DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Danielle Kurtzleben, and I'm here to announce our next pick for the POLITICS PODCAST Book Club - "The Engagement" by Sasha Issenberg. It's the real-life epic story about how same-sex marriage came to be legal in the U.S., complete with all the characters and politicking that made it happen. We'll be interviewing Sasha in December, and if you'd like to submit questions for the discussion or ask them of Sasha yourself, join our Facebook group at n.pr/politicsgroup. You can also send questions to email@example.com. All right, on with the show.
SARAH: This is Sarah (ph) from New York City. My husband and I are going to see a Broadway show, something we were supposed to see in May of 2020. We're so excited. This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
1:05 p.m., Eastern Time, on Friday, October 15.
SARAH: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Hopefully, more people will be going to see live theater. I hope we all enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Count me in. I definitely want to go.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That does sound fun.
KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I also cover Congress.
KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to start with the latest from Capitol Hill on the self-imposed legislative deadline for Democrats to pass President Biden's so-called "Build Back Better" agenda. The price tag was originally $3.5 trillion spread across 10 years. The bill called for a massive re-imagination of the social safety net, sweeping changes to health care, education and climate policies. But disagreements among Democrats mean that they're going to have to make some tough choices on what to keep in the bill and what to cut from the bill. So, Deirdre, I want to start with you 'cause from the outside, this looks like a disagreement between 48 members of the Senate and two members of the Senate. But maybe the reality is more complicated than that.
WALSH: It is. I mean, I think we should start out saying that Democrats are using this process called reconciliation to get around a Republican filibuster, so they need all 50 Democrats in the Senate to stay unified. There are two notable holdouts that have been - we've been talking a lot in this podcast about over the last few months - West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. And I think that there's been this tendency to talk about these two moderates sort of in the same category, but policywise, they are actually very different. They have different priorities for what they think are important that need to be in the bill or what need to come out of the bill. And, you know, they are unified on the issue of the size and scope. They both publicly opposed a $3.5 trillion price tag. But in terms of policies, they are not on the same page when it comes to climate change, when it comes to prescription drugs, when it comes to some of the pay-fors for the bill. So those are some areas where the president and Democratic leaders on the Hill have to thread a really tough needle because, as we said, you can't lose any one of these without getting this thing passed.
SNELL: So one of the things that's happening here is that, you know, Democrats are looking at a huge bill, $3.5 trillion, and trying to get it down to $1.5 trillion - so $2 trillion worth of policy that they need to trim out here. And that's not easy to do. You know, regardless of whether or not they even agreed on all of the policy, the mechanics of getting down from $3.5 to $1.5 is really, really hard without actually losing the entire aim of what they're trying to do here 'cause, like, as you mentioned, this is, for Democrats, really about addressing the social safety net, and it's about addressing climate change. And they say these are really big problems, and they wrote a lot of policies that had really big goals, that were specifically tailored to meeting big goals. And now they're having to go back and reassess whether it's even possible to meet some of these goals if they scale back the amount of money they'd need to spend on them.
KHALID: So explain to me, then, what the crux of the disagreement is about. Is it about wholesale chucking out particular policies and just saying, you know, for example, we're not going to keep the expansion to Medicare, for example? Or is it about just spending less on a whole bunch of things?
SNELL: Well, that's kind of where they're at right now - is they haven't really figured out the answer to that. So progressives like Pramila Jayapal - she's a congresswoman from Washington state. She leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She did this call where she said, you know, we don't want to pit child care against climate change or housing against paid leave. They don't want to be in a situation where they're having to choose one priority for the other, which leaves them back in that place where, you know, they're trying to trim down individual policies. And so I was spending time this week looking at what that looks like. How do you actually go about trimming down a big proposal? And I was looking at the child tax credit because I feel like it's a really good example of something where they generally agree that the policy works and should be continued, but the process of making it cost less is just really hard.
KHALID: So we should step back and explain that Democrats did expand, temporarily, the child tax credit. They allowed, you know, pretty much every family in the country that has a child to receive up to $300 a month for each kid. And this was new because not every family had previously been eligible to receive this child tax credit. And, you know, Kelsey, to my understanding, they want to maintain these benefits going forward.
