Dems Likely To Pass COVID Relief—But The Rest Of Their Wishlist Will Be Harder : The NPR Politics Podcast Despite a strong jobs report last month, the economy is still really struggling. That means there's a lot of energy behind Democrats' COVID relief package—but passing the rest of their agenda will almost certainly be much harder.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

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Dems Likely To Pass COVID Relief—But The Rest Of Their Wishlist Will Be Harder

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Dems Likely To Pass COVID Relief—But The Rest Of Their Wishlist Will Be Harder

Dems Likely To Pass COVID Relief—But The Rest Of Their Wishlist Will Be Harder

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LEXI: Hi. This is Lexi (ph) from Westerville, Ohio.

JAMESON: This is Jameson (ph) from New Haven, Conn.

WILLIAM SCHOFIELD: This is William Schofield (ph) in Bowling Green, Ky.

DEANNA: This is Deanna (ph) from Long Island, N.Y. And I just received the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

LEXI: I am currently in my car waiting for my appointment to get my very first vaccine. I am so excited.

SCHOFIELD: I just got my second dose of the Fauci ouchie (ph). This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

(Laughter) 1:07 p.m. on Friday, March 5.

JAMESON: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, such as the COVID antibody party that's hopefully happening in my immune system right about now.

DEANNA: OK, enjoy the show.

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

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I want to join the antibody party.

KEITH: Which will be followed by the real party.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: (Laughter).

KEITH: The FOMO is so real. I did hear on the BBC this morning that FOMO is actually helping to relieve vaccine hesitancy because everybody wants in this club.

SNELL: I do.

KEITH: Me, too. 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.

KEITH: And we've got Scott Horsley here. Scott, you usually bring doom, but it's not so bad today, huh?

HORSLEY: No, I cover jobs. And it's Jobs Friday, and it's a pretty good Jobs Friday.

KEITH: So let's get to that; 8:30 this morning, the number came out. And the headline number is encouraging - better than expected, in a way.

HORSLEY: It is. There are 379,000 more jobs in February than there were in January. That's a bigger bump than most forecasters were expecting. It's certainly encouraging. We saw a lot of people going back to work in bars and restaurants, which have been kind of the windsock of this pandemic recession. That's the industry that's been maybe most sensitive to ups and downs in the coronavirus.

And as coronavirus cases went down in February and COVID restrictions were eased gradually around the country, we saw lots of hiring in the leisure and hospitality segment. Also, retailers were hiring. Manufacturers were hiring. So that's really good. The caveat, though, is there are still 9.5 million fewer jobs than there were a year ago before the pandemic. So we're not out of the woods yet, but certainly an encouraging sign for the month of February.

KEITH: Right. Nine and a half million fewer jobs is a lot fewer jobs.

HORSLEY: But you got to remember; we started out - we were down 22 million jobs. So we've made up about 56, 57% of the jobs that were lost.

SNELL: Well, one of the things we hear a lot from Republicans on Capitol Hill is that they say the economy is just getting better. And they think that, you know, we don't really need any more stimulus. We don't need the bill that they're trying to pass right now. And they point to numbers like this that, you know - that the numbers keep improving. But that number of people who still don't have jobs is really, really high. I mean, can you give some context for what people would normally be expecting in a year when we didn't, you know, have a pandemic?

HORSLEY: The jobs that are still missing are roughly what we lost during the Great Recession.

KEITH: Which was terrible.

SNELL: That's huge. That's huge.

HORSLEY: Yeah. So it's a little bit awkward for the administration because I'm sure the officials at the White House are happy that we have 379,000 more jobs than we did a month ago. But on the other hand, as they're trying to push that $1.9 trillion rescue package across the finish line, it's almost too good a report. And so they're going to remind people that, yeah, as good as this report is, there's still an awful long way to go.

KEITH: Three hundred and seventy-nine thousand jobs - that is objectively a great number of jobs coming back. How many months like that do we need?

HORSLEY: At that pace, it would take more than two years just to get back to where we were before the pandemic started. So that's a long time to wait. And certainly the White House doesn't want to go at that pace. They want to see job growth accelerated. And that's one of the reasons they're calling for this big relief package.

KEITH: Kelsey, this aid package, it is working its way through Congress. Where is it in the process and are there any hitches?

