What's Standing Between House Democrats And A Vote To Pass Biden's Agenda? : The NPR Politics Podcast It is not clear whether Democrats in the House of Representatives will vote today on the two major legislative packages that represent the core of President Biden's agenda, continuing months of uncertainty. And the economy added a fair number of jobs last month, but the recovery remains uneven across industries and demographic groups.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and chief economics correspondent Scott Horlsey.

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What's Standing Between House Democrats And A Vote To Pass Biden's Agenda?

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ZACHARY: Hi. I'm Zachary (ph) from Salt Lake City, Utah. And I'm 8 years old.

CAMERON: And I'm Cameron (ph). And I just turned 5.

ZACHARY: We're so excited. We just got our COVID vaccines.

CAMERON: (Unintelligible).

ZACHARY: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:08 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, November 5.

ZACHARY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. We're off to get ice cream now.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Aw.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I bet that's some very tasty ice cream, particularly for their parents.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

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

KHALID: So we were all expecting to see some votes in Congress today on some of the president's big infrastructure and economic proposals. It does not look as of now like those votes are coming together. But, Kelsey, it does feel like Democrats get, you know, halfway close to passing Biden's trillion-plus-dollar agenda almost every week, and then it never seems to manage to reach the finish line. We're going to talk more about that in just a minute, but let's begin with some of the policy, because it does seem like we have a clearer sense of what is actually in at least one of these bills, the Democratic reconciliation bill. Is that right?

SNELL: Well, that's right. And, you know, we're lucky that we have timestamps on this podcast because, you know, things in the situation really might change before the end of the day today. Democrats are really working hard to try to get this bill - we sometimes hear it talked about as Biden's social spending package. Sometimes we talk about it as Build Back Better. But what it is is about $1.5 to $1.75 trillion in spending on everything from universal pre-K and, you know, assistance for child care to climate change and housing. It is a really big, big bill.

So just to kind of give an overview of some of the major things that we talk about when we're talking about this bill, it's got about $550 billion to address climate change. There is money to extend the expanded child tax credit. That's the monthly payment that most families are getting right now, extending that for another year. There's money in there to pay for four weeks of paid family and medical leave, universal pre-K for children 3 and 4 years old all across the country.

It's a huge bill. There are also measures in there to address housing affordability and housing shortages. We've talked about this in the past as a bill that's been scaled back from Biden's original ambitions, but it is really still huge - $1.75 trillion is an enormous amount of money, and it is largely focused on social spending that we haven't seen on this scale really since the New Deal.

KHALID: So, Kelsey, you've outlined a lot about what's in this bill, but presumably lawmakers in the House did have to decide to throw some things out. So what did they decide to leave out?

SNELL: Well, one of the things that we're running into right now is a fight over whether or not some of these things I already mentioned should be left out. So they are still trying to figure out a path forward on paid family and medical leave. That is something that House Democrats included in this bill, but it may end up getting stripped out once the bill moves over to the Senate. In fact, it very likely will, because Senator Joe Manchin really still has a lot of objections to including it in a partisan bill. He says he wants to deal with it, if at all, on a bipartisan basis.

There is also disagreement about what to do about changes to the immigration laws. And it's not clear to me now that any changes to immigration can even pass the Senate rules for a budget reconciliation bill, which require it to be, you know, any measure to be primarily related to the budget. So, you know, this is - as much as it is a bill that they have been fighting about for weeks in the House just to get it over the finish line, it is ultimately just the first step in a really long process.

RASCOE: And, Kelsey, like, is that part of the issue that - because it seems like things are a bit held up in the House right now. Is the concern from Democrats that they pass this bill and then they don't know what's going to happen in the Senate?

SNELL: A little bit of that and a little bit that they, you know, the elections earlier this week, particularly in Virginia and New Jersey, have some centrist House Democrats really shaken. They are worried about voting on a bill before they get the full score from, you know, the budgetary scorekeepers, the nonpartisan scorekeepers in Congress. That's the Congressional Budget Office.

