JAMES: Hi. This is James (ph). A few weeks ago, you may have heard timestamp for me about putting in over 200 applications to work on the Hill. Well, I'm happy to say that I'm about to begin my three-day drive to Washington, D.C. to start my new job as a press secretary for a member of Congress.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
JAMES: This podcast was recorded at...
KEITH: 12:22 p.m. on Friday, the 10 of December.
JAMES: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will be living my dream working on the Hill. All right. Here's the show.
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KEITH: That is so awesome.
JOHNSON: Yeah. It's good to hear a listener getting a nice job.
KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department
KEITH: And the Supreme Court is allowing a lawsuit challenging Texas's six-week abortion ban to go forward, but the justices kept the law in place while the suit moves through the courts. This is the law that we've talked about many times on this podcast before that bans most abortions in the state of Texas after about six weeks, well before many people even know that they're pregnant. The law sparked severe backlash when it went into effect in September. And joining us now to talk about the latest news is Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin. Thanks for being back with us.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
KEITH: So, Carrie, I want to start with you. What did the court decide here?
JOHNSON: Remember, the kind of ingenious thing about this Texas law was that it basically let private citizens sue other private citizens for what it called aiding and abetting people seeking abortions. So it wasn't like the state going after some of these people who are either abortion providers or Uber or Lyft drivers or others. It was private citizens being able to sue and collect $10,000 or more in damages against these folks. And what the Supreme Court did today was, A, it threw out the lawsuit that Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department tried to pursue against this law and a number of officials in the state over this law. It just dismissed that. And it kept alive for now the separate lawsuit that abortion providers, in particular one called Whole Woman's Health, had tried to level against some of the people in the state.
Here's what happened. It's a relatively narrow ability for this Whole Woman's Health organization to continue the suit. The court majority is not allowing the abortion provider to sue state court judges or state court clerks or the state attorney general in Texas, Ken Paxton. Instead, the only people that can be sued over this law are licensing officials. That means people at the health department, the medical board, the nursing board, the pharmacy board.
And for now, the Supreme Court will not block this law from taking effect. Of course, it's been in effect for over a hundred days now. And, of course, some of the advocates for these abortion providers say it's not at all clear that they're not going to face more of these so-called vigilante or bounty hunter-type cases. In other words, they could still be on the hook for huge financial penalties under this law, Texas Senate Bill 8.
KEITH: Yeah. So just to be clear, the justices in this case, as you say, this was pretty narrow. They didn't weigh in on the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade or make any kind of judgment about the right to an abortion. Is that right?
JOHNSON: They did not weigh in on that long-standing precedent from 1973. But a number of the dissenters, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor and others, pointed out that this Texas law clearly chills the constitutionally protected right to an abortion from Roe v. Wade and a later case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And the court majority's refusal to block this law from taking effect in the first place and to block it again today, it really casts a chilling effect on that right.
KEITH: Actually, I want to turn to you. This certainly did not overturn the Texas law, but maybe it's setting the stage for that to happen at a lower court. What are you hearing from local abortion providers? Are they happy with this decision or are they disappointed?
LOPEZ: Well, you know, obviously it's a win for abortion providers that they're allowed to fight the constitutionality of the law now in court. But it's a mixed bag because, you know, they feel like - this has been a very frustrating process on the one hand, because Texas has been able to keep this law in effect simply because, you know, Republicans in the legislature and anti-abortion groups found this weird kind of work around the courts. And then, on the other hand, they're also disappointed that the Biden administration's request to have the law stopped in the meantime was dismissed. Texas has been allowed basically, as Carrie was saying, to have different abortion rights than the rest of the country. This has been a really frustrating time for abortion providers and, at least for the near future, this is staying in effect.
KEITH: And what about anti-abortion activists and those who supported this law, how are they feeling about this decision?
LOPEZ: Texas Right to Life actually weighed in this morning, and they said, you know, for every day that this law is in effect, they see this as saving a hundred potential lives, a hundred unborn children. For them, this was the whole point. They were hoping a law would go into effect that couldn't be stopped by the courts, which is usually what happens when an unconstitutional abortion ban goes into effect, something that flies in the face of Roe v. Wade. So for them, this is a huge victory. And the fact that it gets to stay in effect is an up-and-down win for them.
