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The NPR Politics Podcast : NPR


HOPE SMITH: Hi. This is Hope Smith from Fort Wayne, Ind. I’m about to brave the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving to get the last few ingredients I need. This episode of the NPR POLITICS PODCAST was recorded at…

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1:04 p.m. on Wednesday, November 24.

SMITH: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I hope everyone is having a safe, happy and healthy holiday week. Here’s the show.


DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good luck at the store. I’ll be there later.


KURTZLEBEN: I sent my partner out to do it. I feel great.

WALSH: Good work.


GRISALES: Divide and conquer.

KURTZLEBEN: Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

WALSH: I’m Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

GRISALES: I’m Claudia Grisales. I also cover Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: And happy almost Thanksgiving to the both of you and to our listeners.

WALSH: Happy Turkey Day.


KURTZLEBEN: And today we are going to be talking about, you guessed it, everyone’s favorite – Congress. Specifically, we’re going to talk about two of the biggest stories out of Capitol Hill right now, the infrastructure and “Build Back Better” agenda and the January 6 investigation. Now, we’re going to start with that first one, the Democrats’ economic agenda, infrastructure and “Build Back Better.”

Now, Democrats in Congress are betting that those policies will be a winning message in next year’s midterm elections. But the last time Democrats passed a program that reformed the social safety net in this big of a way – aka Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act – it sparked a major backlash that carried Republicans to a House majority. Claudia, we’ve talked about “Build Back Better” and infrastructure a lot on the podcast, so give us the short version of what’s in these bills.

GRISALES: Yeah. So “Build Back Better” is going to – a big expansion of social programs. It includes a child tax credit, universal pre-K, 500 billion to combat climate changes. And it also allows Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for seniors. But there are some provisions that may not make it – it has not passed yet – provisions such as four weeks of paid leave, as well as immigration reform efforts to expand access to work permits. Now, when it comes to the infrastructure bill, that is passed. And that’s what we’re going to see a lot of movement on in terms of getting enacted. This is traditional infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels, broadband. And this is the focus for Democrats when they want to talk about a bipartisan effort that they saw success with.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Deirdre, you’ve done some great reporting on the politics of this. You’ve been comparing the way Democrats are selling these policies to the way they sold the ACA back in 2010. What did and didn’t work for Democrats back then?

WALSH: Well, Democrats in Congress are really saying they’ve learned a lot of lessons about what happened in 2010. I mean, as Claudia outlined, this is a massive expansion of the federal government in a bunch of different areas. And Democrats are trying to get ahead of the message. We did hear a lot of infighting among, you know, between different factions of the Democratic Party. That happened in 2010, when they were trying to pass Obamacare and trying to get a final deal. We saw that again.

And so Democrats are saying we got to move beyond the infighting and talk about the sort of concrete ways that each piece of this agenda affects people’s lives in a real way. But, you know, the other thing Democrats are saying is that they need to do a better job of defining the policies about explaining what it means to expand child care, elder care. These are things that government is doing, but they say that the last time they expanded government, people didn’t understand the benefits. And it took years for people to understand that it was going to be easier to get affordable health care if you had preexisting conditions with the bill that they passed.

These were all things that were popular at the time, just like, you know, individual pieces of the “Build Back Better” act poll well now. But they say that the difference now is that they understand how important it is to get ahead of the Republican message and define the bill before Republicans define it for them.

KURTZLEBEN: And does it seem like they – they’re doing that, like they’re getting ahead of it and actually defining it well so far?

WALSH: I think they would admit that they have not gotten there yet. I mean, we have seen months of Democratic infighting. So I think that they say that they want to quickly pivot away from that. And you do see members now talking about I got a prescription drug benefit added to this bill, like I was part of the group that brokered an infrastructure bill. That means the bridge in my district is going to be widened, so the traffic will get better. And that’s a real-life impact for a lot of Americans.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, speaking of economic impacts, we have a new NPR/Marist Poll out today, and it shows that Americans are, to say the least, uneasy about the about how the economy is doing and that inflation is by far the top economic concern. So that means that this agenda, as with the ACA in 2010, is coming amid just a lot of economic worry for Americans. So I’m curious, is it an even more uphill battle now than then? Deirdre, let’s start with you again on this.

