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The House is set to pass the Democrats' climate, health and taxes bill

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today is a day a lot of Democrats thought might never arrive. The House is set to give final congressional approval to a package of historic climate investments, curbs to prescription drug costs and tax changes meant to clamp down on big corporations. It's a far cry from the party's original agenda but caps off a number of recent accomplishments for President Biden and his party.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Decades from now, people will look back at this week with all we've passed and all we've moved on, that we met the moment at this inflection point in history.

FADEL: To talk through what Congress has gotten done and what it might mean or not mean to voters this fall, let's bring in two familiar voices - NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thanks. Good morning. Thanks for being here.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

FADEL: So let's start with the Inflation Reduction Act. The Senate approved it last weekend. That was a slog. Is it going to be easier for Democrats in the House?

SNELL: Well, Democrats in the House say it should be. We have heard even some of the biggest skeptics, people who were making really hard-line demands about things they needed to have in this bill, say, well, I guess I don't really need it in this bill and say that they're willing to vote for it. So Democrats feel fairly confident that this will move ahead smoothly, though there may be some procedural delays because Republicans do not plan to vote for this at all and plan to make their objections very clear.

MONTANARO: I think it's really quite the sign of the momentum that Democrats have now as we pivot to the fall and are starting to kind of end the primary season. You know, Democrats for a while weren't able to get a lot through. And what we've been hearing for a year-plus has been all of this Democratic infighting about progressives versus moderates and Joe Manchin and what does he want...

FADEL: Right.

MONTANARO: ...The senator from West Virginia. And he was a key player in all of this...

SNELL: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Was able to get over the finish line a really big piece of legislation. And the White House is really trying to encapsulate all of this and say, hey, let's change the narrative here a little bit because quite a bit has actually gotten done.

FADEL: How did they finally get to this place? Because, like you said, they've come so close so many times and then end up in failure. So how did we get here?

SNELL: Well, a big part of the way they got there was it was just a lengthy negotiation that played out the way that a lot of big legislation does. It was key players sitting in a room together and continuing to talk and revisiting things that seemed like they were sticking points but where they had a little bit of agreement. I think in some ways, Democrats I talked to said that they felt like people had built up expectations, that legislation would continue to pass, much like the relief packages that came together very quickly with a lot of agreement among Democrats. Well, that's a special case. A relief package for a pandemic is really different than writing a bill that, in this case, is about $700 billion and writes permanent policy. I asked Elizabeth Warren, who is, you know, one of the most progressive members of the Senate...

FADEL: Right.

SNELL: ...If she felt that Democrats and Democratic voters were playing the long game or if Republicans, who have spent a long time working on policies, decades even, planning out strategies and policies, had an upper hand. And this is kind of how she explained things.

ELIZABETH WARREN: The Republicans have been disciplined. They have stayed in the fight to get extremist justices on the court and to block everything the Democrats want to do. We need to fight just as hard if we expect to beat them back.

FADEL: So there are a lot of progressive priorities, though, that were left aside, at least for now - child care, free college, policing reform, federal voting rights, abortion protections. So how much can this particular piece of legislation heal the rifts in the party?

MONTANARO: Well, it depends on the expectations that people have had. And I think one of the problems that some Democratic strategists have had with how the White House and how President Biden has set these expectations way too high, they think, because there's a lot they feel like has gotten done and that they need to sort of reshape how they're thinking and talking about this. And I talked to Joel Payne, who's a former adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and he said that, essentially, Democrats need to realize this is about as good as it's going to get in a 50/50 Senate.

JOEL PAYNE: I think that should have been the messaging probably earlier. You know, some of the big sunny skies, big skies talk about, you know, hey, we could pass a $6 trillion bill, that always felt very, very hard to reach in this Congress.

SNELL: And another thing that I'd been hearing from Democrats is they needed to make a down payment on their promises, that they made big promises in the campaign, particularly to win the seats that got them to having 50 seats in the Senate. They had to make big promises to voters to get to that point. And they were worried that if they didn't pass some of that, it would be really hard to go back to voters and say, OK, now we're going to do more if you give us more senators, if you keep showing up. And so this gives them a little bit of a foothold, an opportunity to say that they did some of it. And if you Democratic voters keep coming to the polls and electing more Democrats, we'll do more next time.

MONTANARO: You know, a lot of the problem for Joe Biden has been Democratic enthusiasm. I mean, he's down in the, you know, high 30s in his approval ratings. And that's because a lot of Democratic voters are saying that they're not really in love with the job that he's been doing. And what Jon Kott told me is that this really shows that his approach has actually been beneficial and has worked for Democrats.

JON KOTT: There's no question that this 18 months proved that Biden-ism works. And I think progressives and moderates should unite and celebrate this. We're bad at it because I think it's just in the Democratic DNA. But this has been a huge frickin' win, and we need to tell voters what it does.

FADEL: Now, the Democrats have been working with the slimmest of margins in Congress. So what do their chances to hold on to those slim majorities look like at this point, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Republican and Democratic strategists both still continue to believe that Republicans are favored to win the House this fall. It means only a five-seat majority in the House that Democrats have. And given the way districts have been drawn, given President Biden's approval rating, they still believe that there's enough there for Republicans to likely take back the House. However, one of the things that's important and sometimes gets lost is when the environment starts to shift a little bit and you have Democrats with a little bit more enthusiasm, you know, with abortion rights supporters having some wins lately, that that enthusiasm can help Democrats win at the margins. And those things are important in the House because you need to be able to live to fight another cycle so that if you're out of the House this cycle, potentially, then you could come back in 2024. If you lose by 20, 30 seats, it makes it much more difficult. In the Senate, what we've seen, however, is that a lot of Democratic candidates are actually outpacing President Biden's approval ratings and doing fairly well. The Democrats are a lot more bullish right now that they could actually hold the Senate, you know, because of not just this built-up enthusiasm but some that they see as extreme or problematic Republican candidates.

FADEL: NPR's Kelsey Snell and Domenico Montanaro, thank you both so much.

SNELL: It was great to be here.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANTLERS SONG, "HOTEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.