Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on debt limit, infrastructure, new Supreme Court term

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including Senate Republicans’ standoff with President Joe Biden over the debt ceiling, continued Democratic infighting over the infrastructure and spending bills, and the hot-button issues at stake in the Supreme Court this term.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stare-downs in Washington on the debt ceiling and the Biden agenda have left President Biden working to keep the country from defaulting on its debt and to bring Democrats together over government spending priorities.

    Here to talk about it all, our Politics Monday team, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Hello to both of you on this Monday. Good to see you.

    So, let's just dive right in.

    Tam, it was our lead story tonight, this standoff between President Biden and the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, pointing fingers at each other over something that we know has to be raised. The debt ceiling, it can't sit where it is. It has to go up, so what is this all about?

  • Tamara Keith, National Public Radio:

    Every time there is a debt ceiling fight, there are fingers pointed everywhere, and it is all about spending that has already happened.

    This isn't about spending that is coming in the future. This is allowing us to pay our bills as a country. But President Biden and Mitch McConnell have now exchanged letters and words. And they are not seemingly looking for a path out of this. They are both dug in.

    The question is, does the public care? Maybe not right now. If the U.S. defaults on its debt, the public will suddenly care a lot. And then they will start wondering whose fault it was. And, right now, they're pointing in opposite directions, trying to make sure that the other one gets the blame.

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, some people look at this at political games, but there are real consequences.

  • Amy Walter:

    There are real consequences for the stare-down if both of them refuse to blink.

    But, to Tam's point, this has been going on for so long that even the markets have now sometimes — although, today, I think there was a little blip. But even they have sort of assumed that, look, this is just gamesmanship and eventually this is going to get worked out. This is just a political process.

    But there are real consequences. And the real challenge right now is that — the president himself and his party, they are the ones in charge. And so, when it comes to the blame game, Democrats — Tam is correct — they will say to Republicans, hey, this is pretty hypocritical, you guys not allowing a vote on this, considering the fact that you voted on it when Donald Trump was president.

    And, also, we're paying for a lot of the programs you all voted for. That is what we are doing.

    But Republicans will say you know, you know what? And this is what they are saying. We don't like the $3.5 trillion package you are putting together. And if we give you a vote on the debt ceiling, it is basically saying we're OK with this amount of spending, which we're not. And guess what? Democrats, you have the votes. You go ahead and do it. You don't want to do it because you don't want to take the tough votes.

    And, by the way, just one more quick thing. It drags out this process for the president's agenda. And Democrats are so eager to be done with this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, meanwhile, Tam, we remember it wasn't that many decades ago that Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell were actually able to work together on a few things.

  • Tamara Keith:

    It wasn't even decades ago. In fact, they even worked together to settle a previous debt ceiling dispute.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And it's possible they will figure it out this time.

    But McConnell is taking this hard line, essentially saying that Republicans are going to filibuster a clean debt ceiling increase. He wants Democrats to have to completely own it, to do this procedural thing called reconciliation, which we have been talking about a lot for President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

    But they want them to use this thing that will draw more attention to the debt ceiling being raised, will take time, will take floor time in the Senate. The White House is saying, oh, it's risky to do that because what if it takes too long? But having it take too long, I think, is part of the goal for Mitch McConnell to really make Democrats own this and not just vote on it quickly late at night.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can one side or another, Amy, get badly burned by this, or do they just — does it just pass and we look back and there they go again?

  • Amy Walter:

    And there they go again.

    I do think the public is definitely frustrated and seeing both sides. Nobody has a clean bill of health on the hypocrisy scale, right, or whatever. I mixed a lot of metaphors there. But I think you know where I'm going.

    But, as I said, the party in power gets all the blame. And so the president himself, we have been talking a lot these past few weeks about the fact that he's been struggling politically. He needs a big win. People don't understand what this is all about. The president will take the blame when things go poorly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, this isn't the only headache the president is dealing with right now, Tam.

    What we spent so many hours thinking about, talking about last week, the division among Democrats over infrastructure and over this bigger social spending bill, any — I mean, what happens if this just drags on?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, this is going to just drag on.

    They're talking about Halloween. President Biden has previously talked about Christmas as sort of the informal deadline in his mind. This was sort of a self-imposed deadline on Thursday that they missed a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan.

    The reality, which has been sort of clear, but was crystallized by last week, is that Democrats have to figure out how to agree amongst themselves on the whole thing, the big bipartisan — the Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure plan. They have to agree on all of it, and they don't yet.

    But there have been past big bills that looked like they just weren't going to happen, the Republican tax cut under President Trump, the Affordable Care Act under President Obama. And round about Christmastime, things that seemed impossible suddenly were like, oh, why did we think that wouldn't happen?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. It's a mouthful.

    But could it really, Amy, go on that long?

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. And it probably will. I think the end of October is way too optimistic.

    So it is probably the end of the year. And just to appreciate what Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are dealing with here, going back to some of those votes, or I go all the way back to the '90s with Bill Clinton, you know, Clinton lost about 40 Democrats in the House on his big reconciliation bill. Trump lost 13 Republicans on that tax bill that Tam was referring to.

    Nancy Pelosi can afford three defections, three. Oh, Obama lost 40-something votes on health care, on Obamacare. So she does — she has literally no room for error, which is where this started at the very beginning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Different…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    We have known all along, a 50/50 Senate, three-seat margin in the House.

    This cannot just — you can't sort of like just muscle this through. This is precision legislating.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And Democrats hold all the control, all the levers of power, but they barely, barely have a grasp on any of them.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, and not much time left, but I really want to ask you about what John Yang was talking to Marcia Coyle about.

    And that is the Supreme Court term starting today. They have got a number of high-profile cases coming up, including Mississippi abortion law that would allow — it essentially tightens the restrictions around abortions. And then we have, of course, just seen the Supreme Court uphold the Texas law that permits regular people to sue abortion providers.

    We looked at a poll that — this is the Marist poll that the "NewsHour" does with NPR. Both of them are not liked by a majority of Americans look at this; 74 percent of Americans say they don't agree with the legal action by private citizens; 58 percent don't like this so-called cardiac activity law.

    This is — in other words, Tam, my question is, it's not just something that the courts have to worry about. The public is invested in this politically.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And yet there is no political mechanism in America to have a referendum to have the will of the people. And there's no such thing as settled law.

    There's precedent. There's super precedent. But those things can change over time. And that is what is potentially happening here.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

    And the question too, is, does that translate into voting behavior? In other words, how salient is that issue for voters, who may disapprove of many of these things, but they say, you know what? Coronavirus, the COVID. issue is my number one priority. The economy is my number one priority. I — this is important to me, but not as important as those other things.

    We're not going to really understand where the salience is until first we see the rulings, but then also understand where we are come next fall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And which voters could get motivated by whatever happens.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. That's right. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right. Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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