WALSH: I do think it is. I mean, we see inflation rates that are the highest they’ve been in 30 years. We also see, you know, some good economic indicators. Even this morning, we see that fewer people are filing for unemployment. But there’s also indications that Americans aren’t connecting the policies that Congress is passing with changes in their own lives, what they see at the gas station or at the grocery store, or even when they start Christmas shopping for gifts is higher prices for a lot of things. And there is a debate about whether another, you know, close to $2 trillion federal spending bill is going to increase inflation or decrease inflation. And a lot of these programs are not going to be in full effect until after people go to the polls in next year’s midterm elections.

KURTZLEBEN: Claudia, I’m curious what you’re hearing on the Hill yourself. Are you hearing a lot of confidence, a lot of worry on the part of Democrats?

GRISALES: You know, quietly, some worries in terms of, how do we get this message across? I think that’s so fascinating what Deirdre was looking at in terms of the parallels with the ACA. And it does seem like Republicans have gotten a jump on Democrats in terms of defining this massive legislation. You know, the bipartisan bill, of course, had support from Republicans, and there was even a little bit of controversy there when it came to some who supported it.

But they’re very united when it comes to this larger spending bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is using it as a weapon to fight over lifting the debt limit in the coming weeks, and other Republicans are doing the same. And so it’s really interesting seeing these worries about the economy. And Democrats are having to race against them, even as they get good news, as Deirdre mentioned, about weekly jobless claims, which dropped to their lowest level since 1969, according to reports today. So it’s quite a gap they’re going to have to close in terms of that messaging. It’s going to be an uphill battle for them to close it.

KURTZLEBEN: But speaking of messaging, I kind of want to get into that because it seems like there’s some nuance here – right? – where we’re talking about a couple of policies right now, the infrastructure package and then also all of this social spending or what the Biden administration calls human infrastructure. And it seems like perhaps voters might need less selling and less explanation on better broadband and better tunnels and roads and bridges than they might need on here is how paid leave might work or something to that effect. Am I right on that? How are – how is that playing out?

WALSH: I mean, Democrats are saying that, too, Danielle. I talked to Chris Carney. He was a two term Pennsylvania Democrat who lost his race in 2010 after voting for the Affordable Care Act. I mean, he said a big challenge for him was it was too hard to explain the components of the bill. They weren’t going into effect for a while. And Republicans got out in front of the issue. And the bill was really unpopular. He says pieces of this agenda are already popular. And he says it’s really easy for people to explain that potholes in their neighborhood are getting fixed. But he did also talk about what he called softer social programs, things like universal pre-K, elder care, child care, which he said the party needs to do a better job of explaining the benefits.

GRISALES: That reminds me. We had some reporting recently from our colleague Barbara Sprunt, and she talked to some of these constituents in one of these moderate Democratic districts in Virginia. This is for Abigail Spanberger. It was really interesting hearing voices of even Republican-leaning voters who, although they might tout some of the same issues that are trying to be addressed in this larger social spending bill, they’re not seeing Democrats as kind of the victors here and getting it done. The linkage is missing there when you get on the ground. Rather, you know, they’re getting consumed as well with culture war issues, education concerns. And so it’s quite a challenge there.

WALSH: And Democrats are really saying that’s why they need to finish the negotiations on the final piece of this, getting it through the Senate, having the House pass a final version and get it through the president by the end of the year because they say they need a full year to talk about the benefits and campaign on it. And if the fighting over the final version bleeds into next year, that will really harm their messaging efforts.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We’re going to leave it there. We’re going to take a quick break. And then when we come back, we’re going to talk more about Congress, specifically January 6.


KURTZLEBEN: And we’re back. And as promised, we’re talking more about Congress. We are talking about the January 6 select committee, which issued new subpoenas this week, bringing the total number to more than 40. Claudia, I know you’ve been covering this. What’s the latest?

GRISALES: This week we got another wave of subpoenas, 10 were issued, so a total of 45 subpoenas now. This has been focused on Trump allies, former advisers and those who took part in the planning for the January 6 rally. This week we saw Roger Stone, Alex Jones, two very controversial figures on that list of subpoenas, along with two – several organizations, actually, two of them familiar names now. These are far-right extremist groups, Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. And the focus this week seems to be on whether these individuals played a role even financially in putting together efforts to be at the Capitol that day and also help others who participated that day find assistance to stay at a hotel, what have you. And so that seems to be a lot of the focus now.