SNELL: Yeah. The Senate is supposed to vote on the final vote on this new version of the package probably sometime over the weekend. Right now, they're in the middle of a process known as a vote-a-rama, which is basically just an endless string of amendments that will end when senators get tired of offering amendments. So fun ride for that one (laughter). When they are done with that, they will vote on final passage. And Democrats say they are confident that it will pass the Senate and then will head over to the House.

The big change today was Senate Democrats agreed to make a little tweak to the way unemployment benefits would work. Under the House-passed version, there was going to be $400 in weekly federal unemployment benefits through the end of August. The Senate decided to keep the number at $300, which is what it is right now, and have it go all the way through the end of September. They also are making a change so that the first $10,200 of unemployment that had already been received by people in 2020 would be tax free, so it would not be included as part of their adjusted gross income, their total amount of taxable income. That's really important because a lot of people have already started filing. And if they filed and had claimed unemployment, this means they have to go back and file an amended return if this bill becomes law.

HORSLEY: Because they could have a bigger refund coming.

SNELL: Yeah. They could have a bigger refund. They could have a refund where they had none at all. I mean, this would change pretty significantly, you know, some people's taxes.

HORSLEY: It's also really important that they have extended these temporary emergency unemployment measures through September. Right now, those programs, which are covering millions of Americans, are set to start expiring in just less than a couple of weeks. And obviously, we've - we're not going to be back to full employment in a couple of weeks, so it's certainly important that they extend those benefits.

KEITH: And, Scott, one more thing before we let you go - as more and more people get vaccinated, economists are watching this, markets are watching this.

HORSLEY: Absolutely, because as we've been saying, really, throughout the last year, the No. 1 variable in what happens with the economy is what happens with this pandemic. If we can break the back of the pandemic, the economy could recover more quickly. If some of these new variants rear up and the pandemic gets worse, that could put the brakes on the economic recovery. So economists, the markets, everyone is watching very closely.

Right now, the trends are reasonably encouraging. We have seen a drop in the number of new infections. In fact, as one economist said the other day, right now we're seeing about 30 vaccinations for every new case of coronavirus that's diagnosed, so that's positive. We still have a pretty high level of new infections, though, so we're still at a high base. If the rollout of the vaccination continues and picks up the pace, as it looks like is going to happen, that's very good. That means more people will feel safe going out and spending money. That means there will be more demand for workers. There will be more workers who feel safe coming off the sidelines and going back to work. And it means it's easier for schools to reopen, so some of those parents can go back to work.

KEITH: As soon as the antibody party stuff starts in my body, I'm going to get a beer outdoors.

HORSLEY: The Fauci ouchie.

KEITH: Get that Fauci ouchie.

HORSLEY: No Tony baloney.

KEITH: (Laughter) All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And, Scott, we will talk to you again real soon.

HORSLEY: Good to be with y'all.

KEITH: And when we come back, a look at all of the legislation that has been zooming through the Democratically controlled House of Representatives.

And we're back. And, Sue Davis, hello. Welcome to the party.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hi there. Good to be with y'all.

KEITH: Yeah, good to have you. House Democrats are planning on passing a whole bunch of bills on everything from guns to immigration, probably, I would guess, another $15 minimum wage. And yet, then those bills will go from the Democratically controlled House over to the Democratically controlled Senate that is so very narrowly controlled that it seems as though nothing will actually happen.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's a couple of things here. I think, one, you know, Democrats made a lot of promises in this election. And part of bringing up these bills and passing them is making good on these promises. A lot of the stuff is also do-overs. This is stuff that the House Democrats passed when they were in the control of the House last year, but they just went and collected dust in a Republican-controlled Senate and obviously had a Republican president. So there's a new opportunity to try again. And they're able to take advantage of a little procedural benefit in House rules that allows them to bypass the committee process and bring things straight to the floor if they'd already passed in the last Congress, but they have to do that by April 1. So there is this sort of fast-and-furious spring effort to bring up and pass all these Democratic-priority legislation and sort of send them over the Senate to see what happens over there.

