Leigh Ann Caldwell, PBS Moderator, Washington Week: Biden on the brink of a big legislative win and lessons learned from this week's primaries.
Joe Biden, President of the United States: Five hundred and twenty-eight thousand jobs were added just last month, 528,000 jobs.
Caldwell: President Biden hails robust jobs numbers, as a hallmark of his domestic agenda comes closer than ever to passage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): The one thing I can tell you about this bill, it will not lower inflation.
Caldwell: Republicans on the defense. Democrats appearing to secure the needed votes --
Sen. Check Schumer (D-NY): I believe we will have 50 votes to pass this legislation at the end of the day.
Caldwell: -- after the last Democratic holdout lends her support behind the landmark climate and healthcare bill.
Unidentified Female: And I’m not going to say how I voted. But I do not want any more rights taken away from anybody.
Kari Lake (R), Arizona Gubernatorial Candidate: We are going to restore honesty and faith in our elections. No more stolen elections.
Caldwell: This week's primaries sending signals that abortion access and denying the results of the 2020 election are driving issues at the polls.
Good evening. And welcome to Washington Week. I’m Leigh Ann Caldwell of "The Washington Post." Yamiche Alcindor is away.
It's been a successful week for President Biden announcing the killing of al Qaeda's top leader, celebrating the passage of two long-sought bills, the microchips manufacturing bill and the PACT Act helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. This week ended with better-than-expected job numbers, calming fears of a recession.
But another major domestic item remains one that could define Biden's presidency, a bill tackling climate change, health care and taxes. If it sounds familiar, well, it is. It's the president's Build Back Better agenda revived but revised to a fraction of its original size and operating under a new name, the Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans are united in opposition.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY): The Democrats are at it again trying to raise taxes and increase government spending at a time of high inflation and a time of recession.
Caldwell: But they have no path to block it.
After tense negotiations, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are yow onboard likely locking in the votes needed in the evenly divided Senate, placing President Biden one step closer to a landmark achievement only three months from the midterm elections.
Joining me tonight to discuss this and more: Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post," and joining us here in studio, Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for "The New York Times," and Asma Khalid, White House correspondent for NPR.
Carl, I want to sat with you.
Carl Hulse, Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times: Sure.
Caldwell: You cover the Senate. We are in the Senate halls, Congress, every single day. Kristen Sinema's support for this legislation is essential. But the Senate still has to pass this.
So what's the state of play, what can go wrong?
Hulse: Yeah. There are some hurdles yet to come including, you know, a storied vote-a-rama where the Republicans will offer amendment after amendment to try and catch them, the Democrats, in a politically difficult spot. And try to change the bill.
But the Democrats are on track to pass this, sometime Sunday, Monday, depending on how things play out. I was talking to senators in the hallway with you the other day, the Democrats are really feeling it, you know? They're -- one said ecstatic that they think they can get this through. This was dead just a few weeks ago. And now they're on the verge of walking out of town for august with this big win after some other wins.
And this is -- it isn't the same size of course as the original one. But there's some things in here the Democrats have fought for for years on drug pricing. And, you know, even that bill by itself would have been a major accomplishment.
The Democrats think they finally got the best of Mitch McConnell which they haven't been able to do many times before.
Caldwell: So I want to follow up. I mean, this is -- like you mentioned, it doesn't have everything Democrats wanted in it. All of the care economy stuff has been left out. But it does have, you know, massive spending on climate change legislation, drug negotiations, Medicare.
Hulse: Yeah, lower drug prices.
Caldwell: Yeah, lower drug prices, and some tax changes.
I want to ask you specifically about one of those tax changes. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, she was opposed to closing that loophole for hedge funds, managers, the carried interest loophole. Why does she not support it? Is it that Democratic --
Hulse: She has made taxes a red line for her throughout this entire -- to the surprise of a lot of people. I think she's very responsive to the business interests in Arizona, her donors honestly who have backed her, she -- but the bottom line is she needed to change something in the bill. And Democrats knew that she would insist on some changes.
She had to show that she exerted influence over this bill. It was negotiated between Schumer and Joe Manchin but she needed to flex her muscle a little bit. Democrats knew they were going to have to give her some ground and if this was what they were going to have to give, I think they're okay with it. They replaced it with another tax.
Caldwell: So, Ashley, I want to turn to you. Can you take us inside the White House? You have covered this White House for a while. And what are -- this has been a pretty good week for President Biden.
Are aides and people close to the president, are they optimistic? Are they knocking on wood? Are they nervous still? What is the mood? What are they saying?
Ashley Parker, White House Bureau Chief, The Washington Post: It's -- it's been a great week and a little -- almost a fortnight for President Biden. And it’s funny, this has coincided with him having COVID and then having a rebound case of COVID and having to sort of work from home as it were, although, of course, when your home is the White House, that's quite a potent place to work.