KURTZLEBEN: And I’m just curious. You said they’re up to 45 subpoenas. Is that a lot? Do we have a basis for comparison with other investigations, or is this just so novel that it’s hard to gauge that?

GRISALES: There are other select committees in the past that have issued dozens of subpoenas. I was trying to compare to other cases. For example, in 2016, Democrats were complaining about Republicans because they had issued 70 subpoenas in a three-month period or so when they were looking into Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi attack, among other issues. So it could be on par with what we’ve seen in previous probes. And that said, the committee members have said they don’t want to put a cap on how many subpoenas they’re going to issue. I’ve asked them, well, how many do you think you’ll reach when you’re done with this? And they’re saying, I don’t want to put a number on it. They’re really moving quickly in terms of issuing these, it seems, every other week at least.

WALSH: The number that’s interesting to me is how many people have talked to the committee that we haven’t heard about. I mean, they may have been people who got subpoenas and are cooperating on their own. But it sounds like, you know, even though not all of these people are coming forward, they’re still getting a lot of information from a lot of people.

GRISALES: Yeah, that is true. There’s about 200 unnamed witnesses who have met with the panel and shared details. And it’s interesting on some of the subpoenas, they will not comment on whether an individual has come in. They’ll just say there’s no comment. So that could be a clue that that was a conversation that was had and the committee is not confirming that cooperation as of yet. It seems like we’re getting most of the information about those witnesses that are not cooperating, so that’s very true.

KURTZLEBEN: Speaking of cooperation, this is – it seems very complicated here or at the very least very complex where you have all of this information coming from all of these sources. But some of these subpoena targets are not cooperating, as you’ve implied here. Do we have a good sense of who or how many of these especially high-profile targets will cooperate?

GRISALES: That’s going to be hard to say, ultimately, if they do cooperate. They have been in talks with many of these folks. That includes the first wave. Steve Bannon was one of those that we know did not, and now he’s fighting an indictment for criminal contempt of Congress. And meanwhile, others who were subpoenaed at the same time, such as Mark Meadows – this is a former chief of staff for former President Trump – he is in the midst of possibly facing this question himself if he could be referred for criminal contempt. The difference between Bannon and Meadows, however, is Meadows and his lawyer have engaged the committee, so it’s a tougher test when it comes to a criminal contempt referral for him. So time will tell whether these folks will ultimately get in front of this panel and answer at least some of their questions.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And Mark Meadows, who Claudia just mentioned, has claimed executive privilege, which we’re going to talk about more in a special episode on Friday, by the way. And his claim of executive privilege could maybe hold more water than it does for someone like Steve Bannon, right? Explain this to me. How does this all work?

GRISALES: Yeah. So Bannon justified his subpoena outright, so he was a bit of a slam dunk case for the committee to refer him for a criminal contempt. And so the difference there with Meadows is he’s engaged. He’s doing a little bit of a dance, if you will, as some legal analysts told me, that has dragged on this process. For example, Bannon got that referral within a month. And Meadows, we’re now two months out, and they’re still considering it. Now the difference too, the very big difference is Meadows was part of the administration on January 6, Bannon was not. He had been gone from the administration for years.

And so Meadows could have some claim to executive privilege. He has said that Trump told him not to share conversations. And there are some conversations that are protected with the president in terms of that deal with directly the Office of the Presidency, but some, lawmakers and legal analysts argue, are not. For example, if you used a personal cell phone, personal email, and that may be related to campaign activities. So he does have a stronger case. But lawmakers and these legal analysts argue he could still be susceptible to a criminal contempt referral, too.

WALSH: The other thing I learned is that no former lawmaker has ever been indicted for criminal contempt of Congress. So if they go down that road, this could be a precedent-setting move for Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let’s get down to the timeline on this, which I know we’ve talked about on this podcast before. The issue for Democrats here is that they might not be able to hold on to their majorities in 2022, and then this investigation shuts down. So, Claudia, can they wrap this up by November of next year?

