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On Capitol Hill Thursday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry defended a controversial proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants. "There's no such thing as a free market in energy," he said in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Governments are picking winners and losers every day."

It was a remarkable statement, coming days after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt derided such tipping of the scales as he moved to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

Air pollution in counties of the San Francisco Bay Area this week has been the worst since 1999 when officials began collecting data.

"The pollution is so high it's comparable to high pollution days in China," says Lisa Fasano at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The worst hour so far was measured on Tuesday in Napa, Calif., with an Air Quality Index of 404 for small particulate matter — so high it's off the chart, as you can see below.

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The federal government is gearing up for its big 2020 census count. Today Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Congress the Census Bureau needs more than $15 billion to do the survey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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Now we turn to Sabrina Corlette. She used to be a staffer with the Senate Health Committee. She now studies the health insurance industry at Georgetown University. Welcome to the program.

SABRINA CORLETTE: Thank you.

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Gene therapy, which has had a roller-coaster history of high hopes and devastating disappointments, took an important step forward Thursday.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee endorsed the first gene therapy for an inherited disorder — a rare condition that causes a progressive form of blindness that usually starts in childhood.

The recommendation came in a unanimous 16-0 vote after a daylong hearing that included emotional testimonials by doctors, parents of children blinded by the disease and from children and young adults helped by the treatment.

As a Brazilian-born scientist, it pains me to witness the devastating cuts — and proposal of future additional reductions — to the country's science funding.

The cut of 44 percent in March brought the 2017 budget for Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications the lowest level in 12 years. Additional cuts of about 16 percent have been proposed for the 2018 budget.

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday that is intended to provide more options for people shopping for health insurance. The president invoked his power of the pen after repeated Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, have failed.

"The competition will be staggering," Trump said. "Insurance companies will be fighting to get every single person signed up. And you will be, hopefully, negotiating, negotiating, negotiating. And you will get such low prices for such great care."

"We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders" in Puerto Rico "forever," President Trump said Thursday, hinting at a possible limit on federal aid to the island territory where 3.4 million Americans have struggled to recover from two destructive hurricanes.

Here are the president's comments on the issue, compressed from three consecutive tweets:

When it rains in Puerto Rico, it rains hard and it rains fast. And this week — three weeks after Hurricane Maria — it has rained a lot.

For portions of the island – especially in the mountains and in the valleys – that rain brings a continual trauma of mudslides and flooding. Even in San Juan, highway exits pool with a foot or more of water. In restaurants with cell service, the S.O.S alarms on phones ring out in a cacophony – warning of flash floods. But the capital city has fared comparatively well — it's the rural places that are doing much, much worse.

With President Trump's announcement that he plans to nominate Kirstjen Nielsen as homeland security secretary, he still has one more Cabinet post to fill — health and human services secretary. A president having to find replacements for two Cabinet secretaries this early in an administration is unprecedented. But observers are more alarmed by the less visible vacancies at the sub-Cabinet level: hundreds of positions without a nominee, and a president who says he has no intention of filling many of the jobs.

Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET

The Trump administration has announced that the U.S. will withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations' chief cultural and educational agency. In a statement released Thursday, the State Department said the move won't take effect for more than a year, noting the withdrawal will be as of Dec. 31, 2018.

The schools in Puerto Rico are facing massive challenges.

All the public schools are without electricity, and more than half don't have water. More than 100 are still functioning as shelters.

But Puerto Rico's secretary of education, Julia Keleher, tells us that the schools that are open are serving as connection points for communities. They've become a place where children and their families can eat a hot meal and get some emotional support, too.

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET

An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children have been freed after five years in captivity by an extremist group in Afghanistan, the White House said Thursday.

Caitlan Coleman, now 32, was several months pregnant when she and her husband, Joshua Boyle, were abducted in 2012 while on a trip to Afghanistan.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET

The U.S. Postal Service hasn't abandoned Santa Rosa, Calif., where hundreds of people are coping with total losses of their homes from an explosive wildfire. The scene in Santa Rosa has been compared with an apocalypse — but that didn't stop a mail truck from making the rounds in at least one devastated neighborhood this week.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Men's Soccer Team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The stunning result brings to an end two disappointing years of qualifying matches for the United States, and reactions to those results could significantly change soccer in America.

Rob Gimpel is usually thinking about getting tulip bulbs in the ground this time of year, but right now he's ready to harvest pumpkins.

It's an unusual activity for Gimpel, the lead gardener of the areas around the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but one that he's been thoroughly enjoying as part of this year's War Garden project. The project commemorates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering World War I in 1917 — when such veggie plots — also referred to as "victory" or "liberty" gardens — were first conceived as part of the war effort on the homefront.

The seven-acre "Tent City Jail" in Phoenix that helped make former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a household name has been quietly struck once and for all after housing inmates for nearly a quarter century.

The Arizona Republic reports that prisoners from the infamous jail, made of Korean-War-era tents to alleviate overflow from more conventional facilities, were transferred late Saturday to the nearby Durango Jail.

RT, the Kremlin-backed global TV network, will remove a series of provocative street ads appearing in Washington and New York, that appear to poke fun at Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The advertisements began appearing on bus shelters, cars and in subway stations recently. One read: "Stuck in traffic? Lost an election? Blame us!" Another teased: "Find out who we are planning to hack next."

Celebrators of National Handbag Day got quite a scare this week.

Tuesday's unofficial holiday was over by the time luxury brand Coach announced on Wednesday that it is changing its corporate name. The move is designed to better include the two other brands Coach owns: Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade.

Consumer outrage quickly followed the announcement, but it died down a bit after shoppers realized they could still buy Coach bags — only the corporate name was changing.

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So Republicans couldn't quite pull off repeal and replace.

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Editor's Note: This story includes language that may be offensive to some readers.

When Donald Trump arrived in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2002, he was welcomed as a "white knight," says former City Councilman Tom Long.

Trump bought a golf course there that had gone bankrupt after the 18th hole literally fell into the ocean in a landslide.

Long, a Democrat, says residents looked forward to Trump's promises of repairing the course and generating revenue and attention for the city.

Despite that goodwill, the relationship got off to a rough start.

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