And his team has very much pushed back on the assertion -- my colleague asked the press secretary in the briefing -- you know, what do you make of the fact that Biden has been isolating when all of this has come together including -- you haven't mentioned it yet -- but the strike on the terrorist al-Zawahiri? And their answer is that, look, this is -- they have laid the groundwork they would argue for this for months now.
Stuff like the CHIPS bill and -- for the semiconductor industry. This is something they identified as a real problem at the beginning of the pandemic. And it's just now coming to fruition.
They believe that the strike on Zawahiri was a success that shows that his Afghanistan withdrawal which he took a huge political hit for just about a year ago, it shows that they can still fight terrorists inside the country.
So they are incredibly excited and it's worth noting also that after Senator Manchin pulled out of sort of the previous negotiations and everyone was furious with him, saying he was ruining the world's climate, was sort of the criticism that he got from a number of activists and Democrats, there were people inside the White House even who sort of said you know what? Maybe we were wrong to negotiate with Senator Manchin. Maybe -- maybe a red state Democrat from West Virginia who gets -- whose donors are coal and fossil fuel folks was never going to be onboard with this.
So that twist, too, was -- came to the surprise and delight of people inside the Biden administration.
Caldwell: And, Ashley, didn't this surprise the White House as well? Or at least the aides that this deal actually came together?
Parker: The Manchin-Schumer part absolutely. There were very few people inside the White House who knew that this was coming together. There was a sense -- Manchin's people had told Brian Deese that they had resumed negotiations. But they've been negotiating with Senator Manchin since the very beginning of this administration.
So again, it really was sort of surprise and delight and something that they truly were not expecting. Not just several weeks ago but even a handful of days before it was announced.
Caldwell: So, Asma, is this something you have this bill which is on the precipice of passing, you have better-than-expected jobs numbers which were now back to pre-pandemic levels of employment, are these things -- other bills that have passed as well, the PACT Act, the CHIPS bill, are these things that the president and Democrats can now take to voters?
Asma Khalid, White House Correspondent, NPR: It certainly a strategy that Democrats are hoping that they can campaign on ahead of the midterms. Look, I think -- when I have gone out in different parts of the country speaking with voters and also you speak to Democratic pollsters, there has been a consistent concern that rising prices and inflation has been the top priority for voters for months. I mean, I began hearing about this probably last May, June, concerns around inflation.
And it has been a lingering I would say trouble spot for this White House.
You know, I don't think it is any accident that this bill is being called the Inflation Reduction Act, even though there are questions about whether it would actually reduce inflation in the near term ahead of November. I don't think that that is a reasonable expectation.
But it's a messaging strategy. I think the key question for me is no doubt the Democrats now have tangible pieces of legislation that they have the opportunity to go and campaign on. But one of the things I think Democrats have struggled with is messaging.
You know, when you talk about the infrastructure bill, if we go way back last year, even some Democratic analysts told me they didn't feel like their party was effective at taking that legislative win and turning it into a tangible thing that voters could understand. So part of it is about the policy. The other part in my view is about pitching that policy to voters.
Caldwell: So, Carl, do Democrats now have momentum? Because a few weeks ago, the Democrats were down in the dumps about their midterm elections. Have the roles switched and are Republicans a little bit nervous?
Hulse: Yes. No, I think that timing is everything, right? Infrastructure, voters forget what happened. This is happening right now, where people are making up their minds about voting.
I think it was palpable on Capitol Hill this week. The positions had shifted. You heard the Republicans including Mitch McConnell start to talk more about -- well, if we do win the senate, it's going to be a very narrow majority, not this -- we're going to crush them. And Democrats think they really have something to campaign on.
At the same time, they also think Republicans made some big mistakes including opposing that veterans benefits bill which seemed like a temper tantrum. And people responded to that. And the Republicans took a lot of heat. And you saw them back off fast.
But you're going to see that in ads, you know? I think that there is a sense that -- I talked to Gary Peters who runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He says there’s a clear shift in momentum.
Caldwell: Uh-huh. And it's not -- and we didn't want to make veterans angry, three months before an election.
Hulse: Everyone looked at that and said that was really self--owned and own goal whatever you want to call it that that was just a mistake that the Republicans -- usually don't step in it like that.
And switching gears just a little bit, primary elections this week, drew national attention and held vast implications for November. Voters in Kansas, a conservative state, overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have stripped the right to an abortion from the state's constitution. And in the battleground states of Michigan and Arizona, multiple Republican primary winners have amplified former President Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate.
And so I want to turn to that Kansas vote. Six -- 59 percent of voters in Kansas like we said a conservative state voted to defeat this referendum. That mirrors public polling where 60 percent of polls show that Americans want some sort of access to abortion.
