fire bombardments that began in Sudan over the weekend. Two rival military groups are engaged in open warfare - a battle for power - as millions of people are sheltering inside.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The United Nations says close to 200 people have been killed so far, with hundreds more wounded. Just yesterday, the European Union ambassador was also assaulted at his residence, and a U.S. diplomatic convoy was fired on. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said everyone involved is safe. In calls with both sides, he pushed for a cease-fire.

FADEL: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu is in Lagos, following the latest. Good morning.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So this is the fourth day of fighting in Sudan, and you've been speaking to people there - if you could just describe what everyone's going through.

AKINWOTU: Leila, just incredibly bleak stories from people trapped inside their homes for days - no running water, hardly any food, no electricity - and in the backdrop, the constant rumble of fighting, you know, going on all day, all night - no letup. You know, the humanitarian situation in Sudan is growing dire. Some hospitals have had to shut down. Many others are running out of supplies. Some have been taken over, actually, by the Rapid Support Forces - the RSF - for warfare. One person just outside Khartoum told me late last night that the RSF were actually embedding in their homes, within their neighborhoods, ordering people to leave and making these homes a target for airstrikes. Tagreed Abdin - she's an architect, a mother, and she's trapped, like millions of other people, inside her home in Khartoum. And she shared her frustration about this entire situation in a video on Twitter, and you can hear in the background the rumble of explosions.

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TAGREED ABDIN: We are just caught in the middle. I don't have a preference. I don't even - you know, it's like...

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ABDIN: Just - this is our new normal now.

AKINWOTU: Just incredibly bleak - and, of course, as well as how this has impacted ordinary people in Sudan, there's also been the attacks on the diplomatic community, too.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned the RSF, which is one of the warring factions here. If you could describe this truly awful situation for people, is there any news on any letup - any possible cease-fire?

AKINWOTU: Well, Leila, just about an hour ago, the head of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo - widely known as Hemedti - he said he'd abide by a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire. And we've actually heard a response from the Army. You know, a spokesperson for General Al-Burhan told our colleague, Aya Batrawy, that the Army sees this statement as a smoke screen - as a cover-up for their, as he called it, imminent defeat. And so this is, in effect, part of what makes this conflict incredibly difficult. Both sides are engaged in military warfare, but there's also a propaganda war. And it's difficult - increasingly difficult, especially outside Khartoum, to have a sense of how this conflict is unfolding. You know, there's fighting in Khartoum, in several parts of the country, but the picture is murky, and both sides are claiming victory.

FADEL: Hmm. So, you know, Blinken called both generals last night himself, urging a cease-fire, and it doesn't sound like it's going to happen. So what can happen to persuade the two leaders to stop fighting? Who can get involved?

AKINWOTU: Well, a whole host of countries have leverage. The countries with the greatest leverage are Arab countries - you know, the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. And there are also countries regionally who have called for mediation. And the difficulty with this mediation is that most of these countries can't actually even get into Sudan. The airports are inaccessible because of fighting. And both sides say that, while they're open to negotiations, they're vowing to defeat the other.

You know what? It's almost four years exactly since the revolution in Sudan. And we saw so much promise - so much hope and inspiration for many people in Sudan and in Africa. And four years since then, what we've seen is that the promise of that revolution has been incredibly hard to fulfill, and both sides are effectively fighting over control in a future Sudan.

FADEL: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos - thank you so much for your time.

AKINWOTU: Thank you.

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FADEL: A top priority for Congress is tackling a looming deadline on the debt ceiling.

MARTÍNEZ: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy addressed the issue yesterday during a speech at the New York Stock Exchange.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Debt limit negotiations are an opportunity to examine our nation's finances.

MARTÍNEZ: But actual negotiations between McCarthy and the White House remain stalled.

FADEL: Here to talk us through this is NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt. Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So for starters, give us some context to the debt limit itself and how we got here.

SPRUNT: So zooming way out, the debt limit isn't about future spending. It's about meeting the cost of existing commitments the federal government has made. And it's something that can feel a bit like Groundhog Day because, when the debt ceiling is approached, Congress has to address it in some way, and that's what's happening now. In January, the U.S. hit its debt limit. The Treasury Department employed what it calls extraordinary measures to essentially act as a Band-Aid for a couple of months. But that will run out in early summer. If Congress fails to raise the debt limit before then, it could lead to an unprecedented debt default. That means financial markets could be severely hit. It could become difficult to borrow money, and many economists think that, without access to credit, a recession would be very likely.

FADEL: So a lot at stake here. McCarthy talked about this during his speech, and he called the debt a, quote, "ticking time bomb." What's his plan?

SPRUNT: Well, McCarthy said the House will vote in the coming weeks on a bill that would reduce federal spending levels to those in 2022, limit the growth of spending over the next 10 years to 1% annually and raise the debt limit into 2024, which, I should point out, could cause lawmakers to have to negotiate this whole thing again smack dab in the middle of the presidential primary season. McCarthy said House Republicans would also add work requirements for adults without dependents who are enrolled in various federal assistance programs, like food stamps. McCarthy was very careful to add that the bill wouldn't touch Social Security and Medicare, two programs that are very popular.

