House Democrats Pass Biden's Social Programs Bill : The NPR Politics Podcast The two-trillion dollar package still needs to pass the Senate, where it is expected to undergo extensive changes. Also, a look at what issues are dominating campaigns in a central Virginia swing district.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, congressional producer Barbara Sprunt, and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

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House Democrats Pass Biden's Social Programs Bill

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JENNIFER WARREN: Hi. This is Jennifer Warren (ph) from Richmond, Va., where I just discovered that my new knee brace has the word Mueller written across it in big, bold letters. And I have thus decided to name it the Mueller support. This podcast was recorded at...


(Laughter) 1:06 p.m. on Friday, November 19.

WARREN: So things may have changed. However, my love for cheesy puns never, ever will. Enjoy the show.


DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: If she likes cheesy puns, I will just tell you, speaking of Mueller, I have been thinking about this investigation that Congress is having over January 6, and I've been calling it to friends and family Mueller lite.


KEITH: Oh, my gosh. That took me a second. Is that like is that Mueller High Life of beers? No. Wait. What? No. OK. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: House Democrats voted to approve a roughly $2 trillion social safety net and climate spending package. There was one Democratic defection, Jared Golden of Maine. Here is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been carrying this through.


NANCY PELOSI: We have a Build Back Better bill that is historic, transformative and larger than anything we have ever done before.

KEITH: This ends months of squabbling among House Democrats over the details of this far-reaching measure, but it still needs to clear the Senate and will probably change again. Kelsey, let's talk about what's in this proposal now, what passed. This is meant to fulfill many President Biden's promises during the 2020 campaign, right?

SNELL: Yeah, that's right. This includes about $550 billion in incentives for companies and individuals to take steps to address climate change. There is funding for universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds, and they say that will affect about 6 million kids. There's funding to make childcare more accessible and more affordable. And there is also what could be the largest investment in housing in a generation. Now, those are kind of the things that have more widespread agreement, but there are also some pretty divisive things when it comes to getting this bill through the Senate.

Senators are not entirely on board with plans to increase the cap on deductions for state and local taxes. They say that that change mostly benefits the wealthy. And there are concerns about some portions of this bill that are meant to address immigration. They're - you know, most Democrats admit that that probably can't get through the Senate parliamentarian. That wouldn't be allowed to be considered in this bill because they are trying to pass the bill using special budget rules, which would prevent legislation that doesn't have to do with the budget being attached.

And then there's a big one that is still going to be hotly debated in the Senate and that is paid family leave. This bill has four weeks of paid family and medical leave, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia does not want it in the bill.

KEITH: Yeah. But sort of remarkably, Democrats in the House, including many Democrats in difficult upcoming elections, which we'll talk about later in the pod, pretty much every single Democrat in the House supported this.


KEITH: One thing moderates had been holding out for was a Congressional Budget Office score - or how do we say that in English?

SNELL: We say we're holding out for details of exactly how much this bill would cost.

KEITH: So how much would this bill cost and how is it being paid for?


SNELL: Well, OK. So the final estimate from the nonpartisan scorekeepers - the Congressional Budget Office - says that it will add to the deficit. You know, the final total after you include money from IRS enforcement and tax collection is that the bill would add about $100 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years, though I will say Democrats I talked to will caution that, yes, this version of the bill would add about $100 billion to the deficit over 10 years. But some of the stuff that they expect the Senate to take out will reduce the price of it pretty dramatically.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and that's the issue here, right? I mean, moderates have been waiting for this CBO score to see how much it would cost. And when it goes to the Senate, we're talking about, of course, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. So will this move them at all considering what you know, some of the moderates in the House who had been holding out have seemed to have shifted on? I just wonder if this, you know, if this - these details have had anything that will move the Manchins and Sinemas?

KEITH: Yeah. I think when we were getting ready to tape this, you said something like wake me up when the Senate takes this up.

MONTANARO: Yeah. No, really. I mean, that's kind of, you know what - how I feel about this because we've seen months and months of negotiations. And while Democrats in the House have stopped sort of negotiating with themselves, now we're moving to the Senate. And we know that that is, you know, there's no done deals there. This is a big deal, right? It's a big deal that this bill passed. It's a big deal that the infrastructure law was signed into law this week.