SNELL: Well, a big part of what they did is they made it available to people who had not previously met a minimum income threshold - so the lowest-income people and people who maybe had no tax liability at all or weren't filing taxes 'cause they weren't making enough money to really, like, be required to file. Those people now have access to it, and it is paid on a monthly basis. Now, Democrats - this is where things get really difficult for Democrats because they say putting in work requirements would essentially undermine their ability to reach many of those people who are low income and have unstable jobs or are working part time or, you know, are working seasonally, people who are coming in and out of parental leave. There are a lot of ways that people who are not really strongly tied to the workforce but still need this support, you know, they would be lost in this process.
The other side of it is this idea of having some sort of upper-income threshold, which is another thing that Manchin has mentioned as a possibility. But the experts that I've been talking to said, well, they could theoretically do that, but it would potentially violate Biden's pledge not to increase taxes on people earning under $400,000. So it is a really difficult situation where if they trim it down on either end, they are violating some part of the pledge the Democrats have made to their voters.
KHALID: And how are other Democrats responding to the idea of potentially trimming down this one particular policy - let's say the child tax credit?
SNELL: Among the Democrats that I've talked to, there's not a lot of support for the idea of these work requirements because they think it would mean that a lot of people on the lower end of the income spectrum would just not be having access to the credit. There is more of an interest in exploring the idea of capping the income side of things. But there are a lot of Democrats who say, well, any changes that we make to this destabilize it and make it harder to administer. And if something is working, why would we get rid of it? It's reducing child poverty, and that was the goal.
KHALID: So you guys have both been talking about some of what Senator Manchin from West Virginia would like to see in a trimmed-down version. Do you have any sense of what Senator Sinema from Arizona wants?
KHALID: You laugh, Kelsey.
WALSH: That's the question everyone in Washington has been asking.
SNELL: I also laugh because she doesn't really - Senator Sinema does not typically engage in those types of questions with reporters. And so it's something where I feel like I have been a part of or watched this movie over and over and over again, where reporters try to nail down exactly what it is she's asking for, and then she's evasive or just walks away.
WALSH: Yeah. Believe me, I tried several times...
WALSH: ...Last week when I was working on the story about the different policy proposals between these two moderates. And, you know, as Kelsey knows, Manchin talks regularly with reporters.
KHALID: Yeah (laughter).
WALSH: He puts out notices when he's going to have an avail outside his office or outside the Capitol on his way out for the weekend. Senator Sinema goes through sort of back hallways to purposely avoid reporters.
KHALID: So it sounds like what you guys are saying is there's really no clear sense of what she wants.
WALSH: But it's not just us. It's not just the press corps that is trying to get a sense from Sinema. It's her own Democratic colleagues.
SNELL: Oh, yeah.
WALSH: I tried to ask a series of Democrats about, you know, what their understanding was, coming out of lunches where she was in the room, in terms of - you know, they're trying to nail down this goal of having a deal by the end of October. You know, various senators, I said, do you have a sense of where she stands, where a compromise could land? And they just keep saying, ask her; ask her.
KHALID: So then in theory, she's negotiating with the White House. She's not even really negotiating with her own colleagues.
SNELL: We do know that they say that she's been having meetings with the White House.
SNELL: We don't know anything about the details of those meetings. Her staff is very tight-lipped as well.
WALSH: I think just the - underscoring the fact that these two senators have different policies is the fact that they've been having these - you know, I think there have been some mutual meetings, but there have been mostly separate one-on-one sit-downs with President Biden, with his key senior aides. So it shows you they're almost trying to work in two different tracks to try to get, you know, to a compromise to accommodate these two key moderates who have very different demands.
KHALID: You know, you mention the White House, President Biden. And I have been struck, as somebody who covers the White House, in the president's role or, you know, people could say, the president's absence publicly on this issue. You know, he ran - his campaign was about him being a deal-maker, about his ability to cut deals across the aisle. And now I think a lot of folks are sitting here very confused about why, thus far, he has not been able to cut a deal with members of his own party and get his own legislative agenda forward.
