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Politics Chat: Why it took so long to pass the infrastructure bill


Late Friday night, the House of Representatives sent a bipartisan infrastructure bill to President Biden's desk. The $1 trillion bill promises investment in everything from broadband internet to railroads to electric vehicle charging stations. And its passage after months of Capitol Hill debate energized the president, who just days earlier had watched his party get battered in elections. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins me now to discuss. Good morning, Tam.


KURTZLEBEN: So up until the last minute, it seemed like this infrastructure package might not get approved. We understand President Biden was making calls trying to get Congress on board. Remind us why this bill is so important and specifically why it's so important to him.

KEITH: Yeah, he was almost giddy yesterday that it was infrastructure week at last. Yea, that had been a running joke in the Trump administration because...

KURTZLEBEN: ...Finally, yeah.

KEITH: Yes, finally, infrastructure week - you know, because President Trump never quite saw it through to the finish. This bill is chock-full of long overdue investments in things like roads and bridges but also replacing dangerous lead pipes, making coastal communities more resilient to climate change, upgrading the electric grid and that rural broadband you mentioned. Beyond that, it was bipartisan. Without the 13 Republicans in the House who voted for it, it may not have passed. And in the Senate earlier, there were 19 Republicans that went for it. That is not overwhelming bipartisanship by any definition, but in these polarized times, it was enough for Biden to make his case that he made in the campaign - that Washington can come together and get things done for the American people.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, which is what he promised. You mentioned him being giddy, but the passage of this bill came amid a week of whiplash for the Biden administration, didn't it?

KEITH: Yeah, it was pretty remarkable. If you think - Biden started the week with Republican Glenn Youngkin winning the governor's race in Virginia, a state Biden had won by 10 points just a year earlier. Then comes Friday. The jobs report shows more than 530,000 jobs created in October as the unemployment rate drops to 4.6%. Social media starts flooding with pictures of 5-to-11-year-olds getting their COVID vaccines. And then this bipartisan infrastructure package passes late Friday night. I talked to Jen Palmieri, who is an Obama administration official - she told me that the end of this week shows Biden a path to turn things around before the 2022 midterm elections, where there is a very real risk that Democrats could lose their majorities.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, so to look ahead, the next big agenda item up for a vote is the president's social spending plan, which would go way beyond the more traditional infrastructure we've talked about. Here's Biden talking about it yesterday.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I have one focus - how do we give you some breathing room? How do we get you to the point where we take pressure off you so you can begin to get back to a degree of normality, and we move to a different place?

KEITH: Biden sees this big social safety net bill with expanded child tax credit, child care, elder care, bringing down prescription drug costs, raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for it - he sees it as essential, and it would certainly give Democrats something to campaign on in 2022. But there will not be Republican support, and the margins are incredibly narrow. Democrats don't have full agreement amongst themselves about what should be in this bill or how essential it really is. So there's going to be some ugly legislative sausage-making to come in the weeks ahead. But at the same time, expect to see Biden standing in front of bridges and ports touting his bipartisan win on this infrastructure bill.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks so much.

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

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.