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Week in politics: Democrats continue negotiations on infrastructure bill


Furious negotiations in Washington, D.C., this weekend, and you can think of furious as being both intense and angry - and that's just the Democrats.

Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: BIF and BBB, my friend - Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan (ph). and Build Back Better. What's the latest?

ELVING: Yes, the latest landscape looks a lot like where we've been lately. Most of the Democrats want both bills - Bipartisan Infrastructure and the triple B, the $3.5 trillion spending plan for the next 10 years. But Congress has rules that often empower the minority or even the individual senators. So in a 50-50 Senate, one or two senators can deny the party majority its ability to prevail. So President Biden is saying now the 3.5 trillion has to shrink in order to squeeze past those holdout Democrats in the Senate. The good news for government this week was the approval of a stopgap spending bill, so the government didn't have to shut down while this showdown continues.

SIMON: President Biden went up to the Capitol to rally his Democrats. This - that's a room he's worked for 36 years, isn't it?

ELVING: Yes, it is. And yes, he did work it again. But most of those years he was there were in another century, another era. The old collegiality factor, the sense of the Senate being a workshop for compromise - that's largely been lost in more recent decades, and it's only gotten worse since Biden left in 2009.

Today, senators are often sole proprietors. They run their own strategies quite apart from the leadership or the White House, sustaining themselves in their own ecosystems. And in the House, the Progressive Caucus is now nearly 100 members and far more aggressive and insistent, and it refuses to knuckle under to the Senate.

SIMON: Let me draw you out on that, Ron. How do you explain that?

ELVING: Several things - all members of Congress now need to be more outward facing, more engaged with their folks back home and their Twitter followers and their donors. There's not so much of the old inside game by which people could quietly build relationships and build careers and amass power. So it's harder to pressure members to settle for less than they want or less than what they've promised their voters and donors.

And if that's true for Biden's party, it's arguably even more a reality on the right, where we've seen the House's most dedicated conservatives drive two Republican speakers into early retirement in just the last 10 years. So all this makes it harder to - harder than ever to slap or backslap your way to a deal.

SIMON: Speaker Pelosi is said to be very good at the mathematics of the House, though, isn't she?

ELVING: She may well be the best, and that's why she pulled down the BIF on Thursday night rather than hold a vote that she knew she would lose. Let's remember here, too, that the Democrats are in this in part because the Republican Party is totally united in its opposition. So while not so long ago, a president could count on at least a few votes from the other party, today the majority has to do it all on its own.

So there's still a little time left before the debt limit really bites and the United States defaults and its checks bounce. We may have two weeks in which to avert that. Polls show the country actually does want these two bills to pass in some form. So while it might take a miracle, miracles can sometimes be managed.

SIMON: And let's get to the third branch of the government if we can because a new term of the Supreme Court's about to begin.

ELVING: Monday begins the new term of the court, which has a hugely meaningful docket on abortion, guns, affirmative action, just to name a few. Justice Brett Kavanaugh will be joining from home after testing positive for COVID this past week. At this time, he is reporting no symptoms.

SIMON: NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

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