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Politics Chat: Democrats continue negotiations over two big spending bills

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is a legislative nightmare with two huge infrastructure bills central to President Biden's domestic agenda caught in limbo as congressional Democrats try to reach a compromise within their own party. The president is preaching patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How Mr. President...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why's it a certain calendar? (ph)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How soon are you going to get it done, sir? (ph)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It doesn't matter when. It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or six weeks. We're going to get it done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're going to get it done.

Joining us now to talk about that is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what do you think? Does it matter how long it takes?

LIASSON: Well, technically the president's right. If they get it done in six minutes, six days or six weeks, it's OK. The danger is if it's six months from now and they still haven't passed these two keystone pieces of legislation. When it comes to the urgency of passing this, Democrats are divided just like they are on everything else. You know, moderates feel it's very urgent to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which came out of the Senate this summer, less urgent for them to focus on the big social safety net bill. Progressives feel the opposite. They don't want to vote for an infrastructure bill - hard infrastructure bill - unless their social safety net bill is moving in tandem. The big danger, of course, is that they pass neither and they go home empty handed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With elections coming up, of course...

LIASSON: Yup.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...In the midterms - so moderate Democrats frustrated with progressives, progressives frustrated with moderates - where do negotiations stand out?

LIASSON: I think that both sides understand they're going to have to compromise. What they learned last week is that Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden can't rescue them. In other words, moderates thought Pelosi would be able to strong-arm enough progressives to vote for a standalone hard infrastructure bill. She couldn't do that. Progressives thought Joe Biden was going to be able to browbeat senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to agree on the big social safety net bill - couldn't do that. So the only way out of this is a compromise.

The president told progressives in a closed-door meeting on Friday, you're going to have to accept a lower top-line number on the big social safety net bill. It's not going to be $3.5 trillion. That means that Democrats are going to have to make some hard decisions about what proposals in that package are going to have to be scaled back. You know, Senator Joe Manchin said last week he wants the bill to only be $1.5 trillion. I think the White House is hoping that it would land around $2 trillion. But, you know, moderates are also going to have to compromise. And this is going to be very, very hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, one of the arguments I've heard repeatedly from progressives this last week about why they're holding out so hard is that the bill that expands the social safety net is what the American people elected them to do and the components of what in the bill are broadly popular when polled, right? People do want money for child care. They do want an expansion of health care. They do want climate change spending. And yet when Americans voted in 2020, Democrats saw their majority in the House shrink dramatically, even though these things are popular. I mean, how big of a gamble is this standoff for the party?

LIASSON: Well, it's a huge gamble. They don't have the votes. You know, in 2020, Democrats thought they were going to pick up more seats in the House and Senate. Republicans thought Democrats were going to pick up more seats in the House and Senate. But they fell short. And they didn't adjust their ambitions accordingly. They're still trying to pass this gigantic, LBJ-size legislation with minuscule majorities. It's kind of like pushing an elephant through a python.

And the other - they are right that each individual piece of this bigger bill is popular. It polls very well. But for the most part, people really don't know what's in this. They know it's $3.5 trillion. They don't know what it's supposed to do. Democrats didn't brand this as the affordable child care and community college bill, even though $3.5 trillion over 10 years is only half of the defense budget. But this is a big grab bag of democratic priorities. And it's been pretty ill-defined. And that's why Republicans can say this is just a bunch of spending.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. How are Republicans using all this turmoil to their advantage?

LIASSON: Well, they are feeling very happy. They like watching Democrats in disarray. They even have T-shirts that say (laughter) Democrats in disarray. But Mitch McConnell said he predicted that Democrats will suffer if this bill passes and suffer if it doesn't passes (ph). And what he's saying is if Democrats managed to pass these big agenda items, the Republicans will run against them as big, wasteful spenders. If Democrats fail to pass it, the Republicans will say, they couldn't deliver; they can't govern.

And remember, Democrats are the party of government. They believe government can help people. There are lots of things they want to do with government, like fix the climate, improve health care and education. Republicans in general, have a much more modest legislative agenda. When they're in control, they just want to confirm judges and cut taxes, for the most part.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.