CORY SPRINGHORN: This is city councilmember Cory Springhorn in Shoreview, Minn., the 35th most populous city in the state. Look out, Winona. We're coming for you. I'm recording this from the city council chambers, where, due to the excused absence of the mayor, I just finished presiding over our first in-person meeting after 14 months of meeting on Zoom. This podcast was recorded at...
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
1:23 p.m. on June 9.
SPRINGHORN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. This podcast shall come to order.
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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Civic engagement - oh, my gosh, that's so cool.
KURTZLEBEN: The Minnesota population wars are heating up. I love it.
KURTZLEBEN: Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
KURTZLEBEN: And we have a super-special guest today - Carrie Kahn, international correspondent based in Mexico.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I'm so excited to be on the podcast finally; longtime listener, first-time caller.
KURTZLEBEN: We are super-excited to have you. OK, so let's get cracking. We have a lot to talk about. Today we're going to talk more about travel. Yesterday, we previewed President Joe Biden's trip to Europe. Today we're talking about a trip that just happened. Vice President Kamala Harris has traveled to Mexico and Guatemala. And one of the points you both made in your reporting on this trip is how persistent some of the problems in this region have been, like violence and corruption, and how those problems impact migration to the U.S. We're going to start, though, with some sound from six years ago, 2015, when then-Vice President Joe Biden visited Central America.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let me be frank. Some of my own government and in the U.S. Congress have asked me, quote, "how do we know this isn't just going to be business as usual? How is this any different than anything that's come before?" Well, the president and I believe that this is the time that it will be different.
KURTZLEBEN: But then as you both reported, things didn't end up being that different after all. Some of the issues he was there to talk about - poverty, corruption, violence - are still problems. And that's a big deal not only in the humanitarian sense but because it creates migration into the U.S., so it's a U.S. policy issue. So all of that said, realistically this time, what kind of actions did Vice President Harris announce, you guys? And were there any of those plans or any breakthroughs that seemed like they might actually help reduce the causes of migration in the region?
KAHN: Well, I was just going to - first off, when I heard that sound of Biden, I was going to say, do you have something you could play 20 years ago because it's the same persistent issues? We don't need to go back just to 2015. I guess my overall take on it is that what's interesting is when Biden was vice president and he did go down to Guatemala and he pushed for these same issues to be dealt with - the fight against corruption, help for the poor, some agricultural assistance, some of the same things that we heard from Vice President Harris now. He did go down in the region, and they had an impact at that time. There was a time when the president of Guatemala was under investigation by a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission, and that president tried to get rid of the commission. He pushed to get rid of it. And Biden flew down personally and said, cut it out. He walked into the presidential palace. He said, cut it out. And it worked.
What happened was later - fast forward to the Trump administration. That president that was in power said this - tried to get rid of the commission again. But the United States said nothing, and the commission was wiped out. This was a commission that had a great track record and was an example for the region. So having the vice president now saying the U.S. is back on track; we're going to keep an eye on what is happening on anti-corruption efforts, on anti-poverty efforts, on helping disaster victims. And the U.S. will be here and is here and is doing it. That was a lot to me. And I thought that was the main message.
KEITH: Yeah, and corruption was a big focus of this trip, a big focus for Harris, especially in Guatemala. I mean, there was this moment in the press conference that she held with President Giammattei of Guatemala. So they're on stage. There's these blue and white flowers ringing the stage. And one of the American reporters asks him about corruption, and President Giammattei does not respond to the question.
KAHN: Well, they asked him, are you the problem?
KAHN: Are you not the problem? That's a pretty bold question for a reporter to stand up and ask.
KEITH: It is, and he just did not answer. And so the next American reporter gets up and asks the question again in Espanol, and he finally does answer. And he essentially is like, oh, there is lots of corruption. There - I've never been accused of corruption, but there is much corruption, other corruption that we could definitely think about. And Harris, though, stood on stage, was very frank, said that they had had an even more frank discussion behind closed doors. And that is something.
KURTZLEBEN: Right, and that's a lot of great context that you guys just provided. It sounds like there was a lot of nuance there, but it was easy, frankly, to kind of lose that in seeing the news that came out of this trip because in Guatemala, Kamala Harris told people, quote, "don't come."
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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border. Do not come. Do not come.
KURTZLEBEN: That is what got headlines. I know you guys know this. That was probably the biggest news she made, and it also inspired a lot of blowback from people on the left, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York being a very prominent one. They pointed out that asylum-seeking is legal, that decades of U.S. foreign policy destabilized the region in lasting ways. How did Harris respond to that kind of blowback?
KEITH: Well, I actually asked her on the tarmac as we were leaving Guatemala about that blowback. And it was interesting. She, instead of directly addressing it, instead reasserted the real purpose of her trip, in her view, which was to talk about the root causes of migration. So she didn't engage on the fact that she was being criticized for saying don't come. She really - throughout this trip - I mean, it's sort of a theme. She just kept trying to come back to the thing that she went there to talk about, which was trying to find a way to provide enough hope for people in these countries that they can stay in their own countries and they don't feel compelled to leave for their family's safety or for their - for sustenance.
KURTZLEBEN: You know, Carrie, we've talked a lot about Guatemala here, but let's also get into Harris' visit to Mexico. First things first, just lay the groundwork for us here. How is the country situated in all of this sort of being both a place that many immigrants in the U.S. are from and also a place that a lot of them pass through on the way here?
