As Coronavirus Again Breaks Records, Dem Relief Bill Hopes Hinge On Georgia : The NPR Politics Podcast Coronavirus is surging ahead of the holidays and a much-awaited relief bill is no closer to passage than it was months ago. Joe Biden hopes for an aggressive relief package, but that comes down to two January Senate elections in Georgia.

This episode: correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, health correspondent Allison Aubrey, and WABE reporter Emma Hurt.

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As Coronavirus Again Breaks Records, Dem Relief Bill Hopes Hinge On Georgia

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As Coronavirus Again Breaks Records, Dem Relief Bill Hopes Hinge On Georgia

As Coronavirus Again Breaks Records, Dem Relief Bill Hopes Hinge On Georgia

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LUCY: Hi. This is Lucy (ph). I'm in Berkeley, Calif., and I'm doing online school in my backyard while eating Swedish Fish and playing with my chicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKS CHIRPING)

LUCY: This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

That sounds great. I guess if you're going to do online school, doing it in Berkeley is not the worst place in the world. It's 1:24 Eastern on Friday, November 13.

LUCY: Things may have changed since then. All right, here's the show.

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

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Oh, my gosh. Are those little chickens in the background? That's amazing.

DETROW: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Joe Biden.

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

DETROW: And we are joined again by Allison Aubrey of NPR's health team. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there - good to be here.

DETROW: So you're here because coronavirus is yet again surging in a very serious way. More than 10 million people in the U.S. have now had confirmed cases. Of course, more than 240,000 people have died from COVID-19. And we are now experiencing a third surge across the country. And, Allison, it's just unlike any one that we've seen before.

AUBREY: You know, Scott, it's almost hard to talk about hotspots now because the virus is really circulating so widely throughout the nation, and cases, as you point out, are surging. I mean, just over the last several days, there's been an average of about 130,000 new cases per day. That is a 70% increase compared to just a few weeks ago. About 65,000 people are hospitalized. Deaths are rising, too. So, you know, you look around the country at what's happening. Chicago is now under a stay-at-home advisory. In New York, the governor has announced new limits on social gatherings - no more than 10 people gathering. And public health experts are saying there should probably be tighter restrictions nationwide.

DETROW: Yeah. And the thing that affects the politics of this - it affects the public health of this, and I think it affects our mental attitudes and many, many other things - is that I keep thinking about how in the spring, there was this national feeling of taking it seriously. There was this national, we're all in this together. And now it's so much worse, and we're just all fried. We're angry. We're tired of it. And I feel like that just makes it harder on all of the fronts that we're talking about here today.

AUBREY: You know, I think all of us have gotten accustomed to the new normal of not being out in crowded bars and restaurants, of not being on crowded trains or other public transportation. You know, most of us have gotten the message that we need to be careful, yet cases are still rising. There's now much more evidence of just how much transmission, how much spread happens in the household setting.

And we know that people are letting their guards down just a bit. I mean, as a parent, I see this with my kids. They're like, Mom, can I just have one more friend over? And, you know, every time you say yes to expand your bubble by just one or two people, you've got to be careful because if your teenager invites one new friend, do you know where that friend has been for the last 14 days, who they've come into contact with? I mean, you don't know. It's hard to know. And so this is what Americans have to pay attention to now. I mean, this is the reality. You can't just willy-nilly expand your bubble. You got to limit things to, you know, immediate family, especially as the holidays approach.

DETROW: Yeah. And we're talking about all of this because this is - obviously continues to be a big political story, too. And, Kelsey, I feel like this fatigue, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it clearly showed up in Congress as well. You think about these enormous record-setting spending deals, rescue packages that were unanimously passed in the spring, gave way to a summer and fall of total stalemate on another round of COVID relief. Where do things stand now in this lame duck period of Congress?

SNELL: Yeah, things are still kind of in that stalemate place. And I actually think that there are a couple of reasons why that happened. One is the fatigue about spending huge amounts of money, and another is that there is - there have been some pretty fundamental differences between the two parties about what they think the economy and, you know, what the country needs as a whole from the federal government.

