GARY: Hi, this is Gary (ph). I'm standing in the almost-deserted ninth floor of an office building in Alexandria, Va. I'm here to turn in my equipment for the last day of work with my current employer. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
12:06 p.m. on Friday, May 12, 2023.
GARY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be really excited about starting my new job in about a week from now. Here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KEITH: I hope he didn't, like, leave graffiti or anything.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I was worried it was going a different direction. But I'm very glad that...
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Yes, congratulations.
MONTANARO: ...He has this new start.
KEITH: Yes, absolutely. Congratulations. Hey there. It's THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover politics.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KEITH: Top congressional leaders met with President Biden on Tuesday to address the very real threat of the U.S defaulting on its debt. It could happen as soon as June if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling, and at the moment, it is the leverage in a high-stakes fight between Biden and congressional Republicans. The meeting on Tuesday seemingly didn't really make much progress. And just to be clear, default could be cataclysmic for the global financial system. It could tank markets and lead to a recession and widespread job losses. All of those things could happen. The lawmakers were supposed to meet at the White House again today, but that meeting was postponed. Though, Kelsey, that would seem like a bad sign, but in the counterintuitive world in which we live, it's actually a good sign.
SNELL: You know, I've been trying to figure out good sign, bad sign here for - since we found out that the meeting was delayed. On the one hand, it often means - delays like this often mean that there are serious conversations happening at the staff level. And the staff kind of has to hammer out all of the details before the principals, the - you know, the lead negotiators, get into the room. Now, that would normally be true, but in this case, they have a really tight timeline. And one would hope and expect if they were trying to meet the goal of getting something together next week, that they would be further along than this.
KEITH: Yes. Though it is often darkest before the light in these negotiations.
SNELL: That is almost always the case.
MONTANARO: And they just never get anything done, it seems, until there is a deadline. And you have such a close - you know, closely divided house that it just makes it really difficult to get anything done. There isn't a lot of leverage for anybody to really be able to come together on this.
KEITH: Domenico, as we talk about the possible consequences of a default, the fact that it is getting closer and that there hasn't been a lot of progress in these negotiations, it just seems a little bit weird that the business community - Wall Street, the markets - aren't more agitated.
MONTANARO: Yeah. There is a degree of nonchalance. And, you know, everybody who has been in charge, who's been president, who has been a leader in Congress continues to say, and has said for a long time, the consequences of a default or a credit downgrade would be catastrophic. And yet here we are - very close to that. And I anticipate that over the next several weeks, you're going to see a lot of that talk ramp up, especially if and when, you know, one of these credit agencies decides to put out something warning about a potential credit downgrade if nothing is reached.
KEITH: And, Kelsey, 2011 was the last big fight that led to actually a credit downgrade.
SNELL: Right. And people would be forgiven if they thought that it has happened more often than that and - you know, 'cause it has. They have had more minor skirmishes over the debt limit, but it's not quite gotten this close before. You know, one of the reasons why the experts I talk to compare this to 2011 is because the outcome here seems very unclear. The political environment is very very polarized. The Republicans in the House are looking for Biden to give some sort of concession so they can say that they got a win here. And they haven't had a whole lot of wins so far since they took the majority at the beginning of this year. And, you know, it is - the stakes are very high for the speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
KEITH: And Biden was deeply involved in the negotiations...
SNELL: He was.
KEITH: ...Back in 2011 and seems to have taken the lesson that - don't - I'm not going to do this again. I'm not going to give away the farm again. And yet they are negotiating, and it seems like a distinction without a difference.
SNELL: Yeah. It's a little bit confusing here because when I say the stakes are high for McCarthy, I mean the political stakes. But the stakes for the economy are just high in general. And part of what you're hearing Biden say is he doesn't want to make the debt limit and the potential of a downgrade a bargaining chip for spending cuts - something we've heard in the past, but in this situation, one of the sides will have to choose what is enough to - you know, enough of a concession, enough that they can say that they got the other side to move. It may just be that they both have to pretend like the other side didn't get anything at all and just move forward. I'm not quite sure where it goes from here.