But Democrats have shot themselves in the foot a little bit because of so much public negotiation. It really has undermined what really they should be touting as a huge victory, huge legislative accomplishment, a massive bill that will really reshape the social safety net or add to it in really very, very important ways that it doesn't look like they're going to be getting as much credit for it as maybe they could have if they did this after a month.

SNELL: One of the other things that I think about when I kind of try to put this vote into context for myself is that it tells us a lot about who the Democratic Party is right now. The fact that we only saw one Democrat in the House vote against this bill says that they have moved to a place where the party itself is as a whole, not just a majority, almost unanimously in favor of such an expansion of the social safety net of spending on this level of, you know, saying that the federal government has a role in things like child care, has a role in making a decision about education for small children, has a role in making changes to the way millionaires and billionaires are taxed. These are fundamental statements about who Democrats are.

And, you know, Domenico, I'm sure you have thoughts on this, but this is not what I would have expected to see from the Democratic Party five years ago, 10 years ago. This is a shift.

MONTANARO: Right. And, you know, for Republicans, I think there's a real warning sign here because, you know, while they are the overwhelming odds-on favorite to take back the House in 2022, we're seeing Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy already try to jockey for becoming speaker in some of his public statements, Republicans are more divided. And we saw that when John Boehner was speaker of the House, and it ultimately ran him out because they just couldn't get on the same page to get everything passed.

And look. Nancy Pelosi is approaching 80 years old. But when people look back on her legacy, she is someone who has been able to whip her caucus into shape to get big, big pieces of legislation passed. Anyone who doubted her ability to do that just comes away with egg on their face.

KEITH: So you mentioned Kevin McCarthy. This would be a good time to mention what he did last night all of last night.

SNELL: Yeah. McCarthy took to the floor at, like, 8:30 last night to start a speech. And so for some context, leaders in the House have the ability to have these things called magic minutes, where they are technically given a minute to speak and they can speak as long as they want. Well, he turned his minute into over eight hours.

MONTANARO: That is, like, the opposite of a New York minute.


KEITH: Is it? Is it a Bakersfield minute? I don't know.

SNELL: I mean, the core of this speech was, you know, at the very beginning, there were a lot of members on the floor. And it was a very heated, angry moment. I will say that this was one of the more vitriolic moments on the House floor that I've seen in a while. They were really, truly at each other's throats, screaming at each other, shouting over each other, booing each other. And he came to the floor and started talking about all of his opposition to this bill.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: Every page of this new Washington spendings shows just how irresponsible and out of touch the Democrats are to the challenges that America faces today.

SNELL: The core of what he was trying to do was show this powerful objection to a bill that he had no power to stop.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, the thing is when you watch McCarthy and you watch his increased vitriolic, you know, language, his rhetoric really kind of gone up to 11 here, and then you see him this morning talk about how - when he's asked - if, you know, Congress Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene or Congressman Paul Gosar, who was the very subject of this video that he put out that got him censured depicting violence against another member of Congress, you know, McCarthy said he's going to give them their committee seats back and maybe even have better assignments.

And what is that about? People ask me, what is he doing there? Look. This is about votes, him being able to become speaker, you know, because it is not a guarantee that McCarthy would become speaker. You know, remember; he went through this once before and wound up being passed over because he wasn't able to stay on message. And he is doing everything he possibly can to target every piece of that Republican coalition possible to put him in as speaker next year.

SNELL: You know, there are some dynamics here that the Republican Party, you know, are going to - they're going to have to confront at some point in time if they end up being the party who wins control of the House. And that, as Domenico points out, they have...

KEITH: They've mastered opposition.

SNELL: Right? They have really found a comfortable space in being opposed to things and to pushing back against Democrats to being, as Democrats say, the party of no. But that's working for Republicans. But that works particularly when you're not in the majority. If McCarthy becomes speaker, then they're going to have to kind of figure out what policies they do support. And that's not something we've heard from them a lot in the past few years. We haven't heard proactive policies that they would pass if they had control in government. And, you know, this upcoming election may be a way to figure out whether or not voters care.

KEITH: All right. Well, Domenico, we have to let you go.

MONTANARO: All right - back to the turkey stock, getting that gravy ready.

SNELL: Good luck cooking.

KEITH: Oh, get that - oh, I thought you were preparing for the turkey pardon later today.

MONTANARO: Oh. Oh. Do we have to talk about that? No, no more.

SNELL: Don't you hate that?

MONTANARO: You know my thoughts on that. It's a very dark history. Go look it up. I've written about it every year for the last 15 years.