Republicans have said over and over and over again in the past few months that they don't think spending trillions of dollars is going to be the way to solve this problem. They think that, you know, the states already have a good amount of money. They say that - you know, that they want to do things in a more targeted way. Democrats are saying that the entire system - the economy, schools, the health care system - it all is being held together basically with chewing gum. And they feel like the federal government is the thing that needs to step in to make sure that it's more like spackle or cement rather than chewing gum holding things together.

DETROW: Kelsey, I noticed that Joe Biden joined a call with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and seems to be getting involved a little bit here. He had campaigned on having a massive relief bill ready to sign his first day in office. But as we're going to talk about later on this podcast, he might not have the votes he needs in the Senate especially to get that done.

SNELL: Yeah.

DETROW: Any sense how much of this wait till next year?

SNELL: It seems like a lot of it will probably wait until next year because as much as Democrats and Republicans say they want to do some sort of coronavirus relief before the end of the year, they are still talking about the exact same, completely different types of bills. Republicans are still talking about something on the order of about half-a-trillion dollars - something that is highly targeted, something that really addresses primarily things like schools and more money for hospitals and adding money to the Paycheck Protection Program, the loans for small businesses. And Democrats are still in that same space between about $2 trillion and over $3 trillion of what they think needs to happen next.

That is not a small bridge. I mean, trillions of dollars may start to feel like they are meaningless sums of money because it's such a big number. It's really hard to wrap your head around. But that's the whole point. It's really big numbers, and it's really hard to bridge a divide that is so fundamentally different.

DETROW: I mean, honestly, right now, everything we're talking about is a number that's too big to grasp what it really means, right?

SNELL: Yeah.

DETROW: The spending side, the cases. Allison, death rates are going back up now as well. I mean, the other thing as we talk about the politics of this, we're talking about the possibility of another relief package. But you mentioned before that governors are cracking down again. We know that Joe Biden wants to try and if not institute a nationwide mask mandate, effectively get to one by urging people to wear masks. Do we have a sense, however many months into this, which of these types of orders and policies from office holders are more effective and which ones aren't?

AUBREY: You know, I think that Joe Biden has made it clear he wants to work with, you know, mayors and governors and local leaders to work towards this national masking. And, clearly, the evidence has just become more and more convincing that masking can save lives.

I mean, you talked about the death rate increasing. It is true there are now more people dying than there were last month. I mean, the deaths are going up. They're not quite as high as what we saw back in the spring. And there's lots of reasons for that. I mean, doctors know more. They know when to give steroids, when to give remdesivir, the antiviral drug, when to give blood thinners.

And because of that, some researchers at New York University - they looked at thousands of hospitalized patients. They compared people in the hospital in March compared to August, and they found there was a decrease in the number of people dying. At the beginning of the study, patients had about a 25% chance of dying. At the end, they had about an 8% chance. So that is a significant improvement. It's not terribly reassuring, given that there is 65,000 people in the hospital right now with COVID. But there has been an improvement.

DETROW: And I want to ask about Thanksgiving only because I am sorting this out at this very moment with my family. And it's not a fun conversation.

AUBREY: But, you know, the Thanksgiving thing really fits into just what I said above.

DETROW: Yeah.

AUBREY: Like, if we're continuing to get spread when people have only expanded their social bubble by, you know, two or three people, imagine what happens if some portion of Americans get together with 10 or 12 or 15.

DETROW: Yeah.

AUBREY: I mean, it's inarguably not the right, you know - it's just not the right thing to do.

DETROW: All right, Allison. Thank you for joining us on the podcast. Thanks for the reporting you and our whole health and science team are doing on this story.

AUBREY: Yeah, sure. Great to be here. Thank you.

DETROW: All right. When we get back, Georgia is the key to Democratic legislative hopes, and there are now two runoffs in that state that will determine control of the Senate. We'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And we're back and joined now by Emma Hurt of member station WABE in Georgia. Hey, Emma.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hello.

DETROW: Last time I saw you, we were yelling hello over a loud Common concert in an Atlanta parking lot.

HURT: (Laughter).

DETROW: And, you know, it turns out all that last-minute campaigning in Atlanta paid off for Democrats.

HURT: Yeah, Biden rally in Atlanta, my first concert of 2020 - who would have thought?