So, Asma, you know, what does this mean for abortion heading into the midterms and also what does it mean for Democrats heading into the midterms?
Khalid: Well, I was talking to a couple of Democratic analysts this week, and they are extremely optimistic looking at what happened in Kansas. I think it came as a shock to them that just the percentage of support, that came -- to support abortion rights, to support reproductive rights there in Kansas given that Kansas is a conservative state that historically votes for Republicans in presidential elections.
You know, I think there's two things that I took away from Kansas. One is turnout matters, right? You look at turnout in the Kansas primary, and it was about double what turnout was during the 2018 primary in Kansas.
And to me, that is extremely palpable and potent for Democrats. As they think about is there potential to galvanize voters around this issue?
But I think this is where I think the concern is for Democrats it is very different to vote on a specific policy as it was in Kansas than it is to vote for people, lawmakers, who may carry out a policy. And I don't really know that the two things are going to be the same, right? In November, people are not going to be voting for abortion rights directly on the ballot as they did in Kansas this past week.
Caldwell: Yeah. So Democrats are saying that they want -- I’ll go to you, Ashley, they want -- they hope that the thought of abortion, people thinking of abortion, will translate to support for Democrats in the polls.
From the White House perspective, are they seeing that as a possibility in the midterms? And are they changing their strategy at all seeing what happened in Kansas and that perhaps the voters are maybe on their side?
Parker: So, you know, what happened in Kansas was surprising for everyone, frankly, and very good news for Democrats generally.
I share Asma's question about when voters are showing up in -- and not specifically voting on abortion rights, but again, voting for candidates who have a whole host of positions.
And abortion has been a very tricky issue for the Biden administration and for President Biden himself, in part because objectively, he doesn't have a ton of tools to really combat the Dobbs decision and the Supreme Court.
But secondly, this is something that Biden, a Catholic president, who goes to mass just about every Sunday, he himself has said that he sort of is -- he's intellectually there on the issue. He supports abortion rights. But it's not necessarily where his heart is. He is still not even comfortable saying the word abortion.
If you go back and look at sort of earlier iterations of Biden, he himself has kind of said, look, the way I was raised, the way I came up, I may be a little old school on this issue.
And so when -- when the decision first came down, it took the White House about two weeks to really react. They were slow. And the president failed to channel sort of like the raw, visceral emotion of the country. And not just women in the country and not just Democrats in the country as the Kansas result showed.
So again, it's not a natural issue for this president to kind of, you know, chain himself to the steps of the Supreme Court as it were. But it's absolutely on something they understand. Again, especially seeing the results that it is very galvanizing and they want to make it work to their advantage.
Caldwell: And it was surprising for the president, and Democrats, it was surprising for Republicans as well.
Hulse: I talked to. Republicans to a person they were surprised by this result. And I think what we're seeing here, I’ve covered abortion politics for a long time as part of congressional politics. And it's always been a hypothetical. What will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned? And they fought around a hypothetical.
Now it's a reality. And I think it's changing the entire debate. You're already seeing both sides change their positioning on this. The Democrats are going to get more aggressive. The Republicans are going to get more measured.
Caldwell: Talk a little bit more about that, Carl. Because, you know, after roe was overturned, after the Dobbs decision, you started to hear Republicans actually say that they don't support exceptions. That -- you know, for rape and incest.
And Democrats were saying that they feared that contraception or not being able to travel across state lines was Republicans' next goal. So what are Republicans going to do now?
Hulse: I think you’re hearing -- already, you're hearing Republicans, I heard it from Republicans in Arizona and Florida, two very conservative places, saying, well, we have some laws on the books. And we're going to allow for some exceptions.
I mean, nothing gets a politician's attention like a surprise vote and an actual tally. It's not hypothetical anymore. This is real. And they're both kind of adjusting on the fly.
But I think right now, both sides see this to the Democratic advantage more so than they thought it was going to be.
Caldwell: Are Republicans -- you know, are they going to -- the suburbs is what I really want to talk about. The independent voters, I had reporting, I think you might have had had this, too, during the gun debate that Mitch McConnell decided to move forward with that because he knew that the Roe decision was coming and he was worried that abortion and guns would -- they would lose the suburbs.
Hulse: That was too much to bear. You could have one or the other. You couldn't have both.
But I think that -- you know, this is -- this is going to be really interesting to see how the parties maneuver around it.
Ashley, the former President Donald Trump had a big week, too. His candidates in Michigan won, Arizona won and if you count Eric in Missouri, his candidate in Missouri won as well.
So, you know, you -- in addition to covering Biden, you have long covered Trump and his circle. How is the Trump -- are they feeling right now? Do they still think that Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party?
