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Politics chat: Democrats champion Build Back Better bill while Republicans decry cost

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For Democrats, there is some momentum after so many months of infighting on Capitol Hill. The infrastructure bill is now law, and the Ambitious Social Spending Bill, known as Build Back Better, is in the hands of the Senate. There's also some positive news about the economy coming after weeks of rising consumer prices. Joining me now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with that good news. Revised job numbers for the summer tell a very different story than we originally heard, right?

LIASSON: That's right. There was a big underestimation of the number of jobs that were created over the summer, actually 626,000 jobs. And this kind of revision is pretty normal. It's part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' work. They go back over their numbers, and they adjust them if they were incomplete. But it was a surprise. And if anyone was paying attention, it really changes the narrative of those, quote, "disappointing monthly reports". And that narrative certainly contributed to Biden's sagging approval ratings.

FADEL: So what does that mean for the president's economic agenda, though, if anything? Concern about inflation in an overheated economy are part of the argument against the Build Back Better package. Another part is the idea that the economy is recovering fine without another round of legislation. How are Democrats going to make their case for this package?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, they're saying this - the legislation is not stimulus. It's not meant to goose the economy. It's meant to spend money on infrastructure and other things over many, many years. But this was the week that Democrats started in earnest to message these bills. You know, up until now, polls have shown that when people are informed about individual pieces of the bill - help to pay for child care, elder care, rebuilding bridges, universal broadband - they like those things. But polls also show Americans didn't really understand what was in these bills at all.

So the president held a big signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill. He went to New Hampshire to look at a bridge. He went to Detroit to look at electric vehicles. House Democrats are going back to their districts to talk about what else is in the bill. This is the Democrats' theory of the case. They believe that if they deliver with aid for people to help people do ordinary things, like pay for child care, pay for elder care, and they communicate that to people that they have delivered, voters will reward them.

FADEL: And Republicans - how are they arguing against this bill?

LIASSON: Well, they're saying it's just too big, too expensive. What's really interesting about the Republican arguments is they're really not arguing against specific things in the bill. They're not saying, no, I don't think your grandma should get help from Medicare to pay for hearing aids. And the other thing that Republicans are doing that is really galling to Democrats is that some Republicans who voted no on the infrastructure bill, are going back to their districts and saying, look. We're getting money to fix this road or repair this bridge or expand broadband, even though they voted against it. And Democrats say that's why they need to not only communicate what's in the bills, but they also need to make a partisan contrast to convince voters that they delivered while Republicans stood in the way.

FADEL: So even if congressional Democrats could effectively get their messaging together, would it be enough to keep them in power?

LIASSON: That is an excellent question. You know, whenever a party's in trouble, the problem is usually presented by them as the messaging, not the substance. Now, in the Democrats' case, there is some truth to that, but there is also so much else working against the Democrats this year. The pandemic is still with us. Inflation seems more stubborn, less transitory than people thought. There's a historic pattern of voters blaming the party in power when things aren't going well, especially when that party controls Congress and the White House. And Republicans have big structural advantages in these midterms. The biggest advantage they have is just controlling how legislative districts are drawn. They're going to protect their members through gerrymandered safe districts. There's nothing Democrats can do about that. And Republicans only need a net five seats to pick up the majority in the House.

FADEL: Mara, I want to ask about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. It's no secret that he wants to be speaker. What do his actions last week tell us about how confident he is in that future?

LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt that he's confident about Republicans taking back the House. He's extremely confident about that. I think his actions tell us that he's less confident about elect - being elected speaker if and when Republicans do take the majority. I think that's one of the reasons that he didn't move to discipline Congressman Paul Gosar after Gosar tweeted a violent animated video showing a character that looked like Gosar stabbing and killing another character that looked like Congresswoman...

FADEL: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and then attacking President Biden. House Democrats censured Gosar. They took him off his committees. But McCarthy said that when the Republicans take control, he's going to give Gosar better committee assignments and take revenge on Democrats. That tells you not just how bad relations are between the parties on the Hill but also how reluctant Republicans are to disavow the violent rhetoric and actions of parts of their right-wing base. Many Republicans still defend the January 6 insurrectionists. And it's not clear if there will be any political price to pay for that.

FADEL: Finally, President Biden released details of his medical exam conducted right before he turned 79, and it was full of details. Can you tell us more about that?

LIASSON: Yeah. Well, he's the oldest first-term president in U.S. history, so there's a lot of interest in his physical health. His physician says he remains fit for duty. He is a healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male. He does have reflux. And he also has some arthritis of the spine.

FADEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.

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