SNELL: One thing I hear from Democrats just kind of as I'm talking to them, you know, in broader strokes about what's happening in Washington is they feel like they want Biden to be more publicly taking ownership of this bill, taking ownership of these negotiations, being the figurehead of all of this because, essentially, they're saying, we have to pass his policies; we have to be agreeing on his policies because he's the president, and it's so much easier from a messaging standpoint and from talking to voters to say, we are enacting the - you know, the policies that helped this president get elected. And it's much harder when they're trying to say, well, we're fighting amongst ourselves and trying to satisfy one or two senators when, you know, that is a political reality, but the message is just so much harder to unify around.
KHALID: So why, I guess, is your sense that that's not happening? Because, you know, I keep hearing about the fight between progressives and moderates. And then I'm sitting here thinking, well, actually, this is the president's agenda, right? Like, that's not the messaging that you're sort of hearing at a national level from Democrats. And I'm sure Republicans are eager to paint this as Nancy Pelosi's agenda when in reality, it was and it remains President Biden's agenda. It's what he campaigned on.
WALSH: I mean, Democrats on the Hill repeatedly call it the "Build Back Better" agenda and link it to President Biden. And they know the stakes are really high, both for him but also more immediately for them. They are the ones that are facing the voters in the midterm elections in 2022. And I think we're at this period of time in the negotiations where, you know, they - they're - they feel like they're running out of time and they need to have some clarity in terms of where this final deal will land.
But as Kelsey was talking earlier about sort of the question before them - do they do all of their key priorities for a shorter amount of time in a scaled-back bill, or do they pick off a few and do them for the full amount and, in effect, sort of, like, double down on, like, these are our top priorities? And it's unclear to me if President Biden has put his thumb on the scale yet in that debate, and that's going to drive where they end up with this bill. And I think that people on the Hill are sort of looking to the president to say, like, can you help us out? Like, where is the leadership there?
KHALID: All right. Well, thank you both. This has been a really useful discussion. And, Kelsey, don't go too far away 'cause we'll have you back later in the show for Can't Let It Go.
SNELL: I will stay very nearby.
WALSH: Bye, guys.
KHALID: And it's time for a quick break. When we get back, the latest on the investigation into the attack on the Capitol.
And we're back. And I'm joined now by two different colleagues - Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department, and Claudia Grisales, who covers Congress. Hello to you both.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, there.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, there.
KHALID: So we're going to shift gears now and talk about the January 6 committee. Claudia, catch us up. The House is investigating the January 6 insurrection. They wanted certain aides to former President Donald Trump to appear before the committee and take questions. They wanted that to happen by yesterday, and it didn't. So what can we expect now?
GRISALES: Yes, there were four former Trump officials they wanted to see, right in front of the committee, testify. And none of those folks have shown up. Now, one of those, Steve Bannon - this is the longtime adviser to ex-President Trump - is now risking criminal contempt proceedings. So that's one thing we'll be watching. The others for now are seeing their testimony before this panel. These are from subpoenas that were issued weeks ago. Those are being postponed for some time now.
LUCAS: Claudia, what do they expect to gain from talking to these folks?
GRISALES: So these are officials that members of this committee, this House Select Committee, have said are key to their investigation to finding out what was building up in the days and weeks ahead of the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Now, three of these other officials - they are ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, former White House aide Dan Scavino and a former Defense Department official, Kash Patel. All of them were in key places for the administration, members say, and they want to hear their stories.
LUCAS: So I guess what they're trying to determine is to what extent there was preplanning or organization ahead of time by the president and folks within his circle that may have been around January 6 and what transpired. Is that right?
GRISALES: Exactly. They want to get a sense of what was in place, who was where. And this was happening in those final days and weeks of former President Trump's term. Why were they in these roles, and what was the expectation there? Why were they in these capacities, and what were the expectations in terms of what could come up on January 6?
KHALID: So, Claudia, what's the consequence for someone, say, like a Steve Bannon, who just refuses to appear before the committee?
GRISALES: So what we're looking at now is this committee. This House Select Committee will be meeting Tuesday to consider this contempt report, which they will send off to the House floor for a full vote. And from there, it will go to the U.S. attorney's office. So from there, the Justice Department will take the lead on whether to pursue this crime of contempt of Congress. And so ultimately, if this cycles through the Justice Department, he does face these charges and he's convicted, he could face potentially fines or jail time. And I'm told that something of this magnitude could move through the court system in a matter of months, maybe even by the time this committee wraps up its probe. This is going to be a very tricky position for the Justice Department, as I've been told, at least by one legal expert - this is Daniel Goldman, a former House impeachment lawyer. He said it's exceedingly rare for DOJ to take a case like this all the way to these contempt of Congress charges. It could involve the highest levels of the department.
