CLAUDIA: Hi. This is Claudia (ph) in Robertsdale, Ala., watching a power truck hopefully reconnect our power after Hurricane Sally came through and knocked us out five days ago. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
1:32 p.m. on Tuesday, September 22.
CLAUDIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. And hopefully, we'll have hot showers and ice in the refrigerator again. Here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Oh my gosh. Five days is so long.
KEITH: Wow. That just feels like forever. Well, I hope that you have power by the time you are listening to this podcast.
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.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
KEITH: So we are in the midst of a pandemic, which officially today has killed 200,000 Americans. There is a grueling fight over a Supreme Court seat. And perhaps now we could be headed toward a government shutdown. Kelsey, tell me it isn't true. I mean, we've talked about this before as a possibility, but I thought you thought that this was going to be pretty straightforward. What happened?
SNELL: You know, I should have put some 2020 into my calculations (laughter).
KEITH: A little sprinkle of 2020 in there.
SNELL: Yeah. So we had known for weeks that there was bipartisan agreement on the need for a basic spending stopgap that would just extend the current funding levels and nothing else until we could get past the election. But then, all of a sudden, the bill that was released on Monday - which we were supposed to see on Friday, which, you know, had people starting to wonder - didn't have a few things in it that Republicans in particular were looking for. Democrats released this stopgap spending bill and made a point when it was coming out of saying that it did not include additional farm money for this commodity program, and it did not include some additional spending money for the - of the federal food stamp program.
Now, they started warning us that that wasn't there, and they were kind of doing a prebuttal. Now, that really should've warned a lot of people that things were not all in place because immediately, Republicans responded, saying they were blindsided by the lack of the farm funding. Democrats say that as they were going through the process, it started to look like an unaccountable slush fund - that's what they were calling it - for President Trump. And they accused the president of trying to buy the favor of farmers with this money. So now we're in a situation where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone back to the negotiating table on the very day that this spending bill was supposed to come up in the House for a vote.
LIASSON: What is it that she wants that the Republicans won't give her? We get that she doesn't want to give them farm aid, but where is the potential for horse trading here?
SNELL: Well, I think the greater problem here is that she wants her Democrats to vote for this bill. And there was a concern that Democrats wouldn't get behind it with the farm money in there. So Democrats really want to stick to the spirit of what we call a clean CR - so a - no political riders, no poison pills, just a straight, continuing resolution extending current funding levels to early in December - to December 11 is the date on this bill.
LIASSON: And that's what CRs do. They just freeze the status quo and continue it until the two sides can come up with a new spending bill for the government.
KEITH: So the old spending bill, the one that we're in right now - does that include farm money? Would this just be a continuation of farm money that they've now taken out, or is this new farm money that they say they aren't going for - they just want, you know, a carbon copy of the previous year's spending bill?
SNELL: So Debbie Stabenow, who's the top Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee, put out a statement after this whole kerfuffle began, saying that she doesn't believe that the program needs the money and that they've actually been informed that the program is solvent through the date of the end of this spending bill - this proposed spending bill - and that the money is unnecessary at this moment.
KEITH: Oh, my gosh. OK. So this is, like, some fairly traditional - there's always going to be some sort of a fly in the ointment when it comes to these spending bills.
SNELL: Every single time.
KEITH: And you just never know what it'll be.
LIASSON: Kelsey, do you think there will actually be a government shutdown?
SNELL: At this point, the fact that the speaker went back to the negotiating table today is a good sign that they could come up with some agreement. But, again, I've got to sprinkle 2020 on top of this and say I don't know (laughter). I mean, the government funding runs out at the end of the day on the 30. So there are only about eight days left to do this, and Congress is not scheduled to be in session all of those eight days. Even if they decided to work through the weekend, this would still be a heavy lift to get something through the House, through the Senate and signed by the president in order to make sure there isn't a shutdown.
KEITH: So of course, this also comes as the already toxic environment in Washington is getting more toxic because there's this Supreme Court vacancy left open by the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We have learned today, Mara, that some Republicans that people had been watching to see whether they would split with the president and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell - looks like they're on board. They are on...
KEITH: ...Team Mitch, Team Trump.
LIASSON: That's right. He now has the votes to move forward. One of the most important Republicans that people were waiting for was Mitt Romney, who has been an opponent of the president on some issues. But he came out today, and he said he does think the vote should go forward before the election. He said the principle here is that when there's a divided government, like there was in 2016 when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland and Mitch McConnell refused to give Garland a vote - when there's divided government, then it's OK for Congress not to vote on a nominee. When there's government where the Congress - where the Senate and the White House are of the same party, then it's fine to vote on a nominee even this close to an election.
So that was his principle. He's on board. Mitch McConnell now has the votes to go forward. And it looks like we're getting closer and closer to this holy grail for conservatives and Republicans, which is a durable conservative majority - 6-3 - on the Supreme Court before Election Day.
KEITH: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, something else that seems to be on the back burner - coronavirus relief.
