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Politics Chat: Biden Returns From Trip Abroad To Continued Fight To Pass Bills

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It has been five months to the day since Joe Biden was inaugurated president. And the easy part, if indeed governing this country can ever be called easy, is clearly over. There are bills and battles ahead as Biden tries to push his ambitious agenda through a fractious Congress with the backing of his own divided party. We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with the voting bills. Democrats are pushing two of them right now. With the For the People Act taking precedence, there was some hope that there might be a bipartisan compromise on it this past week. But then not so much. What happened?

LIASSON: That's right. There were two voting rights vehicles the Democrats are pushing. One is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would return federal oversight to major changes in local or state voting laws. But the other one, the For the People Act, which Democrats are going to have a vote on this week in the Senate - this is HR1 - this is the one with all kinds of reforms that Democrats want, like automatic voter registration, changes to campaign finance laws aimed at disclosing sources of dark money, all things Republicans oppose.

But the new development was that Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from West Virginia, proposed a slimmed-down version of this bill. It would include requiring voter ID, which Republicans support. It would also make Election Day a federal holiday. It would ensure 15 days of early voting. His fellow Democrats accepted this new version, but Republicans dismissed it out of hand.

This is an existential issue for both parties. Republicans feel that almost anything that increases voter access is bad for them. Democrats think anything that restricts voter access is bad for them. And as you said, this is an example of how the hard part is really starting for Joe Biden. You know, passing a COVID relief bill - it was an emergency measure. That was relatively easy. Now he's got this really ambitious agenda and a really slim majority in Congress. So it's a real grind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, any mention of a grind is definitely a cue to ask about an infrastructure bill update.

LIASSON: Well, there, there might be some progress. You know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ah.

LIASSON: ...There have been bipartisan negotiations continuing with 10 Republicans. They could sign on to this trillion-dollar spending bill that would not include tax increases. It's about half of what Biden originally proposed. The key thing for many Democrats is, if they're going to sign on for this compromise, would they be able to get a commitment from centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and others for a second reconciliation package, possibly $6 trillion, that would give them the other things they want, like funding for climate change, human infrastructure, like universal pre-K, elder care? That's the American Jobs Act and the American Family Plan. That would pass through something called reconciliation. We've heard about that a lot - Democratic votes only. So that's the two-step process that they were hoping to get, pass a slimmed-down version with bipartisan support and then turn to something that would be Democratic votes only.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me ask you, how likely are they to get those commitments from Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin?

LIASSON: Well, that is unclear because just to get those Democrats on board, they're going to have to make concessions as well. Manchin has said in the past that he's not against using reconciliation. But he wanted to exhaust all options first to get a bipartisan bill. And we don't know what compromises he would want at that point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So the nonpartisan parts of the infrastructure bill could pass with reconciliation. But what about the voting rights bill? - because those aren't spending bills. And...

LIASSON: No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Reconciliation only works with spending bills.

LIASSON: Absolutely. Once again, with the voting rights bill, we'd be in a situation where the fate of Joe Biden's agenda rests in Joe Manchin's hands and what he feels about the filibuster. He's been very adamant. He doesn't want to eliminate it or amend it. He believes in bipartisanship. And his political brand in ruby-red West Virginia depends on that. So there is no way that voting rights bill is going to get 60 votes. That's what it takes to break a filibuster.

Now, Joe Manchin had two things happen recently. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shot down his compromise on voting rights. He also wasn't so happy that McConnell voted against having a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Does that change his mind on the filibuster? We don't know. I kind of doubt it. But the other thing is, it's not just Joe Manchin. There are other centrist Democrats who agree with him on the filibuster, don't want to change it. And we don't know if he changes his mind, will other centrist Democrats go along, or will they hold out no matter what?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All eyes on Joe Manchin. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.

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

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