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News brief: Wis. parade tragedy, Fed chair Powell, Austria's COVID-19 lockdown

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Today, we know some of the history of a man accused of driving his vehicle into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wis., killing five people.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Police say the suspect is Darrell Brooks Jr., who is 39 years old. He had a history of criminal charges. The past accusations include a firearms charge and also an incident involving a vehicle. Investigators say that he confronted a woman outside a motel this month and ran her over. She had tire marks on her pants. Shortly before the attack on the parade over the weekend, police say he was involved in what they describe as a domestic disturbance, but police say they were not chasing him when his vehicle crashed the parade barricades.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Odette Yousef is in Waukesha. Odette, Waukesha police said they've ruled out terrorism, instead giving us a few details about the history of the suspected SUV driver. What reaction have you heard to that?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, last night, people told me they were just incredibly angry, you know, especially because so many children were hurt in the incident or traumatized by it. But, you know, A, I was also hearing some bewilderment that Brooks might even have been able to do this, given the prior charges that you mentioned in a Milwaukee case involving the mother of his child. So some anger, as well that, you know, maybe his bond had been set too low and that now he faces charges for similar violent activity.

MARTINEZ: You were at the vigil last night. Tell us some of what you saw and what people were sharing.

YOUSEF: Well, it was frigid outside. But as far as I could see, that didn't deter anyone from showing up. It was just, you know, a crowded park, people standing out there in the cold holding candles. You know, this was at a park that wasn't far from Main Street, where the tragic events occurred on Sunday. There were five crosses that were just below the stage where speakers stood to commemorate each of those who had died. People were leaving, you know, flowers and stuffed toys by them. And, you know, the service really culminated in a moment of prayer to honor and name the five who died.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And so we remember...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wilhelm Hospel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Virginia Sorenson.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: LeAnna Owen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tamara Durand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Jane Kulich.

YOUSEF: This was an interfaith event. You know, there were prayers, shared grief but also hope, A, that, you know, this community, which many described to me as tight knit, has the strength and the unity to help each other move forward even in the face of this horrible occurrence.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Wisconsin, though, has had a lot of attention on it the past few days, with the Rittenhouse trial ending last week 50 miles away in Kenosha. As you were out in Waukesha, did you see any kind of blame or divisiveness?

YOUSEF: No, quite the opposite. In fact, you know, I witnessed a really surprising encounter. Earlier that day, I saw a truck that was driving through downtown Waukesha, a red pickup with three big flags flying out the back, an American flag, a thin blue line flag and another flag indicating solidarity with the fire department. The person driving it was at the vigil. His name is Steve Rais (ph), and he was wearing a Trump 2024 hat. And he told me that he had founded a group a couple months ago called Patriots on Patrol. So you can think of what his politics might be. But as I was speaking with him, a woman named Arlene McLauren (ph) asked to take a photo of his truck. And then she told me how she agrees with something that he wrote on it, which was, one nation under God. Now, he's white. She's Black. And they both ended up embracing over this common hope that faith could help to heal their community and even their country.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Odette Yousef. Odette, thank you very much.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: President Biden is opting to stay the course on leadership at the Federal Reserve.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Biden kept his predecessor's choice, offering a second term to Jerome Powell.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: At this moment, both - of a both enormous potential and enormous uncertainty for our economy, we need stability and independence at the Federal Reserve.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Scott, what's the reaction to the decision to nominate Powell for his second term?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's been mostly favorable. Powell has backing from both business groups and organized labor. On Wall Street, this was the expected outcome. Investors generally like the idea of continuity at the central bank. Here in Washington, you had positive statements from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Powell, who is a Republican, has broad support in both parties. There were some progressive Democrats, most notably Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who wanted a different candidate, such as Fed Governor Lael Brainard. Brainard has been somewhat more aggressive than Powell when it comes to bank regulation. She also favors a more expansive role for the Fed in battling climate change. But in opting to stick with the Republican Fed leader, Biden's actually hewing to tradition, which is that the central bank chairman typically doesn't change parties just because the person in the White House does. Now, that's one way to sort of insulate the Fed from partisan politics. And frankly, this also gives Biden a measure of political cover because if inflation remains uncomfortably high, Powell, a Republican, will bear some of the responsibility.

MARTINEZ: Now, he has to be confirmed. How likely is that in the Senate?

HORSLEY: I think both Powell and Brainard will win bipartisan support. There are a handful of Democrats who've spoken out against Powell in addition to Senator Warren. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse have criticized the Fed chairman for not taking stronger action against climate change. But they are definitely in the minority. Powell will likely win easy Senate confirmation. And Brainard was also confirmed to her current seat on the Fed Board of Governors with a wide margin.