KEITH: Let's talk through some of these bills. There is one that is a massive overhaul of election and campaign finance law, you know, voting rights and also campaign finance. This is what Democrats have called HR1, which is a sort of symbolic designation that majorities always give to what they consider their biggest priority as the majority. And this bill is huge. I mean, it would do so much to not only how elections are run but how campaign finance laws are regulated and would even do things to what Democrats say would rule in corruption or potential corruption. And it would have - do things like require presidents to disclose their taxes - hugely popular among Democrats, unanimously supported by the caucus but also equally opposed by Republicans who see this - they would call it a power grab. They would say that it's Democrats trying to restructure elections to make it easier for Democrats to win elections. There's probably some truth to that there. But Democrats also see this as sort of - Kelsey, I think I would say maybe it's like their biggest symbolic piece of legislation. This is the thing where the heart of the Democratic Party lies right now.

SNELL: Well, like, this is also something that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, has been talking about for years. This is something that she was talking - some of these concepts were things they were talking about before all of the drama around the 2020 election. And it's something that kind of became a bigger push because of the 2020 election. And Democrats are very, very united on it.

KEITH: And then another bill is named for George Floyd. He is the man who was killed by police in Minneapolis last year, a Black man held under an officer's knee in a chokehold. And that sparked the summer of protests. Now there's a bill named after him.

DAVIS: Yeah, and this is another piece of legislation that Democrats passed last year and are doing it again - and a familiar piece of legislation. It would do things like ban those chokeholds. It would affect the so-called qualified immunity that officers get, so it'd be easier to sue police for use of force or for misconduct. It would create new databases to sort of track police misconduct, and it would direct more money to community policing efforts. There's, like, maybe a little bit more bipartisan agreement here. Tim Scott, who's a Republican from South Carolina in the Senate, had a competing bill. But it's one of those issues where even where there's, like, some agreement between the two parties, the final product, they just are really too far apart to probably find some agreement. But I would say that this is not something that Republicans oppose as intensely as they do HR1.

SNELL: The question of qualified immunity was a really, really big and controversial problem when they were writing this bill. And that controversy is not - has not dissipated in the months since it first passed.

KEITH: So is this all just, like, feel-good-for-Democrats messaging bills? Or is there something more going on here?

DAVIS: I mean, I think it can be both. I think that there is a lot of messaging that goes on here, but I think this is Democrats making good to a lot of their constituencies. In the next couple of weeks - well, they've already passed another bill called the Equality Act, which would explicitly ban discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity. They have plans coming up in the weeks ahead to do things like universal background check legislation and other gun bills. They want to bring up the Equal Rights Amendment to add to the Constitution. They want to renew the Violence Against Women Act. They're even talking about bringing up the DREAM Act that would provide a path to citizenship for certain people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. And these are all big Democratic priorities, but they have huge constituencies. So I think it's about keeping elements of the party happy.

And yeah, there's also a tactical strategy here - is that I think Democrats, especially in the House, are trying to keep this pressure campaign up on the Senate, not just to act on these measures but to maybe go so far as to change the rules of the Senate to get some of them done if Republican opposition to all of them holds strong.

SNELL: I mean, the one thing that I hear a lot from Democrats is they feel like doing this, passing all of these bills again in the House has a downside because they worry that some, you know - some voters are going to wonder why Democrats just didn't get everything done. They - people on the face see, you know, Democrats control the Senate. Democrats should move these bills. But the people who support getting rid of the filibuster say that's useful to them to kind of drive home the point that they say is necessary to change the Senate rules if - that a majority is a majority, and the majority should be able to act.

KEITH: OK, so record-scratch moment - you said get rid of the filibuster. So that is kind of, like, where all of this leads or it's the inevitable next question. Like, why don't Democrats just get rid of this 60-vote threshold that is preventing them from doing anything in the Senate? So can we just quickly go through what the filibuster is, why it exists and why people want to get rid of it?

SNELL: So the filibuster is - essentially, there is a procedural vote before the Senate can move to a final vote on any bill. And that procedural vote requires 60 votes in order to move forward. And that means you would have to have some sort of bipartisan agreement. In most cases in the Senate, it's very rare that we see a supermajority for one party large enough to just move bills without having to work across the aisle. I mean, that's the what of it. That's just the basic mechanics of how the filibuster works.