They want to see exactly how all of this spending breaks down and how it compares to the new tax changes that they would expect to pay for it. You know, they don't want to go into a vote and say that, you know, they voted for a spending bill that they didn't know how it would directly affect the economy and they don't know how to talk about it to their constituents. Whether or not this becomes the final bill, they want some certainty about anything that they sign their name on to.

KHALID: That does feel a bit wonky. I mean, when are - when is that analysis from the Congressional Budget Office actually expected?

SNELL: We're not totally certain. I mean, it could take weeks. I have talked to some budget experts who say that because there are so many new policies in here, it takes a long time to try to figure out what the economic effects would be. It's one thing when the Congressional Budget Office is asked to estimate the cost of a policy that already exists, just extending it or making a small change to it, a new iteration of something that already exists. But it's an entirely different question to ask them to do full economic modelling on how a brand-new policy would work and how it would potentially impact the economy over a decade.

RASCOE: I mean, so is something going to pass today? Like, are they going to get something done? Because I know you have your crystal ball.

KHALID: I mean, Nancy Pelosi seemed to suggest last night that it was supposed to happen, right?

SNELL: Well, it has been supposed to happen so many times now that I have thrown away my crystal ball, and I just throw my hands up in the air and say we'll just keep asking questions and seeing where things go because attempting to predict whether or not this will pass today has taken up so much energy and brain space, it's been almost futile so far. So we will keep asking those questions, but I don't know.

RASCOE: But someone who definitely does want this to pass today and feels like these two bills should have been passed already is President Joe Biden. He did talk today about about the job numbers. But he also talked about how he feels like the economy is recovering, but to really turbo charge the economy, he says that the - that Congress needs to pass these two bills.

SNELL: Well, yeah. I mean, this is so much of what Biden ran on. I mean, the the whole concept - and you guys were there through this entire thing - was he was talking about repairing parts of the economy, parts of the American social structure that were already not working equitably before the pandemic and then the pandemic exposed it. This is what Democrats said that they were going to attempt to address.

A lot of that is in this bill. That's what they say that they're trying to do with this bill. And if they can't move forward on it, it speaks to, you know, the, you know, the way that Biden can work with Congress, the way Democrats can govern, whether or not they can deliver on promises, whether or not their vision for the country actually unites their own party. There are a lot of things on the line here for Biden in particular. And it doesn't always - you know, the size of his coalition and the wide range of political views within the Democratic Party makes it really difficult to follow through on a lot of those promises.

KHALID: You know, Kelsey, you mentioned Virginia and New Jersey earlier and the hesitation that some moderates have in voting possibly for such large spending packages. But on the flip side, there are, you know, more liberal members of the House who feel like perhaps the way to interpret some of the more abysmal election results that Democrats saw this past week is because of the fact that Democrats have not passed anything. I mean, their argument is, you know, give voters something to vote for and give them a sense that you've actually accomplished what you set out to do. And I'm curious how that's playing out in the House.

SNELL: That is playing out every single day in conversations with members that I have. I mean, this was to some degree, predictable, right? Because Biden put together a coalition of, you know, having people who were, you know, former Republicans who felt that they were turned off by the Republican Party under Trump and people who were big Bernie Sanders supporters. They all came together to elect Joe Biden to the presidency. And now they are attempting to govern together as one single party with very different ideas about how to approach, you know, very similar frustrations and fears and problems that they see in the world.

RASCOE: And it does seem that everyone from the election took the lesson that they - that was like in line with their worldview. So the progressives say we should have went win bigger, and the moderates say, see, this shows we should have went smaller. And it just seems like everyone took the lesson that they wanted to take.

KHALID: So, Kelsey, both the Senate and the House are out next week. That's my understanding. So what happens now? What happens after today?

SNELL: Well, if the House is able to pass this, the hope among Democrats was that they could spend next week going through the - or at least starting to go through the very complicated process of bringing this bill to the Senate parliamentarian to make sure that it meets the basic rules for budget reconciliation. And that process can take a long time. So I think the hope for a lot of Democrats was that they could start that while the Senate isn't in session and then kind of speed things along when they get back.