DANIEL GOLDMAN: Ultimately, this is going to rest on the Department of Justice and whether they're willing to use their authority to enforce these subpoenas.
KHALID: And, Ryan, you do cover the Justice Department. Do you have any sense, any clarity on what the DOJ might do here?
LUCAS: Well, I asked the Justice Department today if they plan to pursue the case against Bannon if the House were indeed to refer it over. The department is declining to comment at this point, unsurprisingly. But, you know, as we heard Goldman say there, it is exceedingly rare for the department to pursue cases like this. But what's different in this instance is what transpired on January 6. It's - it was an unprecedented attack on Congress and on the democratic institutions of this country. And so it will be interesting to see what the attorney general, Merrick Garland, and the department that he leads decides to do in this case. Garland has certainly made - keeping the department out of politics, making sure that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis based on the facts. It's going to be very interesting to see how the department proceeds with this sort of thing if the House does indeed refer Bannon over.
KHALID: So, Ryan, there are the developments going on on Capitol Hill. But then there's this separate side of the story, which is what the Department of Justice is doing in terms of pursuing charges against some of the alleged insurrectionists. It's been a while since we've spoken about that. So how are those cases going?
LUCAS: Well, at this point, more than nine months since the attack on the Capitol, the Justice Department has charged more than 630 people. We actually reached a milestone of sorts this week with the hundredth guilty plea so far in this case. A lot of these guilty pleas have been for misdemeanors. A couple of them have been for felonies. We also have around a dozen people who have been sentenced so far. Some of them are getting prison time; some of them are just getting probation.
But this investigation is still ongoing. There are people who are still being arrested and indicted. In fact, a U.S. Capitol Police officer was indicted today for allegedly obstructing justice by telling someone who was at the Capitol to delete posts on their social media pages. So it is still very much an active investigation. And of course, we are still waiting for word on the pipe bombs that were placed on Capitol Hill on the eve of January 6. Those did not go off, but that's one of the big question marks, of course, that is still hanging over this investigation.
KHALID: All right. Well, thank you both. Ryan, we are going to let you go for now, but thanks again.
LUCAS: Thank you.
KHALID: And, Claudia, if you can stick with us because it is time for Can't Let It Go when we get back in just a minute.
And we're back, and we are joined once again by Kelsey Snell. Hey, there.
KHALID: Glad to have you back. And, Claudia, you are still with us, right? You didn't go anywhere?
GRISALES: I'm still here.
KHALID: All right.
GRISALES: I didn't go anywhere.
KHALID: (Laughter) It is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. That's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Kelsey, why don't you kick it off?
SNELL: I am here to admit something very sad. What I can't let go is that I keep killing plants.
SNELL: I am - I think I might be an indoor plant serial killer.
SNELL: You guys, I have killed multiple succulents.
KHALID: Oh, no.
SNELL: Like, I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I got an app. And I was like, OK, this app is going to tell me what's wrong. And it literally told me that something was already dead.
GRISALES: Oh, no.
KHALID: OK, I'll be brutally honest here, Kelsey. Like, how do you kill a succulent?
SNELL: You no - OK, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be killing the succulent.
KHALID: So are you overwatering it, perhaps? Like, are you giving it too much love?
SNELL: Maybe. I think I mostly ignore it. So no, I don't know (laughter).
SNELL: I have one theory. I have one theory, and that is one of my cats, I think, chews on the plants. And maybe, like, something about her chewing on it, like, ruined the plant.
GRISALES: Maybe you have the wrong suspect. I think the cat's the suspect. It's not you.
SNELL: So I'm not to blame.
KHALID: Well, you know what? I would say, like, does anything grow outdoors for you?
SNELL: Yeah. I'm - like, I can keep the things alive outdoors. It's the inside that is the problem. And I have, like - I have beautiful planters that I want to, you know, fill with beautiful plants. But in order to do that, I just have to keep buying new plants (laughter).
KHALID: Or fake flowers. I don't know if that's a thing. I feel like that was a big thing in the '80s and '90s, right? (Unintelligible) fake flowers.