DAVIS: The filibuster has existed in some form for a very long time in the Senate. It obviously rose in prominence and use certainly in the 1960s to try to block the Civil Rights Act from getting through. And it's sort of ebbed and flowed since then in that era, but certainly in the past 10 to 20 years, as polarization and the parties have drifted further and further apart, the use of the filibuster has become so commonplace now that essentially it blocks everything from moving in the Senate. And it is really the defining quality of the Senate in so many ways. The Senate is not designed to be a majoritarian institution. It's supposed to be an institution that gathers bigger consensus on the big issues of the day. Where Democrats have become deeply frustrated with it - and I would say this has really happened only in recent years - the filibuster used to be much more seen as this hollowed thing by among senators that must be protected to define the institution. And Democrats just see it now as this sort of undemocratic - little D - undemocratic relic from the past that is stopping legislation from advancing that the vast majority of the public in many cases supports. I think universal background checks for gun purchases is one example that Democrats point to a lot as a bill that has something that polls regularly about 70% of the public say they would support legislation along those lines. And it's fundamentally incapable of getting through the modern Senate because of that 60-vote threshold.

KEITH: Why don't they just get rid of it?

DAVIS: They don't have the votes.

KEITH: Democrats control the Senate right now.

DAVIS: They have a 50/50 Senate, so control is a very, very loose term when you have that narrow of a majority. But Chuck Schumer, who's the majority leader, doesn't have the votes to blow up the filibuster. I think most Senate Democrats would support changing the rules in some capacity. Now, when we talk about changing the filibuster, there's a lot of different ways we can do that. And I will not bore our listeners with Senate procedural rules. But there's, you know, consensus among the Democrats on...

KEITH: Stay tuned for that podcast.

DAVIS: Yeah, it might be coming to you in your feed sometime soon. You know, he doesn't have the votes. And he mainly doesn't have the votes because there's a couple of roadblocks. Some moderate senators just don't feel like it's time. They're worried about the institution. They're worried about the unintended consequences of doing something like that. And they're worried that you do it under the guise of making things better, could it make things worse? There's varying degrees of opposition to it. I think two of the most critical and outspoken opponents right now are Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin has just been out there very aggressively saying he will never, ever, ever vote to change the filibuster. He was asked again last week, hey, maybe - could you see things changing? And he essentially yelled at the reporters who asked him. And he said, never.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MANCHIN: Never. Jesus Christ, what don't you understand about never?

DAVIS: He literally said, Jesus Christ, what don't you understand about never? So as long as Joe Manchin is a never and there's a 50-50 Senate, Chuck Schumer doesn't have a choice. It's just not going to happen.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, Can't Let It Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. It is really, truly my favorite part of the pod. Sue, what can't you let go of?

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go of involves the tooch (ph).

KEITH: The - wait. What? The what?

DAVIS: And, Kelsey, I'm glad you're in the pod today because the last two CLIG we were both part of, Stanley Tucci.

KEITH: Oh, OK, because the tooch just sounded a little - I don't know.

DAVIS: That's what we superfans call him, the tooch. He has a new show on CNN called "Searching for Italy." And it is Stanley Tucci wandering Italy, eating amazing food and, like, these beautiful Italian vistas. And I can't let it go because it has been - I don't know about you guys, but I'm like, it's the end of winter. I've got serious cabin fever. I need spring time. We're coming up on the one year of the pandemic anniversary. Like, I just have this like - I need to get out in the world. And this is as close as I can get to it right now. And it is such fun, indulgent viewing. And I'm not alone in this because apparently it is like one of the most popular shows that's ever debuted on a cable network ever.

SNELL: Really?

DAVIS: The country needs the tooch right now. It's only had three episodes. It's already been renewed for a second season. It's like one of CNN's best showings ever. Some people are saying it's kind of like he may be the heir to like an Anthony Bourdain-type person who can do these like travel shows where he takes you to these like amazing places. But it is the thing that has truly, deeply given me the most escapist joy of late. And there was a most recent episode last Sunday night, and I have literally held off watching it all week because I want this to be my Friday night. Like, I'm like settling in tonight to spend it with the tooch. And if you haven't started watching it, highly recommend.

SNELL: Wait. Does it not make you feel a little bit sad? Like, is it able to find that space where you're like, oh, I'm not sad about being stuck indoors watching this?

