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Politics chat: Biden's tough week; mask-or-test mandates; the future of the filibuster


Rising COVID rates, rising inflation rates, rising anger over voting rights - all those amount to a falling approval rate for President Joe Biden, who hit a low 33% in a Quinnipiac University poll this week. Of course, that's just one poll and one snapshot, but that number is emblematic of the tough week the president has had. We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Mara, President Biden seems to be running into, let's call them, structural obstacles - resistance that is built in at every turn. Most notably, this week, the Supreme Court shot down his vaccine mandate just as the numbers of infections and hospitalizations in the U.S. seem to be climbing yet again.

LIASSON: That's right. They denied his vaccine or test mandate for big employers, but they did say that publicly funded hospitals or health care facilities had to comply with Biden's vaccine mandates. And this is really frustrating for Democrats. He is coming up against the reality of what a conservative Supreme Court means - a 6-3 big conservative majority Supreme Court. A lot of Democrats are saying this is an example of minority rule. Three of the six conservative judges were installed by Republican presidents who did not win the popular vote and in a 50-50 Senate, where it only takes 51 Republican senators to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. The 50 Republicans right now represent 44 million fewer people than Democrats in the Senate - than the same number of Democrats in the Senate. So, yes, this is structural, it's frustrating, and Biden is going to be up against this problem with this conservative court again and again.

PFEIFFER: This leads right into the issue of voting rights legislation - two bills, no real movement with possibly a vote next week.

LIASSON: That's right - again, very, very frustrated Democrats because they can't get all of their members on board to carve out an exemption for the filibuster. But again, on the state level, you just need 51 votes in a state legislature to pass these bills that would make it harder for people to cast a ballot or make it easier for partisan actors to overturn an election. But on the federal level, to put in safeguards for voting, you need 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. And this week, Senator Kyrsten Sinema was able to single-handedly kill the Voters Rights Act - Voting Rights Acts - because she said she didn't want an exemption to the filibuster.

So Biden, in this case, is having a problem with his own party, not just with Republicans. There have been exemptions to the filibuster carved out before for budget bills, Supreme Court nominees, lower court nominees, cabinet nominees, the debt ceiling. But on this one, he can't get his Democrats to agree.

PFEIFFER: If President Biden can't get the voting rights protections he wants to push through on a federal level, states could act to protect voting rights, but the catch there is that nearly two-thirds of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans.

LIASSON: That's right. He doesn't have the votes in Congress to pass federal protections. He doesn't have - the Democrats don't have the votes in state legislatures to stop these Republican bills. Why? Because in 2020, even though Biden won decisively at the top of the ticket, Democrats lost seats everywhere else. They didn't make any gains in state legislatures. So they're very worried about these bills that Republican state legislatures are passing not just to make it harder to vote - that's voter suppression - but much more importantly, to make it easier to overturn an election, to decertify ballots or manipulate the results. And just this week, Donald Trump, who's usually very transparent about what he wants, told the Republicans in Pennsylvania that they had to pay attention to the supervisor of elections races. He said, quote, "sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate." And that's what Democrats are worried about.

PFEIFFER: We're in an election year. A lot at stake - 34 Senate seats, all 435 House seats being up for reelection. That means in terms of getting any key legislation passed, time is of the essence for President Biden.

LIASSON: That's right. It's not clear if he could pass some version of Build Back Better that Joe Manchin would accept. It's not clear if the Senate would pass a bipartisan effort to just correct one tiny part of the voting rights problem, the Electoral Count Act, which would clarify the role of the vice president in certifying electoral slates. That would avoid another January 6.

But the much bigger question is there are many people who believe it doesn't matter what kind of legislation Biden passes because the two things that are going to determine Democrats' fortunes in 2022 are things that he has no control over, inflation and COVID. He was elected to return the country to some sense of normalcy. Now, he hasn't been able to do that. Granted, Democrats say Republicans are stopping him at every turn. But those are the two big issues for him.

PFEIFFER: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson - thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DHRUV VISVANATH'S "RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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