KEITH: Go look it up. Go look it up.

SNELL: Go look it up. Domenico hates turkeys.

MONTANARO: I don't hate turkeys. This is...

KEITH: He loves turkeys. He just hates the pardon.

MONTANARO: I love eating turkeys, as they should be eaten.

KEITH: All right. Well...

MONTANARO: And that was the original intent of them.

KEITH: We're really saying goodbye to you now, Domenico. And when we get back...


KEITH: Goodbye. When we get back, what life looks like in one Virginia congressional district where a Democratic moderate hopes to hold on to her seat.

And we're back. And we're joined by Barbara Spunt, a member of our team who covers Congress. And you were out doing some reporting last week around the suburbs of Richmond, Va., mostly in the district of Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. Tell us about who she is and why you decided to go there.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Yeah. So this is an interesting district. Spanberger is a Democrat. She was first elected in 2018 by a narrow margin. She won reelection in 2020 by about 2 points, so also narrow. And her district is interesting because it includes the suburbs of Richmond, which has some, like, pretty blue pockets. And then it also extends to a lot more rural areas. And the county where I spent the most time last week was Chesterfield County, and that includes some of those Richmond suburbs. It's a diverse county in terms of demographics. It voted for Trump in 2016, and it flipped to Biden four years later. And now, most recently, it just voted for Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor. So we're seeing a lot of political shifts there.

KEITH: And so she is one of these more moderate Democrats who is trying to figure out how she's going to hang on to her seat.

SPRUNT: Yeah. I mean, and it's interesting because of - she voted for the Democrats' big social spending package, Build Back Better, and that includes a lot of things that Democrats are calling human infrastructure. And when I was there in Chesterfield, I went to an event for Tina Ramirez, and she's one of at least seven Republicans who are vying to run against Spanberger next year. And when I talk to people there, independents and Republicans, it became really apparent that there are parts of Build Back Better that they like.

I talked to people who like the child tax credit, who like universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds, but they say it's not enough to vote for a Democrat. And so here is Yael Levine (ph). She's an independent. She's voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past. But she's going to be voting Republican next year.

YAEL LEVINE: Tax credits are always a good thing, but if you lump it up with spending that's out of control, that's going to put my great-great-grandchildren in debt, then no, I'm going to be against it.

SPRUNT: So it's interesting. There's this crossover between people who are really set on voting Republican but do like aspects of the Democratic policies. And Levine said that the other thing that's really on her mind - and frankly, it was it was on everyone's mind when I was there - inflation and the economy.

SNELL: I mean, this is one of those major challenges for Democrats - right? - is that they, you know, that inflation is something that people feel viscerally. It is something that they feel every single day when they need to go to the store or to get gas. And these policies that Democrats are trying to get through Congress are just abstractions right now. They are abstractions that Republicans have labeled as expensive abstractions. So Democrats don't have a lot to work with when they're trying to convince people that they're, you know, doing something to help them.

KEITH: So in this gubernatorial election in Virginia, there was a lot of focus, particularly in the press, on so-called critical race theory. Is that something that you see motivating people in this district?

SPRUNT: Yes. Yes. This was ever-present in every conversation I had with voters. And, you know, it's important - we've talked about this on the podcast before, critical race theory, what it is and what it isn't. So it is a graduate-level academic approach that looks at institutions through the lens of race and racism. But as you said, it's gotten a lot of attention this year because the messaging around it from the right is turning it into much more of a culture war issue.

And it's led to a lot of debate, particularly in Virginia, with this last election about, you know, whether the existence of racism and race should be taught in school, what kind of books should be taught in school. It's led to all of these sort of spin-off discussions that parents have sort of all lumped into, you know, the broad, broad umbrella turn of, like, I'm concerned with education and I'm concerned with school. And so, yes, every person I talked to - Republican, independent, Democrat, albeit with different views on this - this was the first thing that they told me.

SNELL: You know, what's interesting about this is, you know, education is not something that members of Congress have any real particular role in. You know, curriculum is not something that is handled by the Congress, but it is something that is being pulled into these conversations as people are trying to form their opinions about parties as a whole.

KEITH: Yeah, right. It's not really a national politics issue. It is a local issue. And to some extent, you know, governors and state legislatures might have a say in curriculum. But if it works, it works.

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: If it motivates voters, then it motivates voters. And those sort of details may not be that important.

