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Negotiations over a once-and-former $3.5 trillion spending pack continue

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The gears of Washington, D.C., grind, if slowly, as Democrats continue negotiations over a once-and-former $3.5 trillion spending package. It has been a divisive debate among Democrats. But in a CNN town hall Thursday, President Biden brought a bit of levity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you close to a deal?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think so. You know, look; I've been a - I was a senator for 370 years.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: And I was never - I was relatively good at putting together deals.

SIMON: NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us now. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Where are they? How much closer? Are they any closer to passing what, of course, are billed as the party's and the president's priorities?

MONTANARO: Well, as we heard there, Biden was pretty specific and candid in that town hall - more so than we're used to hearing presidents talk about negotiations in Congress. And that's because Democrats appear to be in the final stages of a deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said 90% of everything is written and agreed to.

From what we know, it looks like the package will be less than $2 trillion. You mentioned that $3.5 trillion original price tag. That's because things like free community college is out. Paid family leave is down from 12 weeks to four. And it looks like significantly raising the corporate tax rate won't happen. Biden said simply he doesn't have the votes to get that stuff through, even though he wants those things. And that's still because of two Democratic senators who've been holding out, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are opposed, and they're just not budging.

That said, $2 trillion - still pretty big price tag. And there are a lot of things in there for the left to like. Democrats seem to have a renewed sense of optimism and urgency for this deal. We could see a framework before the president heads to Europe next week for two big conferences. And Democrats certainly need some kind of momentum boost right now because this process has dragged on and has really only served to highlight rifts within the party.

SIMON: Let's move now to the Supreme Court because they refused to block a Texas law that bans abortions. But the court has agreed to hear arguments in two cases that challenge the law on November 1.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And that's a very fast timeline, which in and of itself should be an acknowledgement that the law is pretty controversial and important. You know, abortions have essentially been halted throughout the state. It's a real women's health care issue right now.

And as for what the Supreme Court's planning on doing, we learned that the justices are specifically examining the law's unusual enforcement mechanism, which you might remember is in the hands of private citizens. They're empowered to sue anyone who aids someone in getting an abortion. What the court's not going to do is look at the constitutionality of the entire law. Now, the law does remain in place until the court issues an opinion, which that could still take a while, as you know following the court.

And Justice Sonia Sotomayor, liberal justice, dissented with keeping the law in place. She said that hearing of the arguments is, quote, "cold comfort to Texas women who are seeking abortion care" now. And look; the Supreme Court - you know, now the conservative majority - it's going to be hearing another case out of Mississippi in December. And we're going to be seeing the court define now for generations to come just what types of restrictions on abortions a majority of the justices see as legal.

SIMON: NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.