KEITH: Yeah. I don't quite yet see where the face-saving conclusion of this fight is, which is concerning. I do want to talk about another sort of out-of-the-box option which President Biden, in a surprise to a lot of us, actually entertained this week. After the meeting on Tuesday, he was asked if he was considering the 14th Amendment, and he said that he was, in fact, possibly considering invoking the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That says that the U.S. must pay its debts. So they would basically ignore Congress and the debt limit altogether and just keep paying the government's bills. But he also readily admitted that that would face legal challenges and may not actually prevent default because it would immediately go to court. But, I mean, here's someone who typically prefers things to go through Congress. He's a Senate guy. He believes in the power of legislation, and yet he's entertaining this executive option.
MONTANARO: Yeah. It's really fascinating because, you know, there are a lot of people who are wondering if there's anything that the government can do - that the president can do - to take some sort of executive action or go around Congress because, you know, to be able to play sort of chicken with the debt ceiling and with the country's credit and the country potentially defaulting is not exactly something that the person in charge of the country wants any part of. And there are legitimate questions about the constitutionality of the debt limit, for example. But how that actually winds up becoming something that gets, you know, actionalized (ph) is a whole lot different. And there don't seem to be a lot of really concrete options for the president.
KEITH: You said actionalized.
MONTANARO: I know. I know. What word was I really...
MONTANARO: ...Wanting to say? I don't know.
KEITH: I don't know, but I like it.
SNELL: I do too.
KEITH: I'm going to actionalize us to a break. Domenico, don't go too far because we're going to bring you back for Can't Let It Go in a bit. But when we get back after this next break, we're going to hear about how Ohio's Republican state lawmakers are trying to change the rules of the road for ballot measures in their state.
And we're back with Karen Kasler. She's the bureau chief for the Statehouse News Bureau, heard on public radio stations all across Ohio.
KAREN KASLER: Hi. Great to be with you.
KEITH: Glad to have you. And we have been following on this podcast efforts by Republican lawmakers in some states to consolidate power. And, Karen, you've been following an effort in Ohio by the Republicans in the legislature who are trying to make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution. So let's just start with what are they trying to do, and why do they say it needs to be done?
KASLER: Well, they have been saying since last fall they want to protect Ohio's constitution from big-money, out-of-state special interests. I'll get back to that in just a second. One of the sponsors of this resolution, though, said in a memo to his fellow Republican state lawmakers that this is actually about stopping likely amendments on abortion and gerrymandering. Last year, Ohio's congressional and legislative district maps that were drawn by state lawmakers were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered by the Ohio Supreme Court. So there's an expectation of a redistricting amendment coming forward soon. Ohio has a six-week abortion ban. That's in court and on hold. So abortion rights advocates had been talking about moving forward with a constitutional amendment to put that into the Constitution, and Republicans don't want that to happen. They want a 60% threshold to pass constitutional amendments in place before a possible vote on that reproductive rights amendment.
KEITH: And, Kelsey, in other states, in other red states, abortion-rights-related measures have passed.
SNELL: Yeah, I mean, we saw that happen in Kansas. And as we were talking about before, that wasn't a situation, though, where they had a supermajority. And I think it's kind of interesting - Karen, I'm curious. Is this a situation where the Republican lawmakers are being explicit about what the aim is of making this change? Are they saying this is about abortion?
KASLER: Well, they don't say that on the floor necessarily, but they are saying that in interviews. They said that in a memo. I mean, it's really clear that this is aimed at the November election where we could see an abortion rights amendment. And even the Senate president has said that if the abortion rights amendment passes, well, then he doesn't want the 60% threshold to go through because, obviously, that would make it harder to overturn that constitutional amendment.
KEITH: So this is aiming - let's just get the timeline here. They are doing this - trying to get this on a ballot in August, to get ahead of any November ballot - you know, a more normal time when people would expect to vote?
KASLER: Right. And what's interesting about this, among many other things, is that August special elections, for the most part, were eliminated in a bill - a law that just took effect last month. And the rationale for Republicans eliminating most of those August special elections was that they have low turnout and high costs. And yet they're wanting to put this big change - permanent change - in the Constitution onto a ballot that is likely to have pretty low turnout. And that's one of the reasons that opponents have been saying this is bad policy, and it shouldn't be done in an election where people just aren't going to show up.
KEITH: So this measure would change the state constitution to require a supermajority in order to change the state constitution in the future - a supermajority vote of the citizens, of voters. Does this require a supermajority?
KASLER: It does not. It only - because right now only a simple majority of voters is needed to pass a constitutional amendment. So this would be - the 60% threshold would be a requirement for future constitutional amendments but not the one that would actually do it.