DETROW: (Laughter) But Biden came to Georgia. Kamala Harris came to Georgia. Barack Obama came to Georgia. On the presidential side, Joe Biden looks like he's on track to win it for the first time in a generation. But we are not here to talk about that. We are here to talk about the fact that Georgia also is the site where control over the Senate will be decided in January.

HURT: It all came down to this. We were hoping maybe it wouldn't, but here we are.

DETROW: (Laughter) Tell us - just give us a refresher on what exactly is happening here with these two runoff races. Why are Georgians going to be voting in January of all months?

HURT: Yeah, so we had two Senate seats up for election in November. And Georgia has this law where you have to win 50% plus one vote in order to win outright to avoid a runoff. On our regularly scheduled Senate race between Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, it was a really tight race, but there was a libertarian, and so, ultimately, neither of them won more than 50%. So they're forced into a runoff.

And then we have our special election, which was pretty much assumed to go into a runoff because there were 21 candidates on the ballot. And, in fact, that is what happened. And we have Republican incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed about a year ago, defending her seat against Democratic nominee Raphael Warnock who's the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Church in Atlanta.

DETROW: And before we come back to these two races and what's going on in Georgia, Kelsey, I feel like we cannot understate how important these outcomes are to what happens the next two years in Washington.

SNELL: Yeah. So Democrats have a - what is shaping up to be an extremely narrow majority in the House. And they are looking to control the Senate with these two races. This is what changes the balance of power in the Senate. And the balance of power in the Senate is important regardless of the House because it has a lot to do with approving judges and nominees. And the relationship between the Senate and the White House is one that's really important, particularly in the first 100 days of an administration.

One of the things that is also really, really interesting about this is that these runoff elections are happening after the first day the Congress comes into session. We know that the end of the month is when the inauguration happens. But Congress comes into session at the beginning of the month, and the Senate will not even be able to organize until these are settled. So this leaves Washington in kind of a frozen state until Georgia has its say.

DETROW: And, Kelsey, even though best-case scenario for Democrats would be 50-50, it's worth just repeating again that with the majority that the vice presidential vote would give Democrats, that means Chuck Schumer and not Mitch McConnell would decide everything that comes up for a vote or not on the Senate floor.

SNELL: Yeah. The majority party has a lot of control in the Senate. There are a lot of arguments to happen about minority rights in the Senate and what - you know, what the minority party should be able to do. That's part of why we have a conversation about the filibuster. It is an opportunity for the minority party to kind of slow things down. But the majority leader controls what goes on the floor. The majority leader decides whether or not a nominee comes to the floor. There is a lot of power in that.

There's also a lot of power in being the majority party at the head of committees, committees that can, you know, send subpoenas or can work on tax laws or, you know, there are - the list of things that committee chairs can do is extremely long and something that often gets lost in the conversation because people think, oh, well, you know, it's just a committee, right? They're not - it's not a vote at the full level of the Senate. But there's a lot of policy that gets made at that committee level.

DETROW: So, Emma, does this mean that this is basically a national referendum on control of the Senate that happens to take place in Georgia? Or are the candidates running as candidates to represent Georgia and this is just layered on top of it? Like, what is the focus of the campaigning and the ads and the conversation?

HURT: It's - I mean, I think it's both, but we're seeing this national narrative start to strengthen. Republicans in particular have come out really organized and coordinated in doing these joint events. And I mean, Marco Rubio, senator from Florida, was here earlier this week, and he said this is George's decision to make, but it's America that will live with the consequences. And that is really the pressure that is kind of settling in on Georgia voters' heads.

And so while, you know, candidates are going to continue to talk about Georgians and talk about issues that Georgians care about, I don't know whether - you know, I wonder whether all the national investment that we're expecting and already seeing is going to just cancel that out.

DETROW: Yeah. And I wonder, Kelsey, if we have any sense - I mean, Democrats just got burned so badly, spending millions and millions of dollars on Senate races that didn't work out. Like, I don't think that means that Democrats will not be donating a ton of money to these races. But have we seen any signs of how national Democrats are going to treat this state race differently based on the fact they didn't win South Carolina, they didn't win Iowa, they didn't win Maine? I could list a whole bunch of other states.

