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Week in politics: The 'Build Back Better' bill is moving forward


And we turn to Capitol Hill now, where the House has passed President Biden's $2 trillion social spending plan after months of contention, to put it nicely. Now, it goes before the Senate, where it may face many changes before being - well, not finished but sent back to the House. We're joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: This is a huge hurdle. But now the substance of the bill - and they need all 50, you know, 50 votes - the substance of the bill comes before at least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have a lot of reservations. What happens now?

ELVING: Now they find out how much of this 2 trillion the Senate will swallow. And as you say, we know at least two senators have some problems. There's also a dispute over the cap that the Republicans a few years ago put on federal tax deductions for the state and local taxes people pay. Now, that issue divides Democrats depending on what state they're from and how affluent their constituents are because that particular issue affects people who pay more taxes.

As for Manchin, he has said that the House's paid leave policy - family leave policy - is just too expensive, and the U.S. can't afford a paid leave policy along the lines of what the rest of the industrial democracies have. Manchin may have other objections having to do with climate change. He's from coal country. He chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and he's been sensitive to the preferences of the energy industry.

Sinema is somewhat of a mystery. She's taken campaign donations from some of the industry's most worried about this bill. But beyond that, she's styled herself as a nonpartisan maverick on the model of Arizona Senator John McCain. And her vote can be hard to predict. So the Senate's going to be a tough sled. Senators are going to have a lot of other business that they have to finish, as well.

SIMON: Well, and let's talk about this because - a lot to accomplish before the end of the year, don't they? - in addition to the Build Back Better Bill?

ELVING: It's easy to forget just how much more, Scott. There's a defense bill, Pentagon policy bill - that's actually got a lot of issues in it. And then there's the debt ceiling, which still has to be raised to prevent default on the nation's current obligations and also to prevent having Social Security checks bounce just before Christmas. And Congress is operating on temporary spending bills right now, so it's going to need either a big stopgap spending bill or what they call an omnibus very soon to prevent a shutdown.

SIMON: And, of course, there are a lot of urgent issues going on both domestically and internationally at the same time.

ELVING: Yeah, the European trip for President Biden was generally successful but low profile, eclipsed back home by a lot of bad news and bad polls. This week was a little easier. Staying at home, he met with the top guys from Canada and Mexico. It's a case of collecting some easy dividends, cooperating on the world stage where Trump was confrontational, removing tariffs where Trump imposed them, seeking ways to cooperate on trade and other issues, especially with our North American neighbors.

SIMON: Ron, we of course, just heard about the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha - that there was a peaceful protest in New York City last night, one in Portland, Ore., that police declared a riot. A lot of emotion carried by a lot of Americans. Is there a way President Biden can lead that addresses the moment of the contrast with his predecessor?

ELVING: You know, his predecessor got out a fundraising appeal last night after the verdict, calling the trial a witch hunt. So Biden has definitely dialed down on the rhetoric. He did say the verdict left him angry and concerned. Surely a lot of people felt that way, although the trial, if you followed it closely - and we just heard from David Schaper what the trial was like - it was a parade of disasters and setbacks for the prosecutors. Some of their witnesses arguably helped the defendant. So it's an easy time to take sides. Blame the other side. Biden is going to have a hard time placating both sides.

SIMON: If I might ask you this finally, Ron - totally unfair question - when do you think the Senate will send something back to the House on Build Back Better?

ELVING: Possibly before Christmas. We could have a Christmas Eve session, and it might not be on President Biden's desk until the new year.

SIMON: Well, what a way to (laughter) ring in the new year. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Happy holidays, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for