KAHN: You know, I was commenting to Tam when we were in Mexico that it's going to be different. She had to talk to Mexico differently than she did to the president of Guatemala. And also, Mexico is seen in this whole Biden administration plan to get at the root causes as a partner working together with the U.S. rather than what is the problem. Yes, Mexican migration to the U.S. has increased greatly, especially during the pandemic and because of economic problems but also because of the relentless violence that is happening in this country. So it was a different type of visit here and a different conversation.
KEITH: Yeah, and I think that they - you know, as with in Guatemala, there are frank conversations that happened behind closed doors that the vice president and her team allude to. But they certainly weren't out on display in exactly the same way in Mexico, in part because they didn't do one of those traditional side-by-side two-leader press conferences. Lopez Obrador held his own press conference in the morning. He does that every day. And then Vice President Harris ended up holding a press conference with the American press as a way of sort of showing that the U.S. values a free press, which is, you know, a democratic institution that is under some threat in Mexico.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to have to leave it there. There are so many moving parts. Carrie Kahn, we will make sure to have you back the next time that we need to...
KURTZLEBEN: ...When we need a thorough explanation of all of this.
KAHN: Anytime, I'm coming back. Now, I'm a second - I'll be a second-time caller then.
KURTZLEBEN: Perfect. All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we will talk infrastructure with Kelsey Snell.
And we are back this time with chief infrastructure correspondent Kelsey Snell.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: (Laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: Kelsey, hey there.
KEITH: Roads, bridges, broadband.
SNELL: But also childcare and elder care and maybe some other things (laughter).
KEITH: We are moving from infrastructure spring to infrastructure summer.
SNELL: Whoa - sweatier over here.
KURTZLEBEN: Hot infrastructure summer - OK. OK. OK, so the short version of what has happened recently because a lot has happened. Yesterday, the White House officially ended negotiations with one Republican, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, and then started negotiations with other Republicans and some Democrats as well. So we should tell folks first here, Kelsey, what was the impasse? What couldn't Biden and Capito agree on?
SNELL: Just about everything, honestly - they couldn't agree on the size and scope of the idea of infrastructure. They couldn't agree on how to pay for it. They did make incremental budges along the way to kind of move a little bit closer to one another. But at the end of the day, they were still hundreds of billions of dollars apart - hundreds of billions of dollars. Even in a post-COVID world, where trillions of dollars have been spent, hundreds of billions of dollars is a lot of money.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well - and I mentioned that bipartisan group of lawmakers that the White House is meeting with now. Who's in that group? And is the strategy changing in a big way as Biden meets with these people?
SNELL: So this new group is about 20 people, and it's Democrats and Republicans. And it's being led by Mitt Romney of Utah and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. And they're meeting, and we don't really know how much engagement the White House is having with them at this point because they're still pretty new. And even Senate Democrats are saying, you know, we'll see what happens with this group. One thing I will say, though, is that when you get a really big group of people in a room negotiating together, that's not always a great sign of a deal being possible. Oftentimes, deals come together more quickly when it's small groups of really powerful people or small groups of really influential people who can go to the powerful people and say, this is what we've decided. I can deliver you these number of votes; let's move forward. And 20 people in a room means 20 different opinions in 20 different ways to solve for X.
KURTZLEBEN: Right, a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
KURTZLEBEN: So, Tam, of course, you cover the White House. I'm curious. You know, as you watch this all unfold, do you have a sense - would you give this new set of negotiations better odds than the old set?
KEITH: Oh, gosh, I don't know that - I don't know that...
KEITH: I don't know that you would give it better odds. I think the issue here is the White House and President Biden are trying to find a path to these policies that they think are really important that they've been trying to sell to the public for, as we say, at least almost a full season of this year. And they have a problem. It's not just that they need to find Republicans. It's that they have Democrats who are not fully on board with a very big plan, and they have other Democrats who are not fully on board with a smaller plan. And so they are struggling to find a path where they can actually get something done. And, you know, we talk about whether it would be a big bipartisan bill that could get enough votes - that it could overcome any sort of filibuster - or whether they would use a procedural tactic to pass it on Democratic votes alone. Well, if they had Democratic votes alone, I can't imagine that they'd be going in a room full of 20 people trying to solve this.
SNELL: You know, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer more or less admits that they're not there yet and that they're kind of working their way towards whatever some big Democrats-only bill would be. Though - so yesterday, I was in the Capitol, and I decided I was just going to ask every Democrat that I could catch up with, you know, what is core infrastructure for you? What is your red line? What is it that would like - you have to see in a bill? And I heard everything from environmental elements to I have no red line to it has to include every single thing that was outlined in President Biden's two plans - not the jobs plan alone but the jobs and families plans. And then I heard other people who gave me a kind of mixture of other things that they counted as their red line. That, to me, does not signal a quick and easy path to finding an agreement.
KURTZLEBEN: Do you get the sense that the Republicans involved are a bit more organized, or is it just chaos everywhere?
SNELL: Well, I think Republicans agree on what they don't want, and they haven't had to really be pressed forward on what they are willing to include down to the tiny details that would be necessary to, you know, start negotiating a final package because if they can't get past the idea that they don't want to raise taxes and Democrats say that's the only way they want to pay for this and they can't get past the idea that Democrats want to include childcare and eldercare and other portions in infrastructure and Republicans say that's not possible, I have a hard time seeing how you bridge gaps that large.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now. But, of course, we will still be watching infrastructure things happen as they unfold. Until then, I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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