KEITH: You've been reporting on this for months now in Texas. What has the experience been for patients seeking abortions since this law went into effect?
LOPEZ: Well, it's been a really tough place for people who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and are seeking an abortion. A recent study from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which is here at UT Austin, found that nearly 50% fewer abortions were provided in Texas in September, which was the first month the law was in effect, and that was compared to September a year ago. Texas has had a lot of abortion bans, but, you know, experts have told me that compares to nothing that has ever been passed here before in terms of immediate effect.
And, you know, for, you know, people who find themselves in this position, they've had to go out of state to get the procedure, which, you know, driving out of state of out of Texas - and for anyone who's driven through here - is quite a drive. It can be hours and hours. Many people are having to fly out. And that's, of course, if you have the means to do that. And for people who don't, this has been, you know, absolutely devastating.
Many people are being forced to carry out a pregnancy they didn't want. I talked to Marva Sadler. She's the senior director of critical services for Whole Woman's Health, which is the lead plaintiff in this case. And she told me this week that the four clinics her group operates have been serving about 30% of their usual number of patients, which, you know, brings up this question of, like, what the financial viability of, you know, abortion clinics is going to be long term. But her biggest concern is what this is going to mean for people who are being forced to have these unwanted pregnancies.
MARVA SADLER: In nine months, there are going to be a lot of unwanted pregnancies coming to term. I wonder what the preparation and the plans are for the plethora of children who will be born in the next eight to 10 months who are unwanted, unsupported and parents don't have the financial, mental or physical means to take care of them.
KEITH: Carrie, as you looked through this opinion, what struck you about the potential consequences?
JOHNSON: There really are some kind of ominous signs among the dissenters in the Supreme Court opinion here. Let's start with Chief Justice John Roberts. The chief justice basically said it's clear under our prior precedents that, for now at least, the right to an abortion is a constitutionally protected right. This Texas law, SB 8, was designed to thwart judicial review and allow people to sue each other in the state of Texas and allow people outside Texas to sue other people in Texas. And he thinks nothing less is at stake than the ability of the Supreme Court to be able to rule on what the law is. And that's one of the most basic principles in the whole legal sphere. That's pretty big stuff.
And I got to tell you, reading the dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor was pretty stark, too. She seems to think that the majority's opinion in this case will potentially allow lots of other states and localities to pass other vigilante laws that could help nullify other people's constitutional rights. Maybe that's a Second Amendment right. Maybe that's a different right altogether. But she is warning in very stark terms that the court and the public could come to rue this decision today.
KEITH: And what you're clearly saying here is that even though abortion is this very big issue, this is bigger than abortion.
JOHNSON: It absolutely is. And it could apply to a host of other constitutional rights that people have relied on for decades or generations in this country.
KEITH: And we are still waiting on a decision in a case the court heard just last week challenging a Mississippi abortion law, and that one could have more sweeping implications for Roe v. Wade. And when that decision comes, which probably won't be until sometime next year, we will make sure to tell you all about it here. Ashley and Carrie, thanks for coming on and sharing your reporting.
LOPEZ: Thank you.
JOHNSON: Happy to do it.
KEITH: And we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, a new NPR/Marist Poll could be a wakeup call for Democrats.
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KEITH: And we're back. And a new NPR/Marist Poll out this week found some major warning signs for President Biden and congressional Democrats. Kelsey Snell and Domenico Montanaro have been reporting on this, and they are here to talk about it. Hey, guys.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hello.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Tam.
KEITH: Hello. So this poll found that many Americans aren't feeling the benefits of recent tax credits and direct payments that were part of the American Rescue Plan and were meant to offset the economic pains of COVID. And some Americans, it seems, didn't even know about those credits and payments. Domenico, let's start there. What were your biggest takeaways from the poll?
MONTANARO: Well, there was a real perception disconnect when it came to, you know, these direct payments and these child tax credits that Democrats have really been hanging their hats on as the thing that, once they got past all this public negotiation, would become the thing that they could say, hey, we did all this stuff for the American people. You should vote for us. But it turns out that people aren't necessarily feeling the benefits of this as much as they would have liked.