SNELL: I mean, this happens a lot with culture wars things, right? Like, this is not an unfamiliar way for this to go. But it is interesting because we often talk about how all politics is local and that, you know, Democrats and Republicans have - always go out and say that they're going to run their races locally. They're not going to make it a national race, right?

KEITH: And then they never do.

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: They all run from the same playbook.

SPRUNT: But this is the inversion of that - right? - is, like, taking the things that are actually local issues and making them national issues for members to run. And Republicans have done that a lot with culture war issues.

KEITH: So Barbara, you talked to a lot of voters. What else did you hear?

SPRUNT: Well, so I mean, I mentioned that, you know, Democrats were also talking about critical race theory, although in a different, you know, on a different side of it. And they told me, like, look, we're really excited about the national agenda that Democrats are setting. We love this infrastructure bill that passed, the Build Back Better spending package, which, as we know, the House passed this morning.

But they said they are let down by Democrats' messaging and that wherever Democrats have made real gains for people or want to make, you know, tangible gains for folks, like the child tax credit or like universal pre-K, they're not championing it enough. They're not sort of, like, hammering that message home into a repeated talking point, frankly, the way that, like, Republican messaging is really strong in that sense.

And on the critical race theory front, they're saying that, you know, Democrats need a broader, more cohesive message on that issue. And so one person I spoke with is Laura Vizdos (ph). She's in Henrico County, which is one of the bluer suburban areas, and she had some thoughts about this.

LAURA VIZDOS: The Republicans are really good at ginning up fear and anxiety. And as mothers - I'm going to make a huge generalization here - anxiety is our state of being. It just is. You're terrified for your kids about everything. It's totally easy to campaign on fear.

SPRUNT: And so her point was this culture war issue is not going to go away just because Democrats refuse to participate, and there needs to be some sort of broader, more cohesive messaging on that front.

KEITH: So how worried is Spanberger? I don't know. Like, is this - you know, she's one of these moderate Democrats who just voted for this big Build Back Better plan that isn't - you know, hasn't passed the Senate yet, but it's made it through the House. Does she see that as her path to reelection?

SPRUNT: So I spoke with her this week about this before the vote. But she said that, you know, it's up to Democrats, herself included, to really speak to constituents on a consistent basis about what Democrats are delivering for them. And so that will include aspects of Build Back Better. It will include conversations about infrastructure like, hey; this bridge - that was me. That was not my opponent. Like, this was me. And she said, you know, the messaging, the national messaging from Democrats, has to be more targeted. And when I asked her, you know - well, what would you say, you know, on a debate stage with your opponent, you know, when it comes to the agenda?

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: The American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill, like, what that has delivered to Virginia and specifically Virginia's 7th District, what that will deliver to Virginia's 7th District - like, would you have voted for it?

SPRUNT: And, you know, ultimately, she hopes that that's the kind of thing that people will care about when they finally cast their vote next year.

SNELL: You know, one of the things I hear from Democrats a lot lately is that they think they have time to kind of - to drive home some of those messages, to hone those messages around a bill that actually gets passed. It's hard to know if that's real, if they're able to move quickly enough, if they're able to get these policies actually working in a way that people can feel them. And that's going to be a really big test for them over the next couple of weeks and months is whether or not they can, A, pass a bill and then, B, get the programs rolling out in a way that gives Democrats something to kind of hang that argument on.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it's time to end the show, like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the pod where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. And I'm going to go first.

SNELL: All right.

KEITH: We have officially semi sort of had our first female president.

SPRUNT: Yes, that's right.


KEITH: I mean, OK. So the authority was temporarily delegated. The presidential - under the 25th Amendment, the presidential authority was temporarily delegated to Vice President Kamala Harris while President Biden underwent a physical and got a colonoscopy. And he decided to go to sleep for it, which I don't blame him.

SNELL: Support that.

KEITH: Absolutely support it, also support routine health exams. And we don't yet have the results of his full physical. I think he's not even back at the White House yet. But it was short-lived. Kamala Harris was the first Asian American and the first woman to hold that role, the first African American woman to hold this role - lots of firsts. And then a few hours later, at 11:35 a.m., the president spoke with the vice president and chief of staff Ron Klain, said, I'm feeling fine now, sent a letter to the speaker. And Kamala Harris' brief time as delegated president was over.

SPRUNT: Not the point, but I did find it kind of funny that the president was having a colonoscopy while the House was voting on his major piece of legislation.