Parker: They -- they absolutely think that. And they're not incorrect. He is the leader of the Republican Party. And sort of fealty to the big lie this false and baseless claim that the election was stolen is something that is incredibly important to him when he is making endorsements. And he very much wants to be a king maker.
What's interesting of course and there is a difference between Republican primaries and then a statewide genera election so Democrats are a little excited in instances where sort of the more Trumpy, the more fringe, the more hard right candidate wins the primary because they think they have a much better chance of beating them, you know, statewide in November.
That said, this is not like and Carl would remember this well, when Claire McCaskill helped choose her Republican opponent in 2012, Todd Akin, someone who she thought -- correctly thought would be too fringy and could not win statewide, if we have learned anything in the Trump years, it's that these Republicans espousing conspiracy theories, sometimes espousing things that are racist and sexist, espousing, you know, lies about the election, they can get elected.
They may be easier to beat. But there's also a chance they could still win. And then that's not the sort of House or Senate the Democrats are going to enjoy dealing with if that ends up being the case.
Caldwell: Yeah. That's absolutely right.
And, Asma, I wanted to follow up with you on that, because, you know, it wasn't just Peter Meijer that did this, they did this in the Maryland governor race and tried this and won, the MAGA candidate won in the Maryland governor. They tried this in California, to defeat a House member who also voted to impeach Donald Trump.
Democrats, you know, they -- weren't successful there. But if these people win, is this to deal with these members who are in Congress while they're trying to --
Khalid: Liability of a strategy in my view. You're playing with fire. I think any of us who covered the 2016 election would say, Democrats, I would say by and large thought Donald Trump winning the Republican primary would make their lives easier in the general election. We all clearly know how that played out.
So I think it's a real risky strategy to assume that the candidate who espouses sort of fringe conspiracy theories is potentially the easier one to beat. And, look, that's at the House and Senate level. I’ve also been real fascinated this week you saw election deniers win I believe -- my colleagues reporting showed about six secretary of states are now -- at least GOP candidates for secretary of state are election deniers. And those are the folks who hold the keys to control of democracy or potentially people who do not believe in the legitimacy of the most recent presidential election.
Caldwell: So will conservatives ever trust an election again, especially if they win in knows elections?
Khalid: That's a key question in my view. And I don't know that we know how that fully plays out until we see the results of another presidential election.
Caldwell: Yeah. Ashley, I want to ask you about Biden. His poll numbers continue to lag. High 30's.
Democrats have suggested that he say, that he not run for re-election. But on the other hand, he's had a couple good weeks. Do you think that these last couple of weeks will help to change that narrative for President Biden or is the part just want him to step aside?
Parker: Well, that's what's actually been fascinating. You've seen the handful of Democrats who have said they don't think he should run or they don't think he will run which for what that is worth, there's a number of Democratic voters who like him personally think he's a good guy.
But they don't think -- not just they don't think he should run. But they don't think he will run. And it does coincide with this really big stretch of victories legislative and otherwise. So the timing is a little ironic because he's sort of pulling himself out of what has really been starting last summer a pretty -- to this summer pretty bad year.
I mean, the Biden administration and Democrats in general, they want victories. You need legislative victories. These are things you can point to, you can run on, you can message. This is better, what is happening now for President Biden than not.
But, you know, there are some concerns about his age. You do hear even from his allies, people privately, again, Democratic voters who like him, that they think he has lost a step. But the flip side is if you are President Biden, and you -- you feel that you have always been counted out every single time you've run for president including last time when you were the only Democrat who has proven yourself capable of defeating former President Trump.
So in some ways, it's sort of hardens his resolve. But it is kind of a fascinating dichotomy between, you know, a series of pretty good events for this president and a lot of skepticism even from members of his own party.
Caldwell: Carl, bringing it back to the midterm elections, what obstacles, what potholes do Democrats have to worry about in the next three months?
Hulse: I just think inflation is going to continue to haunt this election. And they're going to be able to point to this bill that they've named the Inflation Reduction Act and say, look, we're reducing inflation. But I think that is their big problem.
Gas prices, I’ve been around the country. And gas is a real concern for people who have to -- long commutes. And you know, I think that just the general unease about things and COVID and monkeypox and what's going to happen.
But I do think that they've kind of righted themselves a little bit right now and are in a better position. And you know, going back to the -- to the advertising strategy, I mean, in Colorado, a race that people didn't think would really be on the table, and it may not yet. But they backed the -- they tried to get the conservative in and help this moderate candidate who will be running against a more moderate candidate anyway against Michael Bennet.
So, you know, there's a feeling among Democrats that they're in a much better position. But they've got some -- they've got issues.
Caldwell: And that is all the time we have. Thank you to all of our panelists for joining us and sharing their reporting.
And tune in Saturday to "PBS News Weekend" for a look at the inequities surrounding monkeypox vaccines and testing. And thank you for joining us. Good night from Washington.