You know, when we asked about the direct payment that was up to $1,400 earlier this year, more than 6 in 10 said that they had received it. But the IRS says that that should be higher than that. You know, 4 in 5 of those who received the payments said that the money helped a little, but only a quarter said it helped a lot. So you don't have people saying that they really felt this as much as Democrats would hope they did. And, frankly, we didn't see a huge partisan divide on that like we see on some other things, like simply asking about how President Biden is doing his job.
KEITH: Yeah. And in addition to those one-time payments, lots of families are getting monthly payments of up to $300 per child direct deposited into their checking accounts. I was talking to a White House official a while ago who said they made sure that it would be a meaningful code in the direct deposit line so that it wouldn't just be random numbers, so that people would know they were getting it and what it was. But even still, it seems like this poll shows that people aren't necessarily feeling it or noticing it or it's not having the effect that the White House wanted politically.
SNELL: Yeah. This was about 59% of the eligible people said that they were getting this tax credit. But again, the IRS says that's well below the number of people who are actually getting it. They say the families of up to 88% of children should be receiving these payments. So either people don't know they're getting them or they are confused in some way. We're not sure. But they are, you know, the number of people who think they're getting it is really different from the number of people who are actually getting it. It shouldn't be lost in this conversation, though, that the child tax credit is being credited with keeping 3.6 million kids out of poverty as of October. It is a substantial thing for many families, and Democrats say that is a big part of why it's important to them.
KEITH: Kelsey, these are some of the things the Democrats were planning to campaign on in next year's midterms. Of course, they also just - with some Republican support - passed the infrastructure bill, the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And they're still working to get the "Build Back Better" plan through either by the end of this year or early next year. What did the NPR/Marist Poll say about that?
SNELL: Well, the bipartisan infrastructure bill was more popular. About 56% said that they support the infrastructure bill. But "Build Back Better" is not doing as well - 41% said that they support it, 34% said they were opposed. What I think is really interesting here, though, is when you look at the, you know, the question about whether or not "Build Back Better" would help people like you, 42% of adults said they were optimistic that it would help them. That is a fairly low number - 46% were pessimistic that this bill would help them.
Now, there is a huge divide between Democrats and Republicans. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats were optimistic, and only 19% of Republicans. Part that I'm watching here are the independents - 36% were optimistic, 50% were pessimistic. That means that Democrats have a huge amount of ground to make up if they want to sway independents, if they want to be working in this space of convinceable voters, people whom they might, you know, bring over to vote for them in the upcoming midterm elections. And they don't have a lot of time. The midterms are less than a year away.
One of the things that I kept hearing from Democrats after this poll came out was that they are talking about bills that are meant to help society as a whole, that "Build Back Better," in particular, is aimed at helping people who are moderate and middle income to lower income. And maybe those people aren't showing up in the polls. This is kind of what Democrats were saying as we were talking. But, Domenico, you've been watching this a long time. People tend to vote based on how it impacts them personally - right? - not how it impacts society.
MONTANARO: Part of what I keep hearing from Democratic strategists is that there's this perception problem of the Democratic Party focusing on the wrong things, whether or not they can appeal to a broad-enough swath of people if they're focused on continuously saying that these are policies to help the weakest in society only and that you should feel patriotic about making that play and to focus on things, you know, that might not, you know, socially always appeal to the broadest swath of people. They are curious how they're going to build a coalition that's going to be a winning coalition so that they can get some of these policies that are more progressive that they want through because a lot of people just aren't feeling like the party is helping them or looking out for them.
KEITH: I think, though, that Democrats would object to the idea that these policies are just for the weakest of society. I think they would argue that it is broader than that, that, you know, that lots of people have a lot of trouble paying for child care, for instance.
SNELL: They definitely make that argument. And that is something that I hear a lot when I talk to them is that they feel like these are bills that will help a lot of people. But they also say that there are concerns that this is a similar problem we ran into with the Affordable Care Act - right? - is that they were messaging this as a bill that would help the entire country, and it wasn't particularly popular when it passed. Pieces of the bill were popular, but the entire concept of the ACA wasn't popular when it passed.
