NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden is on the road this week. He wants Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, and so he's making the case for it directly to American citizens. Last night, he was in Wisconsin for a town hall produced by CNN, and host Anderson Cooper asked the question.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANDERSON COOPER: When is every American who wants it going to be able to get a vaccine?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By the end of July of this year.
KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Joe Biden took a lot of questions about vaccines and also a lot of questions about when schools are going to reopen and how.
LIASSON: Yes. School openings have become a really controversial issue and a potential vulnerability for the White House. The Republicans have been saying that Biden is not being aggressive enough on something that, to many Americans, is the most important signal of getting back to normal, in addition to the many reasons why it's important for kids and parents to get schools open.
And one of the reasons that this could be potentially damaging for the White House is that the president's press secretary had set a remarkably low bar of what Biden meant by school openings. She said that he wants half of them having in-person instruction one day per week by the end of his first 100 days. Last night, Biden said that was a mistake in communications. He wants to see K-8 classes back five days a week. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: We'll be close to that at the end of the first hundred days. We'd have a significant percentage of them being able to be open. My guess is they're going to probably be pushing to open all for - all summer, to continue like it's a different semester, try to catch up.
COOPER: Do you think that would be five days a week or just a couple...
BIDEN: I think many of them five days a week. The goal would be five days a week.
LIASSON: So that's a more ambitious goal. But as Biden pointed out, education is a state- and locally controlled thing. He can set goals, put out guidelines, but it's not up to him.
KING: Speaking of ambitious, he still wants $1.9 trillion. There are critics of his plan. There are economists also who say that's just too much money. It seems like Biden is saying, let me make the case to the people who are suffering and explain why we need $1.9 trillion.
LIASSON: Yes, and he did that last night. He pointed out that polls show that many Republicans, even Trump voters, support the package. The package has very, very high approval ratings, even though it's not popular with Republican members of Congress. Biden also defended the price tag, saying there's a consensus among economists about spending more rather than less. And, you know, both Biden's treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, and the Fed chair, Jerome Powell, have both said that a bigger package is better, and if it does spark inflation, they can handle that.
What's unclear is if the package will get any Republican support in Congress despite those bipartisan talks. You know, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Wall Street Journal that he thinks the first step to unify Republicans - and, of course, they've been badly split, deeply divided - is to unify around opposition to the relief package. This is what Republicans did in 2009 when they opposed Obama's stimulus plan.
KING: Mitch McConnell wants party unity, which makes sense, but at the same time, he's now in sort of a public fight with Donald Trump.
LIASSON: Yes, a huge fight. Trump put out a lengthy statement yesterday blasting McConnell after McConnell had excoriated Trump and blamed him for the January 6 riot. The statement said, quote, "Mitch is a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack. And if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again." He went on to threaten that where, quote, "necessary and appropriate," he will back primary rivals. We're not sure exactly what that means. But Donald Trump proving once again that he's not just the most important factor in Republican politics; he's also the biggest source of division and chaos inside the party, and he's not going to go away any time soon.
KING: Making unity tough. NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.
LIASSON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.