DAVIS: It's not sad because it's the tooch. He's just so charming. You just - you're just - it feels like you're hanging out with him. And it's sad because I want to eat the food and be at the places, but it's so beautifully shot that it's just like - it's just a fun show to watch.

KEITH: When was it taped? Was it taped before the pandemic or during?

DAVIS: Part of it was taped during it. And then they took a hiatus. And then they've gone back in. And there is scenes in it where they're wearing masks and some of the restaurants are closed. So it's like - it's pandemic aware. And it does kind of like talk about it. And part of what's good about it is he's like focusing on these, like, restaurants that have been affected by the pandemic that hopefully his show's going to, like, help them. So there's like a feel-good thing about it, too.

KEITH: Yeah. I have my TV on mute on CNN frequently. And those promo videos, it just makes me hungry like multiple times a day.

DAVIS: That's true. It will make you hungry. It will definitely make you hungry.

KEITH: Give me the gnocchi.

DAVIS: Tam, what can't you let go this week?

KEITH: So Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton. I mean, like, great American. She has donated millions of books to children. She obviously has written an anthem for working women with "9 To 5." She has really had a renaissance of just, like, everyone becoming a Dolly superfan. And because she's amazing, she gave a million dollars to Vanderbilt University for work related to the Moderna vaccine. Now, she waited a little while to get her vaccine because she said she wanted to wait her turn. And she didn't want special treatment just because she's Dolly and she gave a million dollars to the effort. But this week, Dolly Parton got her vaccine.

DAVIS: I saw that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLLY PARTON: That didn't hurt, just stung a little bit, but that was from the alcohol pad, I think. Right? OK.

KEITH: And it is the most adorable, amazing thing. She wore a cold shoulder shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: I even had a little cutout in my shirt - I matched it over here - because I'm sure you can just reach down in there and surely find a muscle somewhere.

DAVIS: Oh, do you know how I think that is? Do you know this is my favorite Dolly Parton trivia - that there has long been a rumor that she has, like, sleeve tattoos?

SNELL: Yes, there is. This is like one of the big conspiracy theories.

DAVIS: Yeah. But she never shows them in public. So that shirt, I think, is only going to continue to fuel the Dolly tattoo, why won't she show us? Because it's like just the shoulder cut out, right?

KEITH: Whoa.

SNELL: Yeah, so that they could do the shot without her having to reveal her arms. Yeah.

KEITH: Whoa. I really thought this was just about like the convenience of a cold shoulder shirt because you don't even have to roll up your sleeve. It's just a hole right there.

DAVIS: She gets asked about this. And she just like avoids answering it, which is really funny.

SNELL: Really?

DAVIS: Yeah. She won't, like, answer the question. And yeah, it's a whole thing. I also like that she sang vaccine, vaccine to the tune of "Jolene," "Jolene."

KEITH: I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: (Singing) Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine. I'm begging of you, please don't hesitate. Vaccine.

DAVIS: You know, that's a great PSA because I feel like there are a group of people that, like, Dolly's a really powerful influencer. So go get your vaccines, people. Dolly says so.

KEITH: So, Kelsey, what can you let go of?

SNELL: My Can't Let It Go is just the concept of spring.

DAVIS: (Laughter) Time is a flat circle.

SNELL: I just can't stop thinking about how - so in D.C., we had a couple of days where it was sunny. And it was warm enough that you didn't have to wear a big, puffy winter jacket. And it was the most refreshing change. And it completely changed the way that I was feeling about the world. So it's cold again. It is very windy.

KEITH: It was 29 degrees when I went running this morning.

SNELL: Yeah.

KEITH: Spring was gone again.

SNELL: Spring was - it was like a tease. But, like, I can't let go of it. I'm holding on to this belief that, like, we can do this. And we will be outside. And we will be happy. And it is though it's been breaking through my whole week.

DAVIS: I'm not even kidding you, today I Zillowed (ph) houses on the beach in California just to, like, see what we're talking about. The answer is it's very expensive. But partly because of my winter burnout, I'm like, can you imagine living in a place where it's just warm all year long? I got some serious, serious sun needs if it's not clear in my CLIGs.

KEITH: I just feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And there is also just more light. And Dolly Parton is there.

SNELL: This is the first week where I've started to actually feel that, so it's exciting.

KEITH: Yeah. All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Obi (ph).

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

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

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I also cover Congress.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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