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A Look At Biden's 1st Day In Office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This afternoon, Vice President Harris and President Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And not long after, President Biden headed to the White House for his first day as its new resident. For more on today's events, we are joined by White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell and political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Welcome to all three of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good evening.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

KELLY: Mara, we just heard there a bit of Biden's speech earlier today. What was his overall inaugural message?

LIASSON: The message had two parts. One was familiar. It's what he ran on; the country needs to unify and heal. He said, we have to put an end to this uncivil war. He asked people to lower the temperature and listen to each other. He said politics doesn't have to be a raging fire that destroys everything in its path. But the second part of the message was a realistic, hard-headed understanding of the incredible challenges that he faces. There are a lot of them, and they're overwhelming. He listed them. He said they are anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness. And he said we face an attack on democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequality, the sting of systemic racism and a climate in crisis. So he has a pretty good idea of how hard it's going to be for him to move forward and unify the country in the face of all that.

KELLY: Franco Ordoñez, there was plenty of oratory today, as we just heard; also, a little bit of fun. As we speak, the "Celebrating America" primetime program, as they've called it, is underway. And we're hearing musicians and all kinds of performances unfolding. But this is also a work day. President Biden was working from the White House, where you still are. What did he do?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, as soon as the - President Biden was sworn in, we started to see changes. First, the White House website changed hands. And then President Biden tweeted from the POTUS Twitter account. Soon, staff started to show up in the West Wing, and they were getting their computers set up and saying hello. And then just after about 5 p.m., President Biden made his way to the Oval Office, where he started to sign a big stack of executive actions, saying there was no time to start like today. And, you know, among those were rejoining the Paris climate agreement and a mask mandate in federal buildings. Now, White House press secretary Jen Psaki - she also held her first briefing a short while ago and stressed that COVID crisis is a top priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: The issue that he wakes up every day focused on is getting the pandemic under control. The issue he goes to bed every night focused on is getting the pandemic under control.

ORDOÑEZ: She also echoed Biden's message that the administration really wants to rebuild trust with the American people. And Biden - he also shared that he did receive a note from President Trump. And he called it a very generous letter, but he declined to give further details about what he said it was - in it because it was private.

KELLY: All right. Now, meanwhile, there was action in the Senate today too. Kelsey, three new members sworn in - that gives Democrats control of the Senate barely. It's a 50-50 split with Kamala Harris casting a deciding vote as needed. Are we learning more about how this 50-50 split is actually going to work?

SNELL: So as you said, the 50-50 split means that a lot of the power is in Harris' hands to break those ties. But the real power is in the ability to set the schedule. And with Democrats having control there, they get to decide what comes down to the Senate floor. And that, you know, is the ultimate power in Washington is deciding what gets a vote. But you know what? They'll have to work with Republicans if they actually want to get any legislation approved. We know that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is working on a power sharing agreement with the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. And we know that Democrats want to model that on a 2001 agreement that gave equal representation on committees, but they don't have a deal yet, in part because Republicans want to focus on the filibuster. They want Democrats to say that they won't get rid of the filibuster, that they won't get rid of that extra little power that forces them to debate and to get 60 votes, which means getting 10 Republicans on their side if they want to move forward with that 50-50 vote in the end.

KELLY: Which hints at just how difficult this might be going forward, since they're now arguing and debating over what the power sharing agreement would look like in order to pick up any legislation at all.

SNELL: Right.

KELLY: I mean, I'm just thinking of issues where things have been so partisan, so deadlocked in past; things like climate change, things like immigration, citizenship for DREAMers. What do we know about Democrats' plans to try to get things done on those issues, when it's so close?

SNELL: Well, the new Senate majority leader, Schumer, says that they will do those things. He specifically named climate change. He specifically named racial injustice as something that he was going to bring legislation forward to address. The thing is they can bring legislation forward. But with that filibuster in place, as technical as it may seem, they just can't get anywhere without Republican support. I think it's really interesting when you also think about the coronavirus legislation that President Biden wants to bring forward. Jen Psaki was asked about this, and she said she - that they want it to be a bipartisan bill and that Biden will be very involved. But they said they're not taking any tools off the table. So they are not, you know, saying upfront that they're going to outlaw the possibility of getting rid of the filibuster or some other opportunity to go around those Senate rules that make it very hard for them to move forward with an aggressive agenda.

KELLY: Mara Liasson, let me circle back to you. We discussed a moment ago the oratory, the ceremony, all of those important things happening today; the rituals. Have we learned more about how Biden actually plans to lead in what by any measure is a phenomenally difficult time in this country?

LIASSON: Right. Well, Jen Psaki said today of course he's going to reach out to Republicans. He believes that he can find bipartisan compromise on some of these things. But more importantly, they say that he is going to be the president that people wanted. He's going to be transparent, accountable and honest, and he's going to use the government to help ordinary people. And that means, first and foremost, doing something about the pandemic, getting 100 million doses into people's arms in a hundred days. If he can vaccinate that many people, it's possible that he could develop some political capital that will help him get some leverage in Congress down the road. He probably won't have a honeymoon period. Honeymoons have probably gone the way of bipartisan cooperation. But he does have pretty good favorability ratings right now. They're in the mid-50s. But a lot of healing these divisions and going forward depends on Republicans. And as long as two-thirds of the House Republicans do not believe that Biden is a legitimate president and eight senators agreed with them - they're not willing to say those six simple words. Joe Biden won fair and square. It's going to be very, very hard.

KELLY: He's also going to try to roll back all kinds of things that Donald Trump did and do that quickly - Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, he really is going to do - try to do a lot of things. Jen Psaki told us this week that a big part of his, you know, efforts is to kind of overturn damaging actions by his predecessor, you know, other issues. He wants to make clear what his priorities are, including COVID-19 and climate change but also racial equity. On that critical issue, he wants to show that he's taking concrete steps to address systematic racism, such as revoking Trump's ban on diversity training and canceling Trump's 1776 commission that historians say distorted the history of slavery. And, you know, Biden also wants to demonstrate that he's going to be president for all Americans, including the most vulnerable.

KELLY: Kelsey Snell, tie it all together for us and give us a sense, based on your reporting on the Hill today and all the days leading up to this, about Joe Biden's ability to work with Congress on his agenda.

SNELL: Well, one thing we know is that Joe Biden knows Congress, that he knows all of the leaders of the House and the Senate personally. He will have a relationship there. And we know that he personally wants to be involved in negotiations. But as Mara said, there are no honeymoons, and this will not be an easy road.

KELLY: That is NPR's Kelsey Snell, along with Franco Ordoñez and Mara Liasson.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

SNELL: Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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

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