GRISALES: That is going to be tough. That is their goal. They’ve said repeatedly that they want to wrap this up by year end. They’ve also – I’ve also heard some say before the midterms because that could taint – in terms of this political concern, this partisan concern that the committee is dealing with, they feel like they could erase that if they could get this done before the elections.

Now, that said, they are in a very complicated legal case now. They are fighting former President Trump in terms of hundreds of documents they’re trying to obtain from the National Archives from his administration. And that court case could drag out for several months. And there are some witnesses that could be following this, like Mark Meadows and others, who want to hold off on doing anything until they see that case resolved. And so they’re speeding ahead, and it is possible they could wrap this by next year, but it will be tricky.

KURTZLEBEN: Mmm hmm. Well, and looking ahead to November 2022, we have seen a number of Democrats say they’re retiring, that they’re just not going to run for reelection, which may well be a sign the Democrats are worried about next year. How big is that group, Deirdre? Who’s in it?

WALSH: Well, right now there’s 17 House Democrats who have announced that they are not going to run for reelection or they’re going to run for a different political office in 2022. Democrats say that number is pretty much on pace with previous election cycles and sort of downplay it, say it’s a personal decision when you run for Congress; it’s a personal decision when you decide it’s time to move on.

But obviously, Republicans see it very differently. They argue that as President Biden’s poll numbers have gone down – and, you know, our latest NPR/Marist poll shows the president’s approval rating is at the lowest point of his tenure so far – that that is a sign that Democrats are concerned. I mean, we – as we’ve said before on this podcast, midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power. And so we’ll be watching to see if that group grows after the holidays. A lot of times people are home with their families, they decide to make decisions about their future, so we could see additional retirements. Also, the redistricting process hasn’t fully played out yet. We don’t know exactly what the maps will look like in a lot of states, and that could have an impact on additional members of both parties deciding not to run for reelection.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we are going to take another break. And, by the way, we will be in your feeds all week, but we are going to do Can’t Let It Go today instead because of the Thanksgiving holiday. So we’ll be right back with that.

And we’re back. And it is time for Can’t Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things we can’t stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. We’re going to start today with Deirdre. Deirdre, go ahead. What can’t you let go of?

WALSH: The thing I can’t let go of this week is NASA announcing essentially a real-life “Armageddon” mission. You guys remember that movie with Bruce Willis?

GRISALES: Yes, yes.

WALSH: So he’s, like, the captain or the astronaut of this mission to make sure an asteroid doesn’t blow up planet Earth. Well, NASA’s actually launched a rocket. It’s called DART – Double Asteroid Redirection Test. And its mission is basically the same thing, to do research on whether or not, like, this rocket hitting this asteroid will derail the asteroid’s trajectory, which kind of makes me worry that, like, “Armageddon” was like a real thing. Like, I thought it was just a cool movie. And now I’m thinking, like, NASA took it seriously enough to actually do a mission. It was launched in California, and they’re watching its progress. And the NASA administrator actually invited Bruce Willis to the launch.


GRISALES: Oh, my God.

WALSH: So it shows it’s like a real-life “Armageddon.” I guess Bruce Willis didn’t show up. But anyway, I’m starting to be worried that, like, maybe we could be facing some space debris.


KURTZLEBEN: Wait. Deirdre, this is – I feel like we’re burying the lead here. Is there an asteroid hurtling towards Earth right now? Or is this a theoretical asteroid that we are just sort of trying to fend off?

WALSH: So NASA says this is a test. So it’s a test to see if the technology…


WALSH: …Can change…


WALSH: …The trajectory of an asteroid in space. So they did launch this rocket from California towards this asteroid to see if it could just sort of, like, move it or change its trajectory and not pose a threat. So it doesn’t sound like they’re worried about anything imminently, but I guess they want to know that if they do this in the future if there’s a threat, that it’ll work.

KURTZLEBEN: I don’t know if I’m that reassured, but…


KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) All right, sounds good.

GRISALES: This is very worrisome.

WALSH: It’s not just a plot of a movie anymore.

KURTZLEBEN: Great. Great. Good. Great.

WALSH: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: We need an Aerosmith theme song for this right now.

GRISALES: (Laughter) Yes.

WALSH: I like that song.