SNELL: This all sounds like a situation that is destined for court, am I right?
KASLER: Oh, yeah. And there's a lot of reasons for that. But one of the things that this bill would also do in terms of making it more difficult to amend the Constitution - it changes the amount of how many counties you have to get signatures from. It makes some other changes that really, advocates say, will make it very hard for citizens and groups to amend the Constitution. But that August special election law, the one that eliminated most of them, that's considered to be part of the reason that this could end up in court because the advocates against this bill are saying you can't do what the legislature did in terms of creating a new August special election to vote just on this when you got rid of most of the August special elections. So it's Ohio. It's election-related stuff. There's almost always a lawsuit. So we expect that in this case.
KEITH: Karen, I want to harken back to 2004, when you and I were both in Ohio. And there was...
KEITH: ...A ballot measure then banning same-sex marriage. And that measure was a real motivator for Republican voters. It helped George W. Bush win reelection in Ohio which was critical in him winning reelection nationwide. And I think that heading into the 2024 election, there are a lot of, particularly on the Democratic side, groups looking at ballot measures to get them on the ballot to try to motivate voters around the abortion issue because it's proven to be a really strong motivator not just for Democrats, but for other voters.
KASLER: And I think that's true. And certainly there are some things that are being talked about for next year in Ohio - for instance, legalizing recreational marijuana for next year's ballot, another possible amendment to increase the minimum wage. Those are obviously drivers for Democratic groups. But abortion rights groups in Ohio really thought that there was not time to waste. They were very concerned about what the legislature might do, and so they wanted to put this before voters as soon as possible. And this talk of the 60% threshold had been building even as they were talking about this reproductive rights amendment, so they wanted to get it out there as quickly as possible. You know, the supporters of the 60% threshold - anti-abortion groups, gun rights groups, evangelical Christian groups - but the opposition is like nothing I've seen in 20 years - I mean, hundreds of groups, Ohio's four living ex-governors, five former attorneys general from both parties, elections officials. The opposition to this is just enormous. And now they're in a position where they have to motivate their supporters to vote against the resolution on the August election ballot and then vote for the reproductive rights amendment in November.
KEITH: Well, Karen Kasler, this is fascinating. And we will be watching. Karen from Ohio's Statehouse News Bureau. Thank you for joining the pod.
KASLER: Hey, great to talk to you.
KEITH: All right. We're 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 cannot stop talking about, politics or otherwise. I'm going to go first because I've got a both.
MONTANARO: Oh, OK.
KEITH: Boston's mayor, Michelle Wu, it turns out, is a fairly accomplished musician.
KEITH: She plays piano. She also apparently was trained in violin as a child, both things. And this week, she sat down and played with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SNELL: That is very interesting.
MONTANARO: That's awesome.
SNELL: I was an abominable music student, never practiced.
MONTANARO: I played violin in second grade and squeaked out, you know, "Twinkle, Twinkle...
MONTANARO: ...Little Star." And then my dad didn't want to pay for lessons anymore.
MONTANARO: And then I played saxophone in middle school but not really sax. I had to - I was made to play baritone, which is just all whole notes.
MONTANARO: So you don't really learn how to do anything.
SNELL: Yeah, I wanted to play trumpet, but all the trumpet slots were filled up by the time they got to the S's...
SNELL: ...For choosing instruments, so I wound up with a French horn.
KEITH: Aw. Well, it's not...
MONTANARO: The French horn is a great instrument. You can actually win a lot of scholarships on French horn.
KEITH: Yeah, because there's not a lot of competition.
MONTANARO: No. Well...
KEITH: Yes. My story is I was learning cello, and we had, like, the sheet that you fill out every day, how much you practice. And I didn't practice at all, but my parents agreed that we could just write five minutes a day, and they would sign it. And then at the end of the year, I turn it in. And they're like, Tamara Keith practiced more than any other child. And you get a chocolate bar. And that was, like, a chocolate bar of shame.
MONTANARO: Shame? What kind of chocolate bar was it? What would you have preferred?
KEITH: I believe it was a Snickers, but it was just shameful. I cheated. I lied. And, I mean, like, how many years later that I still feel guilty...
SNELL: It's impressive.
KEITH: ...About that?
MONTANARO: Bringing it back to politics, though, all I can think about are deep-fried Snickers at the Iowa State Fair. They are underratedly good.
