Biden's Next Infrastructure Challenge: Democrats : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden's infrastructure deal passed the Senate with 19 Republican votes, bolstering his claim that he can secure deals in today's Washington. But now he has to contend with competing priorities within his own party.

Also: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) has said he will resign.

This episode: political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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Biden's Next Infrastructure Challenge: Democrats

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AUTUMN: Hey. It's Autumn (ph) in Columbus, Ohio. This weekend, I'm enjoying Pelotonia, an annual bike ride raising millions of dollars for cancer research. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...


2:03 p.m. on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.

AUTUMN: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this podcast, but I'll still be celebrating my three years as a cancer survivor. All right. Here's the show.


KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That's wonderful. Congratulations.

KURTZLEBEN: Congratulations. Also, people riding bike outdoors the during COVID, not just riding our Pelotons. I applaud this as well. Good job.

SNELL: (Laughter).

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Life in Columbus, Ohio.

KURTZLEBEN: I know. Hey, there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor, correspondent.


JOE BIDEN: They say I'm being naive - you can't unify America anymore. The Republican Party, you can't work with it. Well, if that's true, we're in deep, deep trouble.

KURTZLEBEN: That is a blast from the past. There it is Candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail in December of 2019. Well, this morning, bipartisanship happened on the Senate floor. An infrastructure deal passed the Senate with substantial support from both parties.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: On this vote, the yeas are 69. The nays are 30. The bill, as amended, is passed.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a big step. It's a big flipping deal, to paraphrase our president, but it is not law yet. It has to pass the House of Representatives. But it was nevertheless a big moment for bipartisanship, one that a lot of Congress-watchers didn't expect to see happen. So Kelsey, as a Congress watcher professionally, did you expect we would be here?

SNELL: I was one of the people who was a little skeptical because they were negotiating with such a big group of people. And typically, when we see, you know, more than just a couple top leaders in a negotiating room, it means they're just going to talk and talk and talk and talk, maybe have a glass of wine, go out to dinner. And they did all of those things - a lot of those two latter things - while they were negotiating this bill. But they still got a deal. You know, what was also really interesting to me is that the votes for this bill, Republican votes for this bill, included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, even though former President Donald Trump put out a statement bashing this bill and saying it shouldn't, you know, even come up for a vote.

KURTZLEBEN: Was there a rhyme or reason, then, to the folks who did vote - the Republicans who did vote against this? Was it, for example, still a lot of very Trump-y (ph) Republicans or not necessarily?

SNELL: It was. And I think, by and large, their argument was that it was too expensive and that, you know, it didn't live up to the promises that negotiators made that the bill would pay for itself. They cited a CBO report saying that it would add about $250 billion to the deficit. Negotiators said they expected something like that because the CBO can't take into account all of the different ways they think it's going to save money over time. But, you know, it's a lot of Republicans voting for this bill that was negotiated, not by leaders, but by, you know, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats who wanted to see this bill get done.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, Ron, I want to turn back to that clip that we heard of candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail. Is this bill's passage in the Senate vindication for him, and how much is it?

ELVING: Yes, but it would have to be a tentative yes...


ELVING: ...Because we still don't know if this can make it through the House of Representatives, where they have insisted - and not just the progressives, but also Nancy Pelosi herself has said - we've got to have this infrastructure bipartisan deal yoked to a much bigger package of spending - and we're going to talk about that in a few minutes - but a much bigger package of spending that we Democrats plan to pass with only our own votes. Now, that's not bipartisanship. And to get the bipartisan infrastructure bill through, they're going to have to go that next mile. But at least this makes it all possible. And so in that sense, yes, very much a vindication of Joe Biden's position.

KURTZLEBEN: Mmm hmm. Well - and let's get to exactly what you just brought up there. On the House side, some splits even among Democrats. Here is New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is, of course, a prominent liberal voice in the party. Here she was talking to CNN in August.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Bipartisan doesn't always mean that it's in the interests of the public good.

KURTZLEBEN: Her point is that Biden is sacrificing things that he cares about just to get Republicans on board - or maybe to put it even more simply, that bipartisanship can be a means, but it shouldn't be an end in and of itself. Now, this is a real and salient split in how Americans see the world. How big of a split is this within the Democratic Party? Kelsey, let's start with you.

SNELL: Well, it is certainly a split within the Democratic Party. And the - you know, I talked to Democrats who are not necessarily, you know, big centrists, people who might be closer on the ideological spectrum to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than they are to, say, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is, you know, one of the main centrists in the Senate. They say that, you know, not everybody in the Democratic Party agrees with the goals that the Progressive Caucus, which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a part of - they don't all agree with those goals. And so it isn't just about bipartisanship here for them. It's about, you know, writing lasting policy. It's about reaching an agreement, showing that the government can work, showing that Congress can do the job and proving to the American people that there's really a point in having a legislative body.

There's also a big question about whether or not, like, you try to move forward on something that is simply partisan. You know, there are a lot of questions among Democrats about whether or not doing that just exposes difficult spaces where the party doesn't agree. They - I have heard lots of arguments from Democrats who even were skeptical of this bipartisan deal that they felt like, you know, in the end, since they got there, it might actually just be good for the country for this to have happened.

ELVING: You know, we talk a lot about how divided the country is, and it is divided. It isn't just Washington where people are squabbling and eating each other alive - or on Twitter. It's the country as a whole. And it serves the goal of uniting the country to insist that both parties buy into a big bill such as this one. Now, that will not be true when we get to the question of the budget resolution. That's going to be highly partisan. That'll be a place where the progressives should be able to insist on their priorities. But at least with regard to this $1.2 trillion commitment with respect to infrastructure, that at least would be an effort to unite the country. There's a point in doing that, not only for the permanence of whatever you build, not only for the continuing support that might actually produce the desired effect, but also for the larger political soul of the country.