MARTINEZ: Now, the president still has a few other central bank vacancies to fill. How significant are those nominations?

HORSLEY: Yeah, one seat on the Fed's board is already vacant. Two others soon will be. And Biden also gets to choose the powerful vice chair for supervision, which is an important job when it comes to bank regulation. Biden says while he aimed for continuity and stability in choosing Powell and Brainard, he hopes to use these other openings to bring more fresh ideas and diversity to the central bank. Leadership at the Fed has been largely male and overwhelmingly white, so these new appointments do give Biden a chance to address that.

MARTINEZ: All right. One more thing - President Biden is expected to speak about inflation later today. What might we be hearing?

HORSLEY: Yeah, there's no question rising prices have been a hit on Americans' pocketbooks and also a hit on the president's own approval rating. For a lot of families, this week brings the biggest grocery shopping trip of the year. Maybe they're also gassing up the car to go visit grandma. So people notice when gas and groceries are costing them more. There's not a whole lot the president can do about those rising prices in the short run, but Biden can at least try to let people know he is paying attention. He can say he knows what this means for family budgets, and he can remind people that even with all these challenges, the economy is better than it was a year ago thanks to vaccines, thanks to a stronger job market and that even with all these higher prices, there's still a lot to be thankful for.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Austria has returned to a lockdown to try and roll back a new wave of COVID infections and hospitalizations.

INSKEEP: The country imposed 10 days of new restrictions and could go for another 10 after that. Austrian adults are under government orders to be vaccinated by February 1. About two-thirds of Austrian adults have their shots, which is one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.

MARTINEZ: Freelance journalist Benjamin Breitegger is on the line with us from Vienna. Benjamin, welcome to the program.

BENJAMIN BREITEGGER: Good morning.

MARTINEZ: Now, Austrians are now in their second day of this lockdown, so set the scene for us. What's it like there right now?

BREITEGGER: Well, all nonessential stores are closed right now. I'm based in Vienna, where the famous Christmas markets had to shut down. Theaters, the movies, gyms - they're all closed. And basically, only the essential stores remain open, like supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries. Schools remain open, too. But parents do not have to send their kids to school, which sometimes makes for - or makes tuition difficult. But yeah, I went for a walk this morning. And people are on the streets, going for walks or to get to work. Vienna is not the ghost town that it used to be last year when the first lockdown was imposed. And right now, it's the fourth time that Austria is in lockdown. So yeah, people honestly have stopped counting.

MARTINEZ: So do you think Austrians are coping with it better this time?

BREITEGGER: They're coping OK. I mean, what unites everyone is that everyone just wants this to be over. You know, it's almost been two years, and there seems to be no end in sight. But the Austrians are divided over the measures. You know, the majority, two-thirds, got vaccinated. Many even got their booster shots. So many of my friends - they feel resigned, just tired of being limited again. It's this feeling of, we've gone through this already. We knew what to do, and here we find ourselves in the same situation like last year. But then there are also the people who are angry. And there was actually a big demonstration in the city center in Vienna on Saturday, with some 40,000 people attending.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned the Christmas markets. And this is a time of year when tourism starts to come back. How is this all expected to affect Austria's economy?

BREITEGGER: The economy has recently been recovering. But, you know, for many businesses, this decision of the Austrian government is disastrous. As you said, it's the Christmas season, so Christmas markets had sprung up? But, of course, they all had to close down. Tourists have canceled their winter holidays. And it's not really clear what the next weeks will be like, whether the measures will be extended, if Austria will open up again before Christmas. That's been announced, but people are really skeptical. I mean, the government has announced economic aid for businesses, so there is assistance. And the government does spend and has spent a lot on economic assistance.

MARTINEZ: And the government also imposed a requirement for all adults to be vaccinated by the 1 of February. Are more people getting their shots now?

BREITEGGER: Actually, there was an uptake a few weeks ago when the government announced that in order to enter a restaurant or museum, you would need to show your green pass, which is a proof of vaccination or recovery. So people lined up to get vaccinated for a few days. That drove daily vaccination numbers. But looking at the recent statistics, you see a lot of people are getting vaccinated. But if you look closer, then you see that the majority of people getting a COVID jab is actually getting a booster shot. So there are more people now getting the third jab than the first one.

MARTINEZ: That's freelance journalist Benjamin Breitegger speaking with us from Vienna. Thank you very much.

BREITEGGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.