SNELL: Well, they're already arguing about how to approach it (laughter), if that's an answer. I mean, there is a fundamental tension happening for Democrats right now. One thing that they can't seem to get to an agreement on is whether or not it is useful for them to be running as a party of progressives that bring out a lot of, you know, progressive voters and people who are energized by things like a $15 minimum wage and "Medicare for All" and a Green New Deal or even just aggressive approach to climate change - whether or not it helps them to draw out large numbers of those people in already very blue areas or if they need to be appealing to a wider coalition of people, including a lot of disaffected Republicans who, you know, felt like President Trump did not represent them.

That is something that they're going to have to wrap their heads around pretty fast because, you know, January is really not that far away from here. And they have to figure out who the voter is in Georgia in particular, and it is not totally clear to me that they have figured that out.

HURT: You know, listening to you, Kelsey, I just think about how, while someone might assume that because Vice President Biden is in the lead in Georgia - there's a recount happening; you know, it still hasn't been called - that Democrats in the Senate races would be in a good spot. But actually, they're both starting from behind. Ossoff earned about 86,000 less votes than Perdue and about 100,000 less than Biden. So he underperformed Biden. And then in the special election race, all the Republicans combined earned 46,000 more votes than all the Democrats combined. A lot of numbers, but basically, Democrats are not in an ideal spot right now.

DETROW: And last question on that - I know that we all learned yet again some lessons on confidently predicting things over the last few months. But is there a sense from people you talk to on which coalition of voters it's easier to totally replicate a couple months from now in a runoff election compared to a presidential election?

HURT: I think that this is so unprecedented that, like, nobody knows who's going to turn out. I mean, historically, in Georgia, statewide referendums have been won by Republicans. But we've never had a statewide referendum with this level of pressure and national interest. So what does it mean? What is it going to do when Andrew Yang says he's moving to Georgia to canvass and many other people have, you know, already come to boost the campaign staff and to volunteer on both sides of the aisle? I just - I think that's what campaign - both the campaigns are trying to figure out right now - is, like, who are we going to be able to get to turn out, particularly because, hey; it's the holiday season coming up? It's been an exhausting pandemic for everybody, and all of that's still going on, too.

SNELL: One of the things that I'm watching really closely about this is there are a lot of debates happening in Washington about whether or not the outcome at the presidential level was a referendum on Republicans or on President Trump. And I think a lot of people are looking to Georgia as a test of that answer. I mean, the people who are willing to show up and vote in this runoff election, I think, will be a little bit telling about what a state like Georgia is feeling about politics in general.

DETROW: All right. Well, Emma, we feel bad for you that you have months and months more of campaign reporting. But to make it up for you, why don't you stick around for Can't Let It Go?

HURT: Love to.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break, and we'll be right back.

All right, we are back. We haven't done it in a couple of weeks, but we are going to end the show like we almost always do on Fridays with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about what we just can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Emma, you're up first.

HURT: I'd be honored. So what I can't let go of is something that kind of happened last week but also this week, so stick with me. So last week - as, you know, everyone's trying to figure out which state is going to take Biden over the edge, zeroing in on Georgia, watching the numbers narrow and realizing that probably the votes that are going to take Biden into the lead in Georgia are coming from this county south of Atlanta, Clayton County - they're still counting. It's Thursday night, and everybody is frantically trying to figure out when these ballots are going to be posted. And it becomes clear that there's one reporter there in Clayton County actually watching this happen. And her name's Robin Kemp, and she started in a newsroom in Clayton, which is historically underserved journalistically. And she goes from a couple hundred followers to 15,000. And long story short, now she's got a Washington Post profile. And her GoFundMe - which a couple of months ago could only raise, you know, less than $2,000 - now has $40,000.

DETROW: Whoa.

HURT: And it's really - the rise of Robin Kemp...

SNELL: Wow.

HURT: ...Has been really cool to watch.

SNELL: Oh, wow.

HURT: Yeah. She's a great just old-school newspaper woman who was laid off from her job and decided to go out and start her own site and is now being recognized for it. And it's really cool.

DETROW: That's really great. It's - especially in a situation like this where, you know, you don't know what hotspots everyone's going to be focusing on, it's always great to see people who have just been doing a great job all along suddenly get noticed for doing that same job and have their profiles just raised like that.

HURT: And she's out there today watching the recount happen, so she's still doing it.