KHALID: All right. Well, thanks as always, Kelsey. And don't go too far away because you're going to come back in a bit for Can't Let It Go.

SNELL: I am sticking very close by.

KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, we'll talk about jobs and inflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: And we're back. And we are joined now by NPR's chief economics correspondent, Scott Horsley. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

KHALID: And we're glad to have you back to talk about the economy, jobs, inflation, all of it. Let's start with job data. We got new numbers this week, and they were, you know, objectively good. It looks like things are beginning to turn around more solidly.

HORSLEY: Absolutely. Seemed like the last few times I've been on the podcast has been with sort of downbeat news, but the October jobs numbers were very encouraging after a pretty sharp slowdown in job growth in August and September. We saw a hefty job gains of 531,000 new jobs added in the month of October. We also actually got revised numbers for August and September. And while there was still a slowdown, it wasn't as bad as first reported. So all of that is encouraging about the state of the labor market in the U.S.

RASCOE: So we always talk about how the unemployment rate for Black Americans is higher.

HORSLEY: Yeah. It's unfortunate that we continue to see this gap between the African American unemployment rate and the overall rate, and that didn't change in October. The overall unemployment rate did come down a little bit to 4.6%, and there was a particularly sharp drop in the unemployment rate for Latinos. That may be tied to the fact that we saw a big jump in jobs in bars and restaurants in October. That's an industry that has really been a barometer throughout the pandemic in both good times and bad, and October was a pretty good month. You can draw a pretty straight line from the drop in new coronavirus infections as the delta wave kind of receded and the improving jobs numbers throughout the economy.

KHALID: You know, I want to ask you more about that correlation because just this week we got additional information from the administration about these vaccine mandates that are going to go into effect at the beginning of next year - in January of next year. And I am curious, Scott, do you see the fact that these mandates are coming down the line and people know if they want to keep their jobs in certain sectors, they need to get a shot, is there any indication that, you know, that presumably the economy will quickly see, you know, a rebound or an additional just change come January?

HORSLEY: Well, I think we can see very clearly in the numbers that as coronavirus cases infections rose in the late summer and early fall, the job market and the overall economy took a big hit. We saw a sharp slowdown in job growth. We also saw a sharp slowdown in economic growth with the rise of the delta variant. And as the health outlook has improved, both economic indicators like restaurant reservations and airport traffic numbers and the jobs numbers that we now have for October have also improved. So there's no question that the economy does better when COVID is more under control, and this is something the president talked about at the White House today. He - his administration has really put a premium on increasing the vaccine rate in this country in a number of ways, and the new OSHA requirement and the requirement for health care workers that you talk about is just part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That's good for our health, but it's also good for our economy. Now vaccinated workers are going back to work. Vaccinated shoppers are going back to stores. And with the launch of the vaccine for kids ages 5 through 11 this week, we can make sure more vaccinated children can stay in school.

HORSLEY: We've also seen some companies, even before the government required big employers to make sure their employees are vaccinated or tested every week, there were some companies doing that on their own. Tyson Foods is one example. United Airlines is another. And what we have seen is while there is some pretty vocal grumbling when those requirements first get rolled out, in the end, most workers do, in fact, get vaccinated. And some of those companies have seen significant increases in their vaccination rates as a result of those requirements. You know, for a long time this spring, both the government and employers relied on carrots and various incentives to get people vaccinated. Some people, though, it apparently takes a stick.

RASCOE: One other thing that Biden mentioned this morning was he talked about rising prices for families and wanting to do something about that. I mean, the Federal Reserve is looking at inflation and how it's affecting families. How are they trying to deal with this? Because it seems like on the one hand, you have an economy that is not completely recovered. On the other hand, there's this concern about, you know, rising prices. So how do - how are they balancing that?

HORSLEY: Yeah. It's a real - it is a balancing act for the Federal Reserve, which has, you know, competing goals or sometimes competing goals, which is, one, maximum employment and the other, stable prices. And right now, there does seem to be some tension between those two goals. The Fed is really putting its emphasis on maximum employment. It's keeping an eye on rising prices, but it's trying not to overreact to rising prices because the way it would typically try to rein that in would be to raise interest rates. And when you raise interest rates, it tends to slow job growth.