KURTZLEBEN: Well - and let's get at how easy or hard it might be, as the case may be, for that reconciliation package to pass. So as we mentioned earlier, Ocasio-Cortez, she has said that progressives will halt this bill in the House until that big $3.5 trillion economic bill gets passed through the Senate. How big of a threat - is what progressives are saying here - is that to the infrastructure bill? Can that other economic bill get passed?

SNELL: One of the things that I'll be watching to answer that question is what policy Democrats actually write in the Senate. They have to find some way to write policies that can be approved with unanimous votes among Democrats in the Senate and still satisfy virtually all House Democrats. It's a very difficult task. And at this point, I don't feel like I have the crystal ball to handicap how successful they'll be.

ELVING: And probably nobody does, to be fair, because we don't know how much that 3.5 trillion is going to have a haircut before it gets to the House.

SNELL: Right.

ELVING: We just don't know if it's going to be that full figure. And in all likelihood, it's going to be something less. How much less can it be and still negotiate with the House Democrats? Down the road, someone's going to have to bend. Probably lots of people are going to have to bend some so that no one breaks.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We are going to take a quick break, but we are going to talk more about all of this in a second.

SNELL: And we're back. And it's Kelsey this time because I have a question for Danielle and Ron. You know, before we get back to Congress, I was hoping to ask you guys about your reaction to the news about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. So he said this afternoon that he is going to resign in 14 days in the wake of this big, extensive and damning report on his alleged sexual misconduct.

KURTZLEBEN: I feel like one top-line takeaway from this whole thing is that the system worked - right? - that there was this report that was done on the allegations against him. It came back. It was very damning, like you said, and he resigned. He saw the writing on the wall. So this is a point that I've seen smart people making today, a very smart columnist who writes about gender issues. I saw her saying this on Twitter. Her name is Moira Donegan - she writes for The Guardian - has said that this is what #MeToo advocates have been asking for since the #MeToo wave started that, yes, for there to be consequences and investigations. That's what happened here. That's great.

Now, on the other hand, Cuomo's speech was, I think it's fair to say, remarkably tone deaf. It was a speech where he said, I take responsibility. And yet he shifted a lot of blame onto the women who accused him.


ANDREW CUOMO: I thought a hug and putting my arm around a staff person while taking a picture was friendly, but she found it to be too forward. I kissed a woman on the cheek at a wedding, and I thought I was being nice. But she felt that it was too aggressive. I have slipped and called people honey, sweetheart and darling. I meant it to be endearing, but women found it dated and offensive.

KURTZLEBEN: Which implies that if only she had taken it the right way, the way I intended it, then I wouldn't be in this position. So there are many reasons why people are quite understandably upset about what he said. But the consequence is that he had consequences.

ELVING: Yes. And in that sense, the system did work, Danielle. You're quite right. He is doing, as everyone else has done here, in the end, the right thing. He can't claim this is any kind of partisanship because the Democrats are in full control in Albany. And that really leaves him no true out other than to put the state through an extraordinarily expensive and traumatic experience at the time it should be concentrating on COVID. He saw that, and he did his job and resigned.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Very well put, Ron.

All right. Well, we are planning to talk more about this on the podcast soon. But for now, we are going to continue to focus on infrastructure. It is infrastructure day here.

SNELL: It is - infrastructure week, month maybe.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So Kelsey, one more thing to get at here - something we've not talked about yet on the podcast - we do have a summary for that $3.5 trillion, Democrats-only reconciliation bill that looks like it will have some of the things Biden left behind on the bipartisan deal. So give us a quick rundown of what's in it.

SNELL: So the way that budget reconciliation works is they set aside these top-line numbers, spending numbers, for committees to kind of fill in the gaps. And the bulk of this money is being spent by two committees, the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sometimes known as the HELP Committee. And they are the ones who are in charge of writing policies related to taxes and to things like child care and health care and paid family leave, all of those human infrastructure elements that we heard President Biden talk about when he first unveiled this idea for an infrastructure bill.

There are also a lot of provisions related to climate change. There are provisions calling for committees to add additional funding for solar and for wind and for improving, you know, housing and insulation. There are electric vehicle provisions. It is a pretty sweeping bill, as you would expect, for a $3.5 trillion as the goal. I will also say there is a measure in here that we're going to be watching very closely that directs one of the committees to address legal immigration. Now, we're watching this really closely because it's one of those issues where the Senate parliamentarian may step in and say, no, no, no, that is not within the rules of the budget. And she could very easily say this can't be part of the bill.

KURTZLEBEN: So I'm curious, looking ahead, then, what does the road map look like from here?

SNELL: Yeah, I'm going to be watching two things in particular. One is how progressives respond to anything that the parliamentarian might throw out 'cause there could be things aside from just immigration that she may decide are just not allowed to be part of this. And if that happens with major priorities, how are House progressives going to respond?

ELVING: One last note we should sound at some point is that a big factor in this is the tax portions. They are cutting taxes for some people, and they are raising taxes on the - described as ultra wealthy, people making over $400,000 a year, and also on profitable corporations. That is hard to do. Raising taxes in a closely divided Congress can be extremely difficult. So we'll see. We'll see how well they manage to come up with the money. And if they don't come up with the money, then they're going to have an even more severe budget consequence.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We are going to have a very full podcast schedule, clearly, in the coming months. But we're going to have to leave it there for now. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.


KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

SNELL: The NPR Infrastructure Podcast.


SNELL: (Laughter).


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