GRISALES: They work. They work. They do the job.
SNELL: I'm going to be one of those people who has, like, a lot of dried flowers. Maybe that's my (laughter)...
SNELL: That's me (laughter).
KHALID: OK. I'm going to go next. My Can't Let It Go is not sad. I will just say it leaves you very confused about the state of the world.
GRISALES: Uh oh.
SNELL: OK. Let's do it.
KHALID: So I don't know if you all are big basketball fans.
KHALID: You know Kyrie Irving?
KHALID: I just say his name...
KHALID: ...And you know where I'm going.
GRISALES: I've been following. Oh, my goodness.
KHALID: So he, you know, obviously is a fantastic basketball player. But he made headlines a couple of years back for these rather controversial comments he made about not knowing whether the Earth is round or flat.
GRISALES: Oh, no.
KHALID: And, long story short, he basically said he just doesn't know.
GRISALES: Oh, no.
KHALID: And he seems to have later apologized and said, quote, "at the time, I was, like, huge into conspiracies, and everybody's been there." You know, I would say I don't think everybody's been there. But now just yesterday, it came out that he has chosen to remain unvaccinated, which means he cannot play for the Brooklyn Nets because there is...
SNELL: Has he - or has he said he will not reveal his vaccination status?
KHALID: That was the case, but he did do an Instagram - what do you call those things? Oh, my God. What is it called? Those Instagram...
KHALID: Stories, videos - yeah, where he posted on Instagram Live. And he basically did reveal that he is not vaccinated. And to my knowledge, I think he's the only member of the team who's not vaccinated. So I guess where I'm so confused here is, you know, every so often, you come across somebody as a member, I guess, like, of a minority community. It came out that...
KHALID: ...Kyrie Irving is Muslim. And I feel like everyone I knew who was Muslim when this news broke was like, yes, he's one of us. And now...
KHALID: ...All the Muslims I know are like, ooh, he's one of us.
KHALID: And I guess that just...
GRISALES: Oh, man.
KHALID: ...Has led to very many conflicted feelings about him as a basketball player.
GRISALES: Yeah, it's so insane. And I think at one point they were estimating he was going to lose $15.6 million...
SNELL: Oh, wow.
GRISALES: ...For skipping out on some of these games. I mean, he's paying millions of dollars to avoid this, basically. And wow, what a way to go. But yeah, I guess that's his story right now. That's amazing.
KHALID: Well, Claudia, what about you?
GRISALES: OK, so mine is more uplifting.
GRISALES: Thankfully, I have a more uplifting Can't Let It Go. And it came in. It was like a final, final-minute winner here. This morning we had a special co-host. Grover...
SNELL: Oh, yes.
GRISALES: ...Was on Morning Edition.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ERIC JACOBSON: (As Grover) This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I am lovable, furry old pal, Grover.
A MARTINEZ: I'm A Martinez.
STEVE INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Our co-host there is a Muppet from "Sesame Street."
GRISALES: Grover, like NPR, is celebrating a 50th anniversary.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JACOBSON: (As Grover) Oh, my goodness. Well, happy birthday to NPR.
GRISALES: But in Grover's case, this is for the classic children's book "The Monster At The End Of This Book." And it's a fabulous, classic children's book that basically breaks the wall to the reader, to children. And from what I understand, it's the first time it has happened with a children's book. This book was published in 1971, where Grover is speaking to the reader saying, don't go to the end of this book. There's a monster. Don't do it. He's building brick walls. He's doing whatever he can to convince the child reading, don't go there. And he warns us this morning - I'm sorry for our young listeners - spoiler alert, he's the monster.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JACOBSON: (As Grover) Oh, no. We are not talking about that book, are we? Just thinking about it gives me the shivers.
GRISALES: So it's a fabulous, fabulous visit with Grover this morning. I think we need to have him on regularly, though, because he was just too good.
SNELL: I love this idea.
KHALID: I love it. I love it.
SNELL: And it reminds me that I need to get this book. We do not have it in my house.
GRISALES: Oh, yes. Exactly. I know. I was like, oh, I should have gotten this. What - now my kids are teens, so I missed the window.
GRISALES: And I was like, I missed that book.
KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress
GRISALES: And I'm Claudia Grisales. I also cover Congress.
KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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