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A Long To-Do List Awaits Biden Back In Washington

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden has had a big week abroad, from today's summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva to the G-7 meeting in Cornwall to tea at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth. And when he returns to the White House late tonight, he'll have a long to-do list at home. We have two guests here to talk about the domestic politics of what lies ahead for the president. Lanhee Chen is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and he was policy director for the Romney 2012 presidential campaign.

Good to have you here.

LANHEE CHEN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times. Nice to have you back as well.

JAMELLE BOUIE: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start, do either of you think anything that Biden did overseas this week is going to make his life easier on the domestic political front once he comes back home? Lanhee?

CHEN: I don't think it matters very much, to be totally honest. I think voters in general and citizens are pretty concerned and focused on what's happening here in the U.S. I think obviously there has been some coverage of what happened abroad, and so in that sense it might, on the periphery, influence what they see right now. But in the long run, I don't see it being hugely impactful to Biden's ability to advance his agenda or, frankly, to what congressional Democrats and Republicans might do.

SHAPIRO: Jamelle, what do you think?

BOUIE: I think that's exactly right.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BOUIE: It's not clear to me at all that Biden's performance on the foreign stage is really going to matter much to his domestic agenda.

SHAPIRO: OK, well, let's talk about what his biggest priority on that domestic agenda is right now - the infrastructure package, which he was actually asked about during today's Geneva press conference. And he expressed optimism that this can still get done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, I'm still hopeful we can put together the two bookends here.

SHAPIRO: Still hopeful we can put together the bookends. Jamelle, what do you think it will take to get this over the finish line, if it's doable?

BOUIE: You know, right now you have a group of Democrats and Republicans - a group of, I think, 20 at this point - who are working on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. And the big question is whether or not those - if they come to an agreement, whether or not those Republicans actually sign on to allow the bill to come up for an up-or-down vote. Sort of - different people think different things. I'm a little skeptical. And I think that what happens next will more or less depend on where the White House - whether the White House thinks there's really any chance of a deal really happening. Senator Schumer, the majority leader, has already sort of begun the process for a reconciliation bill which would bypass a filibuster. There'd be no need for a cloture vote. It could just go straight to an up-or-down vote. And...

SHAPIRO: Which will allow them to pass with Democrats only, right.

BOUIE: Right, with only - with 50 Democrats. But that's sort of the kicker, right? It's not clear that there are 50 Democratic votes for a bill with no Republican support. So I think...

SHAPIRO: OK, so...

BOUIE: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So you're skeptical. Lanhee, what do you think? Is President Biden's optimism justified here?

CHEN: I'm also skeptical, and I think it has to do with the fact that you have a two-track process that's going on, right? You have, on the one hand, the bipartisan negotiations that Jamelle talked about, but you have, on the other hand, this unipartisan process that will go to reconciliation. And I think any time you have sort of divided loyalties in that way, it makes it considerably more difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, at least on the bipartisan pathway. I think it's entirely possible that Democrats could pursue a unipartisan approach, that they could hold, you know, all of their members - which they would have to - in order to get this passed, and that ends up being the way this goes. It will be a skinnied-down (ph) package, I think, from the original proposal the White House put forward. But nonetheless, I think that the unipartisan reconciliation pathway is the more likely one for infrastructure.

SHAPIRO: In addition to this big debate over infrastructure, there is a fight over voting rights happening right now. The vice president was in Texas today, where she laid out a strategy to protect voting rights, as she sees it. Lanhee, do you think the administration can stop this wave of bills that are passing Republican-led state legislatures all over the country?

CHEN: Well, I think Democrats' best hope - and I think this is something they've talked about repeatedly - is trying to figure out a way to get H.R. 1, which is the big federal voting rights legislation, to figure out a way...

SHAPIRO: The For the People Act.

CHEN: ...To advance that through both the House and the Senate - right - through both the House and the Senate. And there, you're running up against the challenge of having a limited number of ways that they can do that. And it is going to put pressure on Biden and on some moderate Democrats to move off of the position they've had on eliminating the filibuster and the requirement that there be a supermajority to advance to final votes on things in the Senate. You already have a couple Democrats, like Sinema - Senator Sinema from Arizona - saying she's unwilling to back off the filibuster. So Democrats are in a tough position here. If they're going to move ahead and try and get federal legislation, there's going to have to be a change of heart amongst a few members of the Senate who are Democrats currently.

SHAPIRO: Jamelle, how do you think the White House should approach this issue?

BOUIE: So my sense is that H.R. 1 - or the Senate version, S. 1 - is probably not going to be able to pass in its current form. I don't think that Joe Manchin or Sinema, who would be the critical votes for breaking a - or ending the filibuster or even creating a carve-out - are going to budge. Manchin has laid out what he would like to see in a, I guess, scaled-down voting rights bill that would have early voting protections, that would have mail-in voting protections, that would have a voter ID provision. And I'm inclined to say that if that is the kind of proposal that Manchin can get behind, then that's what the White House should get behind as well.

SHAPIRO: Finally, let me ask you a national security question. There was this wave of ransomware attacks on everything from meat processors to utilities just before Biden left on this trip, and it was believed to be carried out by hackers acting with Russian support. So if these cyberattacks continue, which seems likely, what does that mean for Biden now that he's engaged with Putin on this issue? Jamelle, you want to take this one first?

BOUIE: I want to actually pass this one to Lanhee 'cause I'm not entirely (laughter) sure I have a firm opinion on what should happen next.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I mean, Biden has met with Putin. Putin is allegedly, if not orchestrating, at least supporting this. Lanhee, does that change the calculus here?

CHEN: Well, I think it does. And I think the president - you know, look; we've already done quite a bit on the sanctions front on this. So there's only so much more we can do there. It is going to be about the president holding Putin more accountable personally. And there are some ways, by the way, that we can go in and disrupt some of that infrastructure. Now, that's going to put us a little closer to the edge with Putin. But the president and the United States, they do have the capacity to utilize some of the resources at our disposal - U.S. Cyber Command, for example - to go in and disrupt some of these networks that are facilitating these ransomware attacks. We may have to consider upping our game in that respect if we really want to make a difference, if these attacks continue.

SHAPIRO: I mean, Jamelle, do you expect American voters to hold Biden responsible for this if, you know, for example, there are gas shortages as a result of these ransomware attacks, if Biden is not able to hold Putin's feet to the fire here?

BOUIE: Right. I think to the extent that these ransomware attacks do have a direct impact on American consumers, they will hold the president responsible, which is why I think that this is an area where the White House is probably going to act very proactively. But if that isn't the case - right? - if there isn't this kind of direct impact on consumers, I think that gives the White House a little leeway. But the gas shortage makes me think that the - in addition to every single national security concern, that the White House is especially acutely concerned with repelling these sorts of attacks because of the impact on the president's domestic political fortunes.

SHAPIRO: That's Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for The New York Times, and Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution fellow.

Thank you both.

BOUIE: Thank you.

CHEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD CAVE SONG, "LOVE COMES CLOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.