Caldwell: 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.