KEITH: Yum, yum, yum. Anyway, there's a great quote in this New York Times article where Mayor Wu says, "I've been playing piano since long before I ever thought about politics. And my parents are probably more skeptical still about the politics thing. This is probably the proudest that they've ever been of me." And it took getting elected mayor to be able to do this.
KEITH: So politics and music came together, and it's really quite sweet.
MONTANARO: In beautiful harmony.
KEITH: And, Domenico, what can't you let go of?
MONTANARO: Well, I can't let go of a big party that's coming up on Saturday for the world's oldest dog.
MONTANARO: It is an awesome, heartwarming story in my view. This dog, Bobi - Bobby - not sure how he says it exactly...
MONTANARO: ...In Portugal, has turned 31.
KEITH: That's insane.
MONTANARO: Thirty-one years old.
KEITH: How much does that dog weigh? Is it a small dog or a large dog?
MONTANARO: It's a medium-sized to large dog.
KEITH: That is even more remarkable.
SNELL: That's incredible.
MONTANARO: And the thing is, like, imagine if - you know, I'm not 100% sure how they do the human years in dogs, right? Versus...
SNELL: I think it's seven.
MONTANARO: I know that's what they say, right? But that would mean this dog is 217 years old.
SNELL: That's a - well, this dog is immortal.
KEITH: Yeah. That is amazing. I guess it's the Mediterranean diet.
MONTANARO: It partially - yes. And, in fact, the Mediterranean diet includes only human food. They've never fed this dog dog food.
MONTANARO: It's a really heartwarming story where this - the man is now 38 years old who's had this dog his entire life. And he hid the dog from being scheduled to be euthanized in - as part of a litter of puppies and has held on to this dog since he was 8 years old. So it's like what he's known his entire life. He said he's never been chained, never been leashed. He's allowed to walk free on the property, into the forest and woods around the property, as well as making tons of friends with local animals, including cats. And there's a really heartwarming video that I was watching - him snuggle up with a cat. It just seems like a really happy, still peppy dog. And, you know, hope he's got a lot more years in him.
SNELL: I'd like to sign up for this dog's lifestyle.
KEITH: And I won't say what I was thinking. Well, I will say it, but you'll cut it out, which is he's probably outlived all his friends. It's kind of sad.
MONTANARO: That's not - no. His mother was 18, so he's, you know, inherited quite a...
MONTANARO: ...A good gene pool there.
KEITH: Quite the gene pool.
KEITH: Hey, Kelsey, what can't you let go of?
SNELL: Well, I guess it's more what I have to let go of, and that is MTV News.
KEITH: Oh, no.
MONTANARO: I haven't watched...
SNELL: We said goodbye...
MONTANARO: ...That since 1997.
SNELL: I know. You know, as...
KEITH: MTV News goes back before 1997.
MONTANARO: Saying I haven't watched since 1997.
KEITH: Oh, yeah.
SNELL: As an elder millennial, this was very important for me. Kurt Loder was very important to my understanding of what it meant to do the news. And I don't know. I think he's really a great broadcaster, and I'm a little sad to see MTV News go away. I think a lot of people our age trusted it, got news that way. Maybe the same way that some people got their news from "The Daily Show" (laughter).
SNELL: But this was - you know, this was great. And I - it is one of those situations where I kind of thought they were gone already. And I think that's probably because they had some serious layoffs in 2017. But, MTV News, we're going to miss you.
MONTANARO: And Kurt Loder's - you know, was just understated, somewhat sardonic at times...
MONTANARO: ...Added a degree of gravitas to an otherwise superficial entertainment world. And, you know, but, you know, you really haven't seen a whole lot of MTV News over the past, really, decade and a half or so.
SNELL: Tam, I think you may have had a little bit of a history with MTV News.
KEITH: Well, I did, when I was a teenager, write letters to the people I looked up to in hopes of getting a job or getting advice. And I sent letters to a bunch of NPR personalities and a bunch of MTV personalities. And the NPR people are the only ones who responded.
SNELL: And here you are.
KEITH: And here I am. So, MTV, it's your loss.
KEITH: However, I would be getting laid off. So...
MONTANARO: Well, you know, persistence makes the heart grow fonder...
MONTANARO: ...Toward Tam, I guess. I don't know.
KEITH: All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Krishnadev Calamur. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover politics.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KEITH: 12:36 p.m. Oh, yes, it's not even 12:36 right now.
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