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Politics chat: Foreign relations consume the White House; Jimmy Carter enters hospice

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's a busy weekend for world diplomacy with more to come this week. And here at home, a historic life is winding down where it started, in Plains, Ga. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk about that and more. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So there's the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, and President Biden is heading to Poland tomorrow to mark one year since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. What stands out to you?

LIASSON: Well, two things. First, how steadfast and united the West has been to support Ukraine with weapons, with sanctions against Russia, but also how fragile that unity and resolve could be over time as the war drags on, with no negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in sight. In the U.S., there are many Republicans in Congress who want to cut back on support to Ukraine. So yesterday, when Vice President Kamala Harris was at that Munich Security Conference, she sent a message of U.S. resolve. She also said the U.S. believes Russia has committed crimes against humanity. And tomorrow, when President Biden is in Poland, he is going to reaffirm U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine. He's going to say that support is unwavering, that it will last, quote, "as long as it takes." And he'll also announce more weapons and money will be coming to Ukraine very soon.

RASCOE: I want to turn to domestic stories, specifically the derailment and spill in East Palestine, Ohio. In addition to being a tragedy for the people there, it's become a political weapon.

LIASSON: Absolutely. This is a big political headache for the Biden administration. Conservatives are saying that the toxic spill was in an area of Appalachia that voted for Trump, and that's why Biden has ignored it. Actually, it wasn't really a spill. It was a derailment and then a controlled burn to prevent an explosion. But Democrats are also criticizing the administration for being slow to respond. It took two weeks for the head of the EPA to show up in East Palestine to talk to residents there. And then you have criticism from the left that says the rail industry has been able to deregulate the safeguards for transporting hazardous materials. So the bottom line is this is a federal problem. Railways are nationally regulated. The interstate transport of hazardous materials is a federal problem. And also, it's just never a good thing when a White House that promised competent governance looks less than competent.

RASCOE: On Friday, Florida Senator Rick Scott had an op-ed that read like he was throwing punches, but really was a capitulation 'cause even his Republicans are, like, turning against him, Mara. So what was going on with that?

LIASSON: That's right. Look, this is what happens when you touch the third rail of American politics, which is Social Security. Senator Scott was the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2022, so he's a prominent Republican. He has a plan to sunset all federal spending every five years so Congress can decide whether or not to renew it. And, of course, that would include Social Security and Medicare. And he's been criticized by Joe Biden for this. Donald Trump is against this plan. Mitch McConnell has come out against this plan. And even though many Republicans - a majority of Republicans in Congress - for years have supported privatizing Medicare and Social Security, they understand the current political peril of that position. And now they are promising never to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

So Senator Scott wrote an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on Friday where he said he was amending his plan to exclude Social Security and Medicare and national security and veterans benefits, which sounds just about, like, everything. But, of course, that leaves open the big question. If Republicans are refusing to increase the debt ceiling unless spending is cut, what kind of spending do they want to cut?

RASCOE: In the few seconds we have left, former President Jimmy Carter is receiving hospice care. What do you have to say about that?

LIASSON: Yes. Carter is 98 years old. His family said he has chosen to spend his final days at home in hospice care. We don't know exactly what health issues have prompted him to make this decision, but he has decided to suspend medical treatment.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.