SNELL: You know, it's a really good reminder of how much local journalism actually connects with people. I think sometimes we forget that. And as we watch local newsrooms kind of, you know, dwindle in a lot of places - people really care about this. People - this is important to people's lives. And it's really great to see that being recognized.

DETROW: Yeah. What about you, Kelsey?

SNELL: OK, mine is a little bit different (laughter).

DETROW: OK.

SNELL: Mine is an otherwise, as it usually is.

DETROW: (Laughter).

SNELL: RuPaul is the spokesmodel for Old Navy's holiday campaign. Now, the reason I can't let this go is it is incredible to me to watch RuPaul - who, you know, came up as, like, a punk and club kid in New York in the 1980s - be the spokesmodel for Old Navy both in and out of drag. I think that this is, like, a really interesting and cool moment to see that happening on, you know - at a brand that is not exactly known for having a strong edge to it (laughter).

HURT: Yeah.

DETROW: This would have been very confusing to, like, 1995 ourselves, you know?

SNELL: Right. I mean, "Cover Girl" RuPaul is now selling Jingle Jammies.

(LAUGHTER)

HURT: Oh, my God.

SNELL: Not even a joke.

HURT: I love it. It makes me think, like, #America. Old Navy and RuPaul - so good.

SNELL: (Laughter).

DETROW: But, Kelsey, are you moved enough that you will be purchasing Old Navy (laughter) items?

SNELL: Oh. Well, no. See; my family is a matching holiday jammies family anyway. So yeah, absolutely.

DETROW: OK.

SNELL: (Laughter).

DETROW: OK. All right. And I'll finish things off. And mine is more of a last week's one, but it has truly stayed with me, and I think I can be excused for that fact. I mean, just generally speaking, the Philadelphia-ness (ph) that happened in the wake of the election...

SNELL: Oh, yes.

DETROW: ...Was a lot, and I loved it. And, Kelsey, you and I were on the cutting edge of Gritty fandom.

SNELL: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: We have - because the creator of Gritty listens to the podcast and sent us hand-drawn portraits of Gritty. And I think those, you know - oh, the world discovered Gritty. That was amazing. But really, more than anything else (laughter) - just the Four Seasons Landscaping situation.

SNELL: (Laughter).

DETROW: And I say it because I was so focused on Joe Biden world that I was, like, three days late to this. And when I first saw it, the fact that, you know, Rudy Giuliani held a press conference seemingly at the Four Seasons but, in fact, no, at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in an industrial part of the city next to an adult bookstore and a crematorium - I thought it was just a - I thought it was a fake story. And I didn't believe it for, like, two hours. And then I kept Googling. That's - like, this can't be real. This can't be real. But no, it was real.

HURT: It was so real.

DETROW: And it was a lot.

HURT: Yeah.

SNELL: And so real that it's, like, a Zoom background now.

DETROW: I know.

HURT: My favorite thing about Gritty is - I don't know if you saw that there's a French newspaper that got a reader question like, what is Gritty? And this French journalist has to try to explain it.

SNELL: What?

HURT: Yeah, Le Monde. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

HURT: So yeah, Philly has really had a moment.

DETROW: I saw, like, a screenshot of a Twitter exchange between two Europeans where someone was like, what is this Gritty? And someone wrote back, I think it's the manifestation of the city as a God, kind of like Roma. Like, oh, yes. OK, that makes sense. I'm like, I don't know. That feels accurate to me.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: All I will say is that Scott and I are in a group text with our colleague Sue Davis, who also has some Philly roots. And there are a lot of Gritty GIFs.

DETROW: A lot of Gritty GIFs. Yeah.

SNELL: (Laughter).

HURT: There never can be too many.

DETROW: Well, Emma, thanks for being on the podcast. I hope you enjoyed Can't Let It Go.

HURT: It was an honor, and I'm always happy to be on.

DETROW: We - I'm sure we'll have you back on a few more times as you sort out this whole double Senate race with enormously high stakes. Good luck.

HURT: Thanks - any time.

DETROW: Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexi Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Fairrington and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Kalyani Saxena. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Joe Biden.

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

DETROW: We just found out that last week, we had the most listeners ever for our podcast. So in that note, double thank you, triple 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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