And then Democrats lost badly in the midterm elections after the ACA became law. And it took almost 10 years and Republicans repeatedly trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act for it to become popular and a bill that Democrats could turn into an electoral victory. So there are concerns that this could be the same kind of situation where they are pushing for a remaking of the federal government and the federal government's relationship to people and people needing time to catch up with the way it would impact their lives.
MONTANARO: Yeah. Universal pre-K, childcare, those are things that should help lots and lots of people. But until those things get off the ground and running, people don't see them immediately.
SNELL: Well, I actually asked Sean Patrick Maloney, who is the head of the DCCC. He's the, you know, running the campaign arm for House Democrats. I asked him about this comparison to Obamacare. I asked him this about a month ago. I said, you know, essentially, these victories that Democrats cite, things like Medicare, Medicaid, the New Deal, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, Civil Rights Act, those were all things that became popular over time and weren't immediate electoral victories. And his response was, well, all you got was a better country. There's a tradeoff here - right? - is that Democrats are saying that they need to pass transformational legislation that they believe will make a change in people's lives. The tradeoff there may be, you know, losing the House or losing the Senate in the near term.
KEITH: Well, and so back to Domenico's earlier point about the - sort of the challenge for Democrats is that a lot of people believe that they're trying to fix problems that aren't the problems people are most worried about. We got a new inflation number out today, and prices have surged 6.8% since November of last year. That is the highest inflation in about four decades. It's basically the highest inflation of our sentiment lifetimes, all of us.
SNELL: We've been saying since Biden took office that the defining issue of his presidency will be how he deals with COVID and the economic recovery. But with his overall approval at 42% and 50% approval of his handling of the pandemic, which is the lowest of his term so far, and Americans are really worried about inflation, what is the path forward here?
MONTANARO: I think that is the key point because, you know, inflation we found in our last survey a couple of weeks ago with Marist that it was the top economic concern for people. And then when we asked in this survey whether the "Build Back Better" bill or the infrastructure bill would - you know, if they were pessimistic or optimistic that either of those or both of those would curb inflation, very few said they thought it would only, about a third when it came to each of them said that they thought it would.
You know, in fairness to Democrats, they didn't really write those bills with inflation as the top economic concern in mind because they have been talking about this for months and months and months, when inflation at first wasn't really the dominant issue. So they are going to have to do something or say something or show something that addresses people's top economic concern, which is inflation, or they're going to have some political problems on their hands.
SNELL: But both inflation and COVID are things that could be, you know, substantially different by the time people are actually voting.
KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now, and we're going to take a quick break. When we get back, some fun. It's time for Can't Let It Go.
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KEITH: And we're back. And it's time for Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things we cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Domenico, why can't you let go of?
MONTANARO: I can't stop thinking about - and, you know, can't let go of - Finnish prime ministers going clubbing.
KEITH: Oh, my gosh.
MONTANARO: I mean, and it's not so much just kind of what caused the situation. And I'll give you just a little background. But the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, she apologized because she went clubbing after coming, apparently, in close contact with a COVID-19 case. She blamed this on the fact that she left her work phone (laughter) that the text came in telling her about the close contact was on her work phone, so she hadn't noticed it because it was after hours, essentially, and talked to her secretary of state, who told her that she was fine, and then later said she should have used better judgment. But there's so much there politically and societally that I just can't let go of it. I mean, the idea that, first of all, you know, that you would have a work phone as a prime minister and think you don't need to check it is so un-American, right?
SNELL: I love it, though.
MONTANARO: I think that Americans are envious.
KEITH: Well, she's Finnish.
SNELL: I love the idea of taking your time. I love the idea of being in your mid-30s and going anywhere at night at that late (laughter).
MONTANARO: That was going to be my kicker on this. I'm not 36 anymore. And when I was 36, I was not going clubbing. So the idea that you could be that kind of an adult, have that kind of an adult job and still be going out at night, I mean, in some respects, you know, aside from the COVID thing, you know, hats off.
SNELL: Yeah, for sure.
KEITH: I have never in my life been clubbing until 4 a.m.
KEITH: ...In my entire life - I don't even know what clubbing is.
MONTANARO: I won't speak to my 18, 19-year-old self, but...
SNELL: Yeah, I'm not going to say anything at all (laughter).
KEITH: All right, I am going to go next. I think it's sort of related - not really. So there is a whole genre of alcohol I didn't realize existed, which is, like, alcohol inspired by desserts.