KEITH: And also, I don't know that I would want to be pardoning a turkey the same day that I got a colonoscopy.

SPRUNT: (Laughter).

SNELL: Oh. Yikes.

KEITH: I don't know.

SNELL: Yeah, no, no, not at all.

SPRUNT: I mean, the presidency has many tasks - right? - and many responsibilities.

KEITH: (Laughter) Some more important than the other. I was thinking maybe he was trying to get out of having to do the turkey pardon, but he has got the reins back.


KEITH: Barbara, what can't you let go of?

SPRUNT: So my Can't Let It Go this week has to do with a TV moment that went viral. So do you guys know the Netflix show "You"?


SPRUNT: OK. It's very popular. It's one of the top drama shows on Netflix. So the other day on Laura Ingraham's show, there was an exchange between her and her guest, and he brought up the show "You." And it seemed to lead to this massive misunderstanding very reminiscent of the who's-on-first bit.

KEITH: Oh, no.


RAYMOND ARROYO: You know, I was watching an episode of "You" where measles came up.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Wait. Wait. Wait. When did I mention measles?

ARROYO: I don't know. It was on "You."

INGRAHAM: What was on me? What are you talking about? Is Raymond even hearing what I'm saying?

ARROYO: The vaccine episode...

INGRAHAM: I never had the measles.

ARROYO: ...Was on "You."

INGRAHAM: We never did a...

SNELL: At no point was he like, oh, maybe she has not seen this Netflix show for young people.

SPRUNT: It was so clear. Like, he came across so exasperated. You know, it was this whole thing. But then, like, cut to a couple days later. What's even funnier now, in some ways, is that now that this has aired, the two of them have said that, in fact, this was staged, something they had, like, practiced. And...

KEITH: What?

SPRUNT: Now people are like, was it? Was it not?

SNELL: Does she just want to sound with it? Like...

KEITH: Well, like, that could have been me. Like, you could have just done this whole bit, and I would not have known because I don't know what "You" is.

SPRUNT: Tam, I wouldn't do you like that.

KEITH: (Laughter).

SNELL: Oh, my gosh.

KEITH: Kelsey, what can't you let go of?

SNELL: All right. My Can't Let It Go is Ciara at the White House. So do you guys know who Ciara is?

SPRUNT: Oh, yeah.

KEITH: Apparently, I am completely and totally out of all popular culture of any kind. Do you have anything about "Star Wars" you'd like to say?

SNELL: Oh. So...


SNELL: So Ciara, who is, for if you don't know - is - I guess she's, like, more a pop R&B singer. She had a huge hit called "1, 2 Step."

SPRUNT: (Singing) One, two step.

SNELL: I'm sure you have heard "1, 2 Step."


CIARA: (Singing) Let me see you one, two step. I love it when you one, two step. Everybody one, two step.


SNELL: (Laughter).

SPRUNT: She is the queen of one of my favorite workout songs of all time called "Level Up," which I will argue should be on every workout playlist ever.

SNELL: Co-signed, co-signed.

SPRUNT: She was at the White House.

SNELL: Yes. She was at the White House to promote childhood vaccines, childhood COVID-19 vaccines. And she had this moment in the press briefing room where she is trying to have this serious talk about getting your kids vaccinated. And her little 16-month-old goes crawling up onto the dais...

SPRUNT: Oh, my gosh (laughter).

SNELL: ...And starts pulling at her very gorgeous outfit. And it's a fun and wonderful moment, and also, Ciara's just great.

KEITH: I love when kids totally interrupt very serious things because if you can't love it - you have to live with it, so you might as well love it.

SPRUNT: Exactly (laughter). You know, this is also a possibility for me to endorse us returning to our workout playlists.

SNELL: Oh, yeah. Well, Tam, didn't you post the other day in our, like, Washington desk Slack channel about a plank challenge or something for Thanksgiving? So maybe this will help with that.

KEITH: Yes. We - some of us - not either of you - signed up...


KEITH: ...Because the silence...


KEITH: ...Was deafening.


KEITH: But yes. In fact, some people on our politics desk are now doing the Planksgiving (ph) challenge, as introduced to us by one of our listeners in a timestamp earlier this month.

SPRUNT: It all...

KEITH: So we're doing it.

SPRUNT: ...Comes full circle. Yeah.

KEITH: You guys, it's not too late to join.

SPRUNT: I think it's so too late for me.


KEITH: All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, and an early happy Planksgiving to you all.


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