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Week In News: Cuts Up In The Air And Stirrings In Syria


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up this hour, classic soap operas relaunch online and how beer begat baseball. But first...


LYDEN: This week, Americans felt the effects of massive federal spending cuts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This week, the sequester hurt travelers who were stuck for hours in airports and on planes and are rightly frustrated by it.

LYDEN: President Obama addressing the nation in his weekly radio address. And James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Hello there, Jim. You're out in California today.

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes, I am, in Redlands, California. And hello to you from here, Jacki.

LYDEN: Well, we're glad to have you. So we, of course, have been following this, and the president has blamed flight delays on Republicans in Congress. Congress did pass a sort of Band-Aid bill, even the White House called it that, a stopgap to end air traffic controller furloughs, a sequester, I guess, with exceptions if you have the right - I don't want to make a pun here, Jim - connections.

FALLOWS: I think a month or two ago, most people would've thought that the effects of the sequester were about as stark a demonstration of dysfunctionality in government as we could come up with. But I think we have now taken this one step further. The whole idea behind the sequester, of course, is that its cuts would be so clumsy and so intolerable that both political parties would agree on ways to pass a real budget.

Now, we've seen sort of the sequester with exceptions for people who are powerful. That if the airlines can make a big enough deal about the FAA furloughs causing the delays and if passengers can be angry enough about that and blame not the airlines but the Congress, then you can get a loophole for the airlines. And so either, I think, we're going to have just a sort of cascading series of these with the national parks, the National Institutes of Health, Head Start or whatever, or else there will be some argument to say that this entire approach is not making sense. Unfortunately, I fear the former. I think we're going to see more and more exceptions in this approach.

LYDEN: It'll be interesting to see what members of Congress hear when they go to their home districts.

FALLOWS: Yes. And I guess the hopeful outlook here would be that airline passengers are a relatively privileged level of society. A lot of the effects of these budget cuts are falling on people who don't have the same kind of access - for example, families who rely on Head Start. So I would hope the Congress - congressional representatives would hear from some of those people when they're back home too.

LYDEN: Jim, speaking of planes, here's a story you've been following for some months now. I'm talking, of course, about the Dreamliner, back in the news, the big Boeing plane that had that problem with its lithium batteries overheating. It's fixed apparently. What is it?

FALLOWS: I think when this problem first arose a couple months ago, you and I discussed, Jacki, that almost all new airliners have this kind of start-up problem, so to speak, when they get going. And most of them overcome it, and it becomes more or less forgotten. And I expected that something like that would turn out with the Dreamliner's battery problems, and that seems to be the case.

Boeing has not entirely re-engineered the battery, but they found all sorts of safety measures. There's a new box that's going to be enclosed in. There's new sort of charging systems that will reduce the danger of overcharging, ways to vent out dangerous gases, et cetera. So the FAA seems to say OK. And I imagine a year or two from now, five years from now, this will be seen as a start-up glitch as opposed to a fundamental challenge for the plane.

LYDEN: Lastly, Jim, Syria is in the news again this week. And it appears a very grim threshold has been crossed with the government using what appears to be chemical weapons against its own people, something, of course, Saddam Hussein did. The president says that a line has been crossed, and I guess the question is, what does the U.S. do now?

FALLOWS: Yes. Of course, that is the question. And these lines are arbitrary in a couple of senses. One is, as you well know, many tens of thousands of people have been killed in Syria long before there was evidence or suspicion of chemical weapons. That was by plain old artillery. Also, I think no American president ever wants to lay down an absolute line saying, if you do X, I will do Y, because then all leverage and judgment about American policy has been passed out of his own hands or out of the country's hands.

But I think, clearly, the president is now under pressure to say since he laid down this condition, he needs to do something more. And that something is what he will be deciding and discussing with the Congress and the public in the next few days.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks for taking time to be with us today.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.