SNELL: Oh, yeah.
SNELL: Oh. Oh, yeah. I actually thought about this being my Can't Let It Go as well, so please let us discuss.
KEITH: So Barefoot Winery, which is apparently a very big company here in this country, has come out with a wine in partnership with the Oreo cookie people. It is Oreo Thins Red Blend, and it features the flavors of chocolate and cookies and cream, along with notes of oak, which complement the flavors of an Oreo Thins cookie.
SNELL: OK, so I have a lot of concerns about this, but just my top three right off the top of my head. Number one...
SNELL: ...Why Oreo thins? Like, why not regular Oreos? Like, this is the part that's - I don't know why that bothers me so much, but it really upsets me.
KEITH: Because Oreo Thins taste like Oreos.
MONTANARO: This is a branding situation. Yeah.
KEITH: They are the same thing. They're just lacking in enough cream and cookie.
MONTANARO: But there's only 100 calories per thin Oreo package or something, right?
SNELL: Right. But, like, this isn't a diet wine. My No. 2 question about this - like, I'm aware of the concept of, like, dessert wine. Sure. Fine. But, like, Oreo cream wine? Like, how do you even...
SNELL: ...Like, approximate those flavors with something that is presumably made with grapes? Like, I just - I don't even think I can get to my third of my top 20,000 problems with this wine. But, like, what?
KEITH: Yeah. So I was like, this is terrible. And then I was like, you know, I have a friend who really loves Oreos. Maybe I could get it for her as a joke. And then I went to the website and it was sold out.
KEITH: And I was like, who are these people?
MONTANARO: Yeah. Maybe they're all like you, thinking I'll get it for a friend as a joke.
KEITH: Yeah. Well, it's got a screw top for easy access.
SNELL: Well, I think that's important (laughter).
KEITH: Kelsey, why can't you let go of?
SNELL: I've sent you both a link for my Can't Let It Go.
SNELL: I'm returning to my favorite space for all Can't Let It Gos, which is animal Can't Let It Gos.
SNELL: What you're looking at here is a bird. It appears to be kind of a wild bird, right? It's a crow. And it's sitting on a table with a fuzzy little hat. And this is a story about a foul-mouthed crow that flew into an elementary school, made friends with the kids in the elementary school and had to be removed by the police. We find out later, though, that apparently he belongs to somebody who just took him in a few years ago. But anyway, the fact that there's a crow flying around inside of an elementary school is just amazing to me.
MONTANARO: Why - how did they...
MONTANARO: How did they get the hat on the crow?
KEITH: What did the crow - like...
MONTANARO: How did that happen?
SNELL: I had to send the link because I needed everybody to look at the fact that this bird is wearing what appears to be some sort of home-ec, handmade felt hat.
MONTANARO: That is a sassy crow.
KEITH: It's a little fleecey (ph) hat.
MONTANARO: You see the side-eye it's giving us?
SNELL: So the very, very, very best part about all of this is that the - so the bird flies in. They're like, where did this come from? And they - like, it was landing on people's heads. But then the woman that they talked to in this article says the bird could speak. A crow could speak. And the bird would say, what's up, I'm fine and a lot of swear words (laughter).
KEITH: What? So is it not really a crow? I didn't know crows were trainable.
SNELL: I didn't know. I didn't either. But it can wear a hat, it can swear at you, and then it gets removed by the police. I love this bird.
KEITH: Why did it have to be removed by the police?
SNELL: They said it was because animal control said that they couldn't deal with it because it's not their jurisdiction, I guess. And then a wildlife officer from the Oregon State Police came and removed it because it's still a wild animal flying around inside an elementary school.
MONTANARO: Did you confirm the date on this? This wasn't an April Fool's story?
SNELL: This was published...
KEITH: Two days ago - December 9.
MONTANARO: December 9.
SNELL: Yeah, December 9.
MONTANARO: Yeah, I see.
SNELL: So the bird's name is Cosmo, and he's, I mean, presumably, back out in the world now that the police dealt with him. So...
KEITH: Oh, my gosh. All right. Well, that is a wrap for this week. We will be back in your feeds on Monday. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexi Schapitl and Brandon Carter. 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: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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