And right now, we're still more than 4 million jobs short of where we were when the pandemic hit. So for now, the Fed is really emphasizing maximum employment. It's monitoring these high prices, but it's not using its big weapon to go after those high prices by raising interest rates. It wants to be very patient about doing that and let the job market continue to heal.

KHALID: Scott, I want you to help us understand just how large of a problem inflation is. I mean, can you help us contextualize where we are at this point historically? And, you know, we've often heard administration officials and the Fed refer to all of this as transitory, which I think in the minds of many people means short term. But it seems like that's not what the Fed is saying.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell talked about that this week. He said, in this case, transitory does not mean short lived, although how long lived this high inflation is, it kind of keeps getting stretched out. It's no - there's no question that the various supply chain bottlenecks that are contributing to inflation and the high prices themselves have been longer lasting than a lot of forecasters thought. And the Fed now thinks we're going to have some of these bottlenecks and high prices well into next year. But Powell says what he means by transitory is that it's not permanent. It's not going to go on forever. It's going to go on perhaps longer than people thought, but there will come an end.

And that's - the assumption there is that most of these inflationary pressures are still basically tied to the pandemic. And, of course, the pandemic is still with us. And until we really put the pandemic behind us, we're going to have some of those supply chain bottlenecks and some of the resulting high prices. What would really be worrisome for the Fed is if it looked as if we'd gotten into some sort of wage price spiral where people were demanding higher wages in order to keep up with high prices, and then in order to pay those higher wages, businesses were having to raise prices, and it just kept ratcheting up one after another.

That's kind of what happened back in the 1970s, when we got, you know, runaway inflation that stretched into the double digits. The Fed is on the lookout for that, but it doesn't see that happening just yet. We are seeing wages going up. We are seeing prices going up. But the Fed still thinks both of those are pretty much tied to the sort of temporary circumstances surrounding the pandemic and that both wage pressures and price pressures will ease as we get into 2022 and hopefully the pandemic recedes.

KHALID: Well, that was a little dense, but obviously all incredibly important. And, Scott, thank you very much for joining us, as always.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you with some good news for a change.

KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, it is time for your favorite part of the show, Can't Let It Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: And we're back. And Kelsey Snell has rejoined the show. Great to have you back.

SNELL: I am very excited.

KHALID: It is time now 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. Ayesha, why don't you kick things off?

RASCOE: Yeah. So I - what I can't let go of this week - we have our awesome colleague, Scott Detrow. He was out working hard overseas over the past week and into earlier this week. And while he was in Glasgow, he was in the motorcade. And he saw a particular site that he noted in the pool report, which is this thing - this email that goes out to lots and lots of people. And what he saw was a large naked man standing in the front window of his house as the motorcade passed by. And I guess he was just trying to take some pictures of the presidential motorcade. And maybe he didn't know he was flashing everybody.

SNELL: I mean, he didn't know he was naked?

RASCOE: Well, look. Maybe he...

KHALID: There's a lot of unanswered questions.

RASCOE: Maybe he didn't know that everyone could see him and...

SNELL: That windows are see-through?

RASCOE: Look. Or maybe he felt like he was in his own house, and he was comfortable, and y'all should mind y'all business. He just wanted to take a picture. So - but this wasn't - this turned into an international incident. And, you know, it got picked up by lots of papers and, you know...

KHALID: you know, tabloids galore. I know. I saw...

RASCOE: It was everywhere.

KHALID: ...So much fame in the tabloids there. So question. Do you all think that he was trying to take a picture of the president out of excitement, or was he, like, making a statement by his choice of lack of attire?

KHALID: (Laughter) It could be a bit of both. I think, to me, it seems like most likely what he was doing was like, oh, look at all these cars passing by. This is new. And then, you know, you run to the thing, and you're in your birthday suit. And, like, you don't think - I feel like maybe he didn't think everyone could see him, or he maybe wanted everyone to see him, you know, 'cause he's proud of himself.

RASCOE: Well, eagle-eyed Scott Detrow saw him, so...

