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Week In Politics: House passes $1 trillion infrastructure bill

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Late last night, Congress passed an infrastructure bill, all Democrats, votes from 13 Republicans. And President Biden was thrilled to hear it today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Finally, infrastructure week.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: I'm so happy to say that, Infrastructure Week (laughter).

SIMON: We're joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The president is taking a victory lap today around the passage of that bill. Is it going to help him use this to push the $1.75 trillion bill that's still being held up?

ELVING: Yes and no. There are still real questions about whether the larger bill can get the votes of all the Democrats. Now, they picked up 13 Republican votes last night, and that was crucial because they could not have done it on the Democratic vote that they had last night. They lost six people. And that's too many when their margin is so narrow. So would they get that kind of support on the BBB, the Build Back Better plan, the $1.75 trillion? No, they probably would not get that kind of Republican support. So without that, they're going to have to have all the Democrats. And some of the Democrats still have questions about what the Congressional Budget Office is going to tell us about the deficit impact of that larger bill.

SIMON: Well - forgive me - help us understand that because this is - the moderates in Congress asked for that report to show how the larger bill would pay for itself or not and said they couldn't vote on it until they see the CBO report. So this can have a lot of impact, can't it?

ELVING: Yes, absolutely. There is that old expression, trust but verify. These moderates have other reasons to be concerned about the Build Back Better plan. Many of them come from energy-producing districts, fossil-fuel-producing districts. They have some concerns about the direction of the administration, and they need all the cover they can get. And they would hope that the framework estimate that the White House has put out, with respect to how it would affect the deficit, is going to be supported by the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office. If it is, it seems all systems are go. The Democrats can all vote for it, and they can send the bigger bill over to the Senate. If there are problems, if the CBO is not on board, as it were, for the estimates from the White House, that could still be problematic. So we shall see later this month.

SIMON: Ron, remind us why the two bills were ever tied together in the first place.

ELVING: Well, let me try a little analogy here. They're linked for the same reason that you link freight cars to a locomotive. The House progressives - that's about 50. They wanted to use the Senate's bipartisan deal on infrastructure, what got cleared last night, as the engine to pull this larger social agenda. So they wanted them linked. And the decision to decouple them finally last night and pass just the one that had some bipartisan support - well, that was driven to some degree by concern over just how bad things are getting for the Democrats in Congress, how much bad press they've had and, of course, the very unfortunate results from the Democrat standpoint of those votes back on Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey.

SIMON: Did those two votes - New Jersey, as much as Virginia, the closeness of the margin in Virginia - have the effect of concentrating the mind of many House Democrats?

ELVING: Oh. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It is not so much that the Virginia governorship was lost. That's a pattern. We've seen that quite frequently back over four or five decades that a new president sees the other party capture the Virginia governorship one year after the presidential election. Now, New Jersey reelected a Democratic governor for the first time since 1977, but the Democrats barely survived in that election because their turnout was way down, and the Republican turnout was - well, it was robust to the point of being huge. That was also true in Virginia, where the Democratic turnout was not down. In fact, it was up from the last gubernatorial election there. But the Republicans' was much, much higher.

SIMON: What about the analysis we've heard this week from a lot of prominent Democratic voices in Congress and Democratic operatives that say the party is getting so concerned with cultural issues and figures of speech that it can no longer communicate with working-class voters?

ELVING: You know, Republicans have been very successful at selling their cultural pushback, cultural populism, if you will, asking questions about this cultural agenda of the Democrats. And they've been more effective at that political marketing than the Democrats have been in selling their economic populism, their support for a fairer tax code, for more equity, for more income equity and for more diversity and for more of the agenda that has always gotten Democrats ahead in the past. That seems to have been sidelined to some degree by some of these other issues. And Democrats are beginning to realize that their emphasis on cultural issues is not just costing them white working-class votes but votes in working-class communities of color, as well.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.