And we're back. And Supreme Court confirmations tend to suck all of the political oxygen out of the room. They block the sun, at least in Washington, D.C. But we are still in the middle of a pandemic. And every time I leave my house, I feel like I notice another business that's boarded up. I mean, there is pain happening. It isn't over yet. Yesterday, the markets were down, and one of the reasons cited was a concern among investors that the focus on a court fight would get in the way of Congress passing another coronavirus relief bill - at least that it wouldn't happen anytime soon. Kelsey, were the markets right?
SNELL: Well, there certainly haven't been any fresh talks on a coronavirus relief bill, but that has been the case for weeks now. Things are really in - as we keep saying - a toxic place in Washington. There is not a lot of agreement on how even to move forward here. Now, Democrats keep going back to their $3 trillion bill that they passed way back in May. Now, they say that they've come down some. They're willing to go to $2 trillion. There was a little bit of movement where it looked like the White House might be moving to, I guess, maybe $1.5 trillion, but you're still half a trillion dollars apart, right? And Republicans in the Senate didn't ever say that they liked that number. So basically, you have three different people negotiating against one another - more in public than they are in private - and that is never a good sign that a deal is on the way.
KEITH: And just to speak to that - today from the White House Press Briefing Room, Kayleigh McEnany is calling on the House to pass some very limited but targeted relief for industries like airlines. So there certainly is an acknowledgment or pressure building that something needs to be done because money is running out or, in other cases, ran out weeks ago.
LIASSON: What's amazing is that at various times, the president has said he wanted to spend more money. He wanted to give more money to people and was willing to make a deal. I don't know whatever happened to that, Kelsey.
SNELL: Well, a big part of what happened to that is that Republicans in the Senate didn't want to do that. And they didn't agree with the president on that and have not been able to agree on a, like, singular position that they have put to the test of a vote since March. That is a very long time to go without having an agreement on an approach to solving a problem that is unmatched.
KEITH: So you just said something that I think buried the lede here. You said they haven't had something that they could agree on to put to the test with a vote. They haven't voted...
KEITH: ...On a relief package since March. The Senate hasn't.
SNELL: Right. And that is what - to be fair, that's where, you know, House Speaker Pelosi has been this whole time. And she says, we voted. We have told you where we are. We've told you exactly how we're willing to compromise, and you've given us no specifics in return. But, you know, if you're a vulnerable Democrat, a lot of them are starting to say, well, hey; we just need to start voting on anything that tells people where we are because they don't remember May. They remember not being able to pay their mortgage in September.
LIASSON: Yup. Now, can you - Kelsey, can you think of a time when Congress has more utterly failed to do its job? I mean, we're in the midst of a recession caused by a pandemic with millions of people out of work where the only thing keeping the economy afloat was the trillions of dollars that Congress passed in the previous relief bills. I can't think of a bigger failure on the part of the Article I branch of government.
SNELL: One of the things that I have noticed is that it has become increasingly complicated for Republicans who oppose additional spending to explain why they oppose additional spending, and they mostly don't answer. They will say that they think that the real way to get the country back on their feet is to have people go back to their jobs. But Democrats continue to say that part of the reason why unemployment insurance was so high in the first place was because we did not want people to go back to their jobs because there was a pandemic, and they were worried about people spreading illness if they had it. And they wanted people to stay home to protect themselves and protect the spread of the virus. So there is a fundamental disagreement within Congress about the right way to solve this problem.
KEITH: I want to finish this show today with the voice of someone who is, in a way, representative of what a lot of people in this country are going through right now. Her name is Thea, and she's from South Carolina. She called in to C-SPAN and told her story.
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THEA: Due to the - COVID-19, I couldn't work because I had underlying diseases. And my doctor thought in my interest that it was time for me to leave that job for a little while. I'm a health care worker. I've been working this job for 33 years. I've tried unemployment, tried to file for unemployment. At this point, I don't even have insurance to take care of myself. I lived in my house for 25 years. And I don't even have the money (crying) to take care of myself. I'm a single parent. I took care of my children, and now I feel like I have to go and ask my kids.
KEITH: Yeah. She said that she was glad she'd paid off her car because she was afraid she was going to have to go live in it. And that, I think, is what really gets lost in the focus on political machinations - is the human toll of it all. In the case of Thea, people called into C-SPAN. Then her story aired on CNN. People called in wanting to help. You know, she's going to be OK for now because a lot of people stepped in and wanted to help her. But the reality is she is one person of many, and you kind of just can't do a GoFundMe to get our way out of this.
LIASSON: In the greatest country on the face of the Earth with the strongest economy, this is not how individual people should be helped - through charity. I mean, this is why we have a social safety net. But we don't have a Congress that's functioning to be able to use it or direct it. You know, we're in this season of the failure of democratic institutions. The court is totally politicized. Congress can't do its job. We have, you know, an apocalyptic presidential election going on. You know, it feels like the country isn't stepping up to the plate, except for individual people who responded to her plea with generosity and care. But that's not the way things are supposed to work.
KEITH: All right. Well, that is it for today. You can find all the ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode.
I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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