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Politics chat: Biden's spending bills are still stalled on Capitol Hill


Buenos dias. With his domestic agenda still stalled on Capitol Hill, President Biden is on the road, making the case for his proposals. Here he is at a Connecticut child development center on Friday, talking about the infrastructure bill and his broader plan on the social safety net.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: These bills, in my view, are literally about competitiveness versus complacency, about opportunity versus decay, about leading the world or continue to let the world move by us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But two Democratic senators have been stalling an agreement on the social spending plan while Republicans sit back and watch. We're joined now by senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu. Thanks for having me on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is an especially precarious time for Democrats. Essentially, two Democratic senators are at the heart of this delay. It's not so much that Dems can't agree. It's not so much that progressives are fighting moderates in some large-scale battle of ideology. But what is happening behind the scenes?

MONTANARO: Well, Democrats are trying to hash out an agreement. They're revising the legislation behind the scenes, but so far, not enough to satisfy those two Democratic holdout senators you alluded to - Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. That's making it really difficult for Democrats because they've been unable to sell, in a unified way, these big changes they say will help so many people. Meanwhile, you know, President Biden's approval numbers aren't helping very much. They're holding in a kind of mediocre range. And he's notably seen declines with independents who were so key to his winning the White House in 2020 and will be key again in suburban districts in 2022.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, Democrats would say they got votes on the very platform that they're trying to enact.

MONTANARO: Sure, you know, but let's be honest. Trump was on the ballot, and, you know, it's a sharply divided country. Trump was among the most polarizing people in the history of the office. So there were a lot of people who came together to get behind Biden to remove Trump from office - not necessarily united around a clear set of policies or at least how far those policies should go. To that point, one survey caught my eye this week from Gallup. It found a majority of Americans saying that they think the government is now doing too much. That's a reversal from last year at the height of the pandemic, but it's usually how Americans feel. In fact, in almost 30 years of Gallup asking that question, just one other time, aside from the height of the pandemic last year, have people said the government should do more and that was after 9/11. This could be a problem for Democrats and might mean that they're misreading the mandate of the 2020 election, which may have really been about fixing COVID, not necessarily reshaping the social safety net of the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, but, I mean, when we look at the individual proposals, they poll well, right? I mean, universal child care, et cetera - and I'll also say this Dems in disarray narrative overlooks that Republicans are very united in being pretty obstructive.

MONTANARO: That's true. You know, many of those proposals do poll well individually, but Republicans and those Democratic holdouts are pretty philosophically opposed to spending more on a lot of those social safety net items that most Democrats want to expand. And that obstruction you're talking about? Well, it's been in the Washington playbook for quite some time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is true. That is true. All right, back to this administration. I mean, do we know why President Biden's approval ratings have fallen?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's likely a combination of things. I mean, his numbers clearly started dipping when the delta variant of coronavirus took hold this summer, and then there was obviously the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. And even though the economy is growing and unemployment's falling, prices are high with inflation jumping, and we've heard all about those supply chain issues throughout the country. Now, since the Afghanistan exit, Biden's numbers have come back up some but not all the way. The one bit of good news for Biden and Democrats is that new coronavirus cases and deaths are on the downward decline again. Now, if the - if his agenda does finally get passed, if the COVID trend continues, if some of these economic issues ease, then his approval ratings might get a boost, but, you know, those are a lot of ifs and a lot of dominoes that need to fall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, if, if, if - and there are elections in just a couple of weeks that people are really focusing on. How is any of this playing out in those races?

MONTANARO: Right, well, everyone's looking toward the Virginia governor's race because it's the only game in town, really. It'll be the first big test in a couple of weeks of really Democratic and Republican enthusiasm. This is an election that's traditionally gone to the party that isn't in the White House. In fact, back to the 1970s, only once has the president's party won this race. Just so happens that the man who did it is on the ballot again, Terry McAuliffe, and he's blaming his own party for his sagging poll numbers - you know, from the party not passing its agenda to Biden not being as popular as he'd like in Virginia. But Virginia is changing. It's a much more blue state. It should be a state the Democrats win. If they lose, it'll likely be because of Democratic voter apathy, and that would be a bad sign for Democrats as they try to retain control of the House next year and power in Washington.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

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

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.