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Democrats Are Split Over Biden's $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the White House today, President Biden met with congressional Democrats. The goal? To get his agenda back on track. Democrats in Congress are split over the size and policy details of Biden's $3.5 trillion spending plan. And yet White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the infighting.

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JEN PSAKI: This is a messy sausage-making process. The president - today, what Americans should be encouraged by is the president is bringing people of a range of viewpoints on big, important packages that are going to make their lives better here to the White House to have a discussion about it.

CORNISH: Joining us now with more is NPR Congressional Correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Welcome back.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: So this is outreach, plain and simple, right? What is the president trying to accomplish?

SNELL: You know, he's trying to get the two sides of his own party on the same page. Fights over the spending bill have been a little bit like a game of whack-a-mole so far. And like you said, they are fighting about the overall size of the package. But they're also fighting about details like how to handle things on taxes, things like wealthy - taxing wealthy estates and state and local taxes. They're even fighting about how to rein in drug prices. Now, to make things even more complicated, they're even fighting about when and how they should vote on everything. You know, just to give you a sense of how widespread the issue is, in the middle of all of these White House meetings, about a dozen progressive senators put out a statement demanding that the House cancel a planned vote on a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill, saying it would violate an agreement on the broader spending bill. And if that sounds complicated and messy, that's because it absolutely is.

CORNISH: All right, I'm going to put that to the side for a second because this is happening as Democrats are actively trying to avoid a fiscal crisis over government spending and the debt limit. So is the White House folding this into this conversation as well?

SNELL: You know, yes and no. The House voted along party lines yesterday to pass a bill to extend government funding through December 3 and lift a cap on the debt limit until the end of next year. But Senate Republicans plan to block that when it comes up in the Senate. You know, they're saying that Democrats should add the debt limit to the broader spending bill that they're discussing because Democrats want to pass that using a budget tool that helps them avoid a filibuster. Now, Republicans know that Democrats don't have the votes right now on their spending plan, and adding debt limit to the already troubled partisan bill would mean Democrats alone would have to bear the political consequences if the country defaults on its debt. So these things are kind of becoming really closely entwined.

CORNISH: What are congressional leaders saying about how to kind of disengage these issues - right? - so that they're not so tangled up?

SNELL: Well, you know what? It's really unclear right now what they're going to do about that. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came back from her White House meeting saying that they're calm and everybody's good and their work is almost done. She said that they're in good shape. But I've spoken to staff and senators and House members about this, and nobody seems to have a clear answer on how to fix it. You know, this kind of brinksmanship has dominated Congress over the past 10 years, right? We're not - we're pretty used to seeing Congress have fights like this. But this is the kind of thing Democrats hoped they could avoid if they had control of the House, the Senate and the White House. Biden and Democrats promised to do a lot for voters, and they're in a situation now where their ability to do basic governing task is on the line, as they're having confrontations inside their own party and with Republicans.

CORNISH: One more thing - the news broke today that police reform, this issue that had long been in talks, that those talks have ended. What happened?

SNELL: Well, things had been stalled for months. So the outcome is somewhat - not a huge surprise that things didn't work out. A bipartisan group of lawmakers had been working on reform efforts since last year. And today, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said the gulf between the sides was just too big. You know, there was a big public rift over qualified immunity for officers. Republicans didn't want to make individual officers subject to civil lawsuits. Democrats say they'll now look for other options to pass what Cory Booker called meaningful and commonsense reforms. But they'd still need 60 votes in the Senate to do that, and right now it's very hard to see how they would get there.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thanks for teasing it out for us.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.