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Well, all right. I am going to go next this week. You know, we were talking about elections in Virginia and New Jersey. There were elections in a lot of other places. And there is a race that caught my eye, in part because I was a former resident of the great state of Massachusetts. And in Boston, there's a woman who won the race for mayor. Her name is Michelle Wu. Y'all might have heard of her. I don't know if her name was mentioned too much in national headlines. She's Asian American.

And the reason I found her story so interesting is, you know, I used to live in Boston. I covered the former mayoral race. The former mayor is Marty Walsh, who's now part of Joe Biden's Cabinet. And Boston is one of these places that has a reputation when you talk about race. Some may say it is a deserved reputation. Bostonians may disagree a bit.

But in any case, Boston has never had anyone but white men as mayors for its 200-plus-year history. It's, you know, one of the oldest cities in this country. But she won, and she won rather convincingly in a city that has never had somebody like her. They've never had a woman as mayor. They've never had a non-white person.

RASCOE: That's what I was going to say. They've never had a woman. Yeah.

SNELL: It's a lot of ground to be breaking. And that's - yeah, that's really amazing.

RASCOE: Especially in 2021. Why do you think it had only been, like, white men before this?

SNELL: Yeah.

KHALID: I feel like there's a - that's a whole deep conversation.

RASCOE: Oh, that's a deep conversation. OK. Let's not go there.

KHALID: Have you all spent much time in Boston? I mean, Boston is this place that just has like - it has a reputation when you talk about race, and some of it, some people feel, is deserved. I'm sure you all have heard these stories about kids getting bussed and, you know, it's not New York or Chicago. Look. I love Boston, but it is, as many people of color would say, over the years, it has not been a particularly hospitable place. And I think there are aspects of that reputation that are valid and true. And it's taken a long time for the city to move past, I think, some of those really rocky moments in its racial past. I'm not saying it's there yet, either, but there is a lot there.

SNELL: Well, guys, mine is an extreme left turn. While I often will do a Can't Let It Go about animals, this is a little bit of a departure even from that.

KHALID: OK.

SNELL: I missed this video when it first went viral, but I saw a headline that Popeyes has terminated a franchise agreement with a D.C. restaurant after a viral rat video. And I'm like, all right, I'll click on this. It is astounding.

RASCOE: It's a lot.

SNELL: It is - oh. This man walks into the Popeye's, turns on the light, and the rats go running up the wall.

RASCOE: There were like 50 rats.

SNELL: Oh, man. There are so many rats.

RASCOE: And he was like delivering the chicken. He said he delivered the chicken because he was able - the store was close. He opened it, and then the rats went running. Here's my thought on this. I bet the chicken in that Popeyes, I bet it tasted real good. I bet that food was (laughter)...

RASCOE: Well, no, because this story, this story says they shut down the restaurant, not because of the rats, because they found raw chicken and other potentially hazardous foods were stored at improper temperatures.

KHALID: Guys, oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.

SNELL: So maybe that food was not so good.

RASCOE: No. I bet that food was delicious. Here's my rule of thumb - and not the rats. I wouldn't go to a place after I've seen the rats. But sometimes the dirtier the establishment look, the better the food. Like, the food just be delicious (laughter).

SNELL: Yes. I - and the other thing is it's...

RASCOE: But rats is too far. Rats is too far. Rats is too far.

SNELL: I still love Popeye's. I still love Popeye's, but definitely not that Popeye's.

RASCOE: Not that Popeye's. Not - don't love that chicken from Popeye's.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry, though today is a bittersweet episode because it is Shirley's last day on the podcast. She's leaving our Washington team here at NPR, taking on a new job at the network. We will all, of course, miss her more than she can imagine. Shirley, for you all listening, I just want you to know, is the voice of reason on our team. You know, she is the one who reminds us, as I say, to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. She pushes us to be better, fairer and smarter. And so, Shirley, we will all miss you so much.

SNELL: We're also very excited that she's not going too far.

RASCOE: Yeah. She'll still be with NPR, but another job. But we will miss her desperately.

KHALID: 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.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

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

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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