This speech comes as negotiations between the speaker and the president have stalled. The pair met in February, and McCarthy laid the blame for the impasse at Biden's feet. Biden has remained adamant that he wants to sign a clean debt ceiling bill - so one that's completely separate from any legislation on spending cuts. But it's worth noting that McCarthy is marking his first 100 days as speaker. And if we cast back to earlier this year, you'll remember there was a very long series of votes to secure enough support for him to become speaker. And one of the demands from lawmakers who initially withheld their support was that the House not vote on a standalone measure to lift the debt limit.

FADEL: Yeah, so McCarthy's walking a fine line with various GOP factions here, right?

SPRUNT: Well, it seems like something that could prove to be difficult for McCarthy. His slim majority means he can afford to lose only a handful of Republicans. And even if the bill were passed, it would still be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the thinking is, if it can pass the House, it might bring Biden back to the negotiating table.

FADEL: OK, so this is troubling - the two parties basically nowhere on what to do about the debt limit. What are Democrats saying?

SPRUNT: Well, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said that Republicans should work alongside Democrats to avert this crisis, which he points out they did under the Trump administration.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: The discussion about cuts belongs in the discussion about budget, not as a precondition for avoiding default.

SPRUNT: After McCarthy's speech, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement that the speaker didn't clearly outline an exact proposal and said McCarthy is holding the economy hostage.

FADEL: NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt - Barbara, thanks.

SPRUNT: Thank you.

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FADEL: More than 90 million people have filed tax returns so far this year, but some of us wait till the last minute. And for most people, that's midnight tonight.

MARTÍNEZ: The IRS has automatically extended the deadline for parts of some states that have experienced natural disasters, such as California, Alabama and Tennessee. Taxes come due this year as the IRS is embarking on a 10-year, $80 billion makeover to crack down on tax cheats and improve customer service.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Happy tax day, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So let's talk about that $80 billion. How is the IRS going to spend it, and what will that mean for taxpayers?

HORSLEY: Some of the money is going to go to replace outdated computer hardware. A lot of it's going to go for new personnel so the IRS can do a better job of collecting the money the government needs to operate. You know, for more than a decade, the agency has been starved of resources. So the new IRS commissioner, Danny Werfel, plans to hire a lot more auditors and lawyers to make sure that wealthy people pay the taxes they owe.

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DANNY WERFEL: Despite what some might think or say, these public servants within the IRS are armed only with calculators and their skills to help us address complex issues. Their work will give people confidence that all taxpayers, regardless of means, are being treated fairly under the tax laws.

HORSLEY: Now, the administration says the stepped-up enforcement will focus on people making more than $400,000 a year, especially those with the most complicated returns and more avenues for cheating. For the average wage earner, the IRS already knows how much money you make, so the opportunities for tax evasion are pretty limited.

FADEL: The image of a bunch of public servants armed with calculators. So what's the IRS doing to improve customer service?

HORSLEY: Customer service really suffered in recent years, especially during the depths of the pandemic. Last year, for example, 9 out of 10 phone calls to the IRS went unanswered. This year, though, the agency has hired 5,000 more people to help staff the phone lines.

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COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Welcome to the Internal Revenue Service. To continue in English, press 1.

HORSLEY: Hold times have been cut from an average of 27 minutes last year to just four minutes this year. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the agency is now consistently answering 80- to 90% of the incoming calls.

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JANET YELLEN: That is a dramatic improvement compared to the previous filing season.

HORSLEY: Yellen says this $80 billion investment will transform the IRS into what she calls a modern, 21st century agency. That means more speedy online communication with taxpayers, less mailing of paper back and forth. Of course, there are always some folks who like doing things the old-fashioned way.

FADEL: Yeah. And you spoke with one of those people. Tell us about him.

HORSLEY: Yeah, I talked to Jay Zagorsky, who's a professor at Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He's a big believer in cash, which he says works even when the power goes out or the internet's down. He owed the government just over a thousand dollars in taxes this year, and, as an experiment, he tried to pay the bill in cash.

JAY ZAGORSKY: My goal was not to be a protest at all. As a matter of fact, I went to the bank and got crisp $100 bills and exact change to make this process as easy as possible for the IRS.

HORSLEY: Now, the IRS does have instructions on its website for how to pay in cash, but it's not easy. You have to make an appointment. Zagorsky actually had to make two trips to the IRS. Various retailers will accept cash payments for the agency, and you can buy a prepaid credit card and then pay online. But, you know, all those options have fees attached, and Zagorsky thinks it ought to be easier, especially for the 6 million people who don't have a bank account. Of course, a lot of those folks have the opposite problem - not how to pay additional taxes due, but how to affordably collect their refund.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

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

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