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Disagreements Among Democrats In Congress Are Holding Up Biden's Legislative Agenda

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When President Joe Biden took office, he outlined an ambitious and expensive agenda, one that could reshape American society and rebuild a lot of infrastructure. But that agenda is at risk because of disagreement among congressional members within his own party. Joining us now to talk about how Democratic leaders are trying to navigate a path forward is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hey there, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: And our congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Welcome to you.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: Deirdre, I want to start with you. What exactly is Biden trying to get his party to go along with?

WALSH: Well, like you said, Audie, this is an ambitious legislative agenda. On top of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill for roads and bridges, Democrats are struggling to work out a broader $3.5 trillion spending package. It has major policy initiatives like health care, climate, education. But as you noted, the two camps inside the Democratic Party, the moderates and the progressives, still haven't agreed on the size or the scope of this broader bill. And, oh, yeah, they still haven't figured out how to pay for it.

KEITH: And President Biden insisted today that they are going to find a way to pay for all of it so that it doesn't add to the debt. But the thing is if they are talking about size and scope and pay-fors, they're not talking about exactly what's in it. And if they are not able to tell the public what is in this bill, then they're having a difficult time. And President Biden alluded to that today, saying that he thought he'd be spending more time out there selling this to the American people.

CORNISH: What are the actual policy differences that are being worked through in this moment, Deirdre?

WALSH: There are some big ones. I mean, for example, Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders wants to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage, but that's going to be expensive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to bolster Obamacare, which is a legacy issue for her. On climate, progressives want expansive tax credits to incentivize businesses to go green. But moderate West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin from a coal state totally opposes that and thinks the private sector is already doing this. There's also a big fight over the issue of reducing prescription drug prices. That's one of the most popular pieces in this.

CORNISH: Tamara, Biden on the campaign trail talked a lot about his experience as a senator, how that would somehow help him deal with Congress if he were elected president. And we even saw this past week he went to the White House - right? - to try and reach an agreement. But is that playing out?

KEITH: Yeah. He brought many, many members of Congress. They had a very nice meeting. They all said it was great. They didn't come away with any great new progress. And this comes at a time when President Biden is in the midst of a rough stretch. His approval is way down for the handling of the pandemic due to the delta variant. There have been weeks of bad headlines around Afghanistan, images of Haitian migrants at the southern U.S. border. He needs some wins.

When he was running, he promised he could govern competently. He could handle foreign policy and legislate. And all of those things are being tested now. Asked about all this today, though, President Biden was taking sort of a zen approach. He's someone who has seen the legislative sausage made for decades. And it's messy, and it takes time. And often it looks like everything is falling apart until all of a sudden, it isn't, and there's a deal, which is essentially what Biden said today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Because it's going to go up, and it's going to go down. It's going to go up. And hopefully at the end of the day, I'll be able to deliver on what I said I would do.

KEITH: Whether for show or because he and others in the White House really believe it, Biden just doesn't seem like a man worried about failure right now. And in fact, he said he expects this process on the infrastructure and economy bills will keep playing out until the end of this year.

CORNISH: And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi obviously has this reputation as being a deal-maker but specifically a reputation for keeping the conference voting in the same direction. What's at stake for her?

WALSH: There's a lot at stake. I mean, she does have a lot of experience and has done this on big policy fights before like health care. But she has to broker the deal inside the House, but she also has to deal with the dynamic of the moderate Democrats in the Senate. I talked to Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin today, who was pretty blunt about the stakes here.

JAMIE RASKIN: Failure - policy failure here is not really a political option for the Democrats because for us not to get this through would mean risking a loss in 2022, a loss in 2024. And that's a serious defeat for the American people if we could be heading back into some kind of rule by Donald Trump.

WALSH: And Raskin isn't the only Democrat saying that. A lot of Democrats keep giving this answer about not failing, but they still have a long ways to go in terms of how to get there.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh and White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thanks to you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.