KURTZLEBEN: I think it was a real high school dance staple. All right. I will go next. With much very non-apocalyptic news, I want to talk today about Chuck Grassley…

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: …And his golden Twitter feed. It is always good.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: God bless Iowa. And Chuck Grassley put up a real gem of a tweet yesterday. It reads as follows – Thanksgiving time Grassley clan gathers. Get out old reliable Beth. Called Beth because of a reliable Atlantic family farmer/former staffer for me and Iowans. I vacuum bc – I vacuum because…



KURTZLEBEN: …I don’t want to be peeling potatoes. Yeah. Sorry, I was trying to be literal here.

WALSH: But that’s the way he writes his tweets.

GRISALES: Oh, my gosh.


KURTZLEBEN: And first of all, I mean, one of the joys here is that his vacuum is named Beth, named after a staffer. I need some enterprising reporter…

GRISALES: Who is Beth…

KURTZLEBEN: …To look up…

GRISALES: …The real Beth?

KURTZLEBEN: …The human Beth and see how she feels about this. But also…

WALSH: I don’t think I’d appreciate that if I was this staffer.

KURTZLEBEN: I don’t know either. But also, the photo is of a vacuum…

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: …That is giving some real…


KURTZLEBEN: …Early ’80s…


KURTZLEBEN: …1970s vibes. Like, it’s, like, brown and sepia toned.

WALSH: But he could be, like, a spokesperson for that brand, whatever it is, because if it’s still kicking…

GRISALES: I think it was a Hoover, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I did see – I can’t vouch for the fact-checking here, but I did see some…

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: …Folks on Twitter doing some sleuthing. And they found that this vacuum – this particular model was made in 1983.


KURTZLEBEN: Which means this vacuum is older than much…

WALSH: That’s amazing.

KURTZLEBEN: …Of our audience. So I…

WALSH: I also like the idea of, you know, Chuck Grassley in his late 80s, like, vacuuming the house for his Thanksgiving guests. It just shows…


WALSH: …He’s just like us.


WALSH: Right? He has to clean.


KURTZLEBEN: Also relatable, vacuuming rather than peeling potatoes – I’m with him. Peeling potatoes is the worst.


KURTZLEBEN: Good for you, Chuck (laughter).

GRISALES: Although I have this image of Grassley. He’s just vacuuming, like, a small square. And he just sits there with Beth.


GRISALES: And that’s all he’s doing. He’s like, I can’t help you with that turkey. I’m doing this square here.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Claudia, now it’s you. What can’t you let it go?

GRISALES: I cannot let go of the “House Of Gucci,” which is dropping today. You may have heard about it. Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto – bunch of people I like to follow. Very fortunate because our very own Lexie Schapitl pointed me to another part of this story, which are the reviews. So I’m not sure if I’m more obsessed with seeing the movie or reading more reviews because apparently, it’s so bad it’s good. So…

WALSH: Oh, no.


WALSH: I kind of want to see it, but now…

GRISALES: Now, I’m really, really intrigued. I thought before, oh, I got to see whatever Lady Gaga does. I’m there for her. But this takes it to another level. And the reviews are hilarious. For example, Vox was one review, and the writer in that case said, it’s not good, but boy, oh, boy, is it great.


GRISALES: And the writer goes on to say they’ve tried for days now to decide exactly when their soul left their body and ascended…

WALSH: Oh, no.

GRISALES: …To paradise during watching of this film. So, yes. And then…

WALSH: The costumes have got to be good, though.

GRISALES: Yes. Yes, the fashion, the costumes. The accents maybe not so good.


LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia) I don’t consider myself a particularly ethical person.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No.

LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia) But I am fair.


GRISALES: The New York Times, for example, said the nicest thing they could say about the film was it should have been an Italian movie.


GRISALES: But that all said…

WALSH: Ouch.

GRISALES: …I want to keep reading the reviews. I want to see the movie. I can’t wait. Love it – everything.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I had no intention of watching this, but the thought of my soul leaving my body because of this show, I mean, I…

GRISALES: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: I think you just sold me, Claudia. Thank you.

All right. That’s a wrap for today. But a reminder that we’ve got some excellent episodes for you tomorrow and Friday. So if the conversation at your Thanksgiving turns to politics, you know where to turn.

In the meantime, our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thank you to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter.

I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

WALSH: I’m Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

GRISALES: And I’m Claudia Grisales. I also cover Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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