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Politics chat: The ghost of the Build Back Better Bill; Dems likely to lose seats

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We'll start this hour looking at how the Democrats' once-mighty social spending package, the Build Back Better Bill, has gradually dwindled to a shadow of itself. It started more than a year ago as a $3.5 trillion catchall for climate spending, universal pre-K and tax hikes on the wealthy. Now the most recognizable parts of the bill that will get passed might be a few health care provisions. We're joined, as usual, for our politics look ahead by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So Democrats say they're going to try to get prescription drug reform and some health insurance subsidies passed in a few weeks before the August recess. How big a setback is this?

LIASSON: It's a very big setback. But, look, Obamacare subsidies for low- and middle-income people are important. So is allowing Medicare to negotiate the cost of some prescription drugs. But the climate change measures were the most existential part of President Biden's agenda. And climate activists say that now, without this legislation, there is no way that the U.S. can meet Biden's goals of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 or to meet his target that half of all cars sold in the U.S. will be electric by 2030. And remember, this happens after Biden's efforts to mitigate climate change suffered another blow recently, when the Supreme Court limited the ability of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. So it's a big, big setback for climate.

RASCOE: And how did it come to this, and is its name Joe Manchin?

LIASSON: Well, yes, it is. This is the problem the Democrats have been running into since they won the White House decisively in 2020 but lost seats in the House and ended up with a 50-50 split in the Senate. They never really had a functioning legislative majority in the Senate. Joe Manchin became the swing vote, not just on Build Back Better, but on voting rights and on the filibuster and on many other things. He is a Democrat, but he comes from a very red state that voted overwhelmingly by, I think, 40 points for Donald Trump. And Manchin said that - recently, that the reason why he wouldn't go forward with the Build Back Better Bill, the slimmed-down version, was that he was concerned about spending more money and that that would worsen inflation. But Democrats say they've agreed to every single concession Manchin wanted, but he kept on moving the goalposts.

Now, a lot of Democrats say they don't think he was ever negotiating in good faith. And remember, he had killed the Build Back Better Bill once last December. Then he continued negotiating. But when he came out in opposition to those tax cuts for renewable energy last week, the White House said, enough. Biden pulled the plug, issued a statement saying to Congress, pass the Obamacare subsidies and Medicare drug reforms. Meanwhile, he will issue what he calls strong executive actions on climate change to reduce the U.S. carbon footprint. It won't be as much as legislation, but he'll do what he can.

RASCOE: What are Democrats thinking about the midterm elections? Are they bracing for the worst?

LIASSON: Yes, they are. They're still very pessimistic about holding on to a majority in the House, although the generic ballot has tightened a bit recently. The generic ballot is that question on polls that ask voters if the election were held today, would you vote for the generic Democrat or the Republican? So Republicans' advantage there has shrunk a bit. Democrats do say they're hopeful that the recent Supreme Court rulings on guns and abortion and climate change will energize Democratic voters. And there are several Senate races where Republicans are worried that they're in danger of nominating candidates that will be too extreme to win in November.

RASCOE: You know, in the minute we have left, Republicans would seem to maybe have the wind at their back, depending on who you ask. But is there a question of whether, like, the court cases, abortion rights - like, whether that will be a motivating factor or enough of a motivating factor over, like, economics?

LIASSON: Well, inflation is the No. 1 concern for voters, but abortion is one of those rare culture war issues that helps Democrats. Most voters - over 60% - wanted Roe v. Wade to be the law of the land. Roe was middle ground on abortion. Abortion would be legal with restrictions, which is where most people are. And the big political question now is, which party will be seen as more extreme on abortion? Republicans want to paint Democrats as supporting abortion on demand. Democrats say Republicans are the extremists for passing laws that say abortion should be illegal in all cases, including incest and rape.

RASCOE: That was NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

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

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.