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News Brief: Budget Framework, Cuomo Resignation, Delta Variant

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Senate is moving ahead with one of President Biden's top economic priorities.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

After an all-night session, Democrats early this morning approved the framework for a $3 1/2 trillion spending plan. And it happened a day after the Senate signed off on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The president called that a significant bipartisan milestone.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is about us doing the real, hard work of governing. It's about democracy delivering for the people.

ELLIOTT: But the road forward may not be smooth for that infrastructure bill or the rest of Biden's agenda.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is following this one. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so let's go in steps. Senate Democrats are now in on the $3.5 trillion. What has to happen next?

KHALID: Well, that spending package with $3.5 trillion that you mentioned, it's just beginning to get worked out. I mean, all the Senate did last night was really take the first step. It has a lot more money for things like child care, health care, climate change, a lot of Democratic priorities. But it's going to take a while to work out the details before it actually comes up for a final vote. And, Noel, the tricky thing is Democrats say they're going to pass this budget bill and the infrastructure bill in tandem, but they have such small majorities in both chambers, it could be difficult to keep all the members in line. And still, the president has said he is confident these two bills will pass.

KING: If the two bills do pass, that would be quite a big deal for quite a lot of people in this country. And then I guess the question is, do voters give Joe Biden credit for getting it done?

KHALID: You know, perhaps. But it is not clear that voters have thus far connected the dots back to President Biden, even if they are personally benefiting from something he's done. Steve Schale is a Democratic strategist and leads Unite the Country. It's a pro-Biden superPAC that's been running these ads trying to promote the president's accomplishments. He told me this story of a Republican woman in one of his focus groups who was saying that the expanded child tax credit had been a life saver, but she didn't attribute that to the president. And Schale feels Democrats are going to have their work cut out for them ahead of the midterms.

STEVE SCHALE: If there was a lesson of 2010 or 2014, particularly 2010, which I lived through and have very real scar tissue from, it's that you have to draw those lines. And it's not that voters are clueless. It's voters are busy.

KING: Voters are busy. And unlike 2010 or 2014, this year, voters are busy worrying about COVID.

KHALID: I mean, that, Noel, is sort of the big question I have is how the COVID delta surge might factor into all of this. The White House told me that they've always known that everything is intrinsically tied to COVID and its unpredictability. They also insist that they can, quote, you know, "walk and chew gum at the same time," you know, just look at infrastructure. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who's advised Biden, told me that when concerns about COVID have increased, it seems to cloud out everything else. The president has gotten good marks for how he's handled the virus. The question is whether delta changes the dynamic. Here's Celinda Lake.

CELINDA LAKE: I think the jury is still out. People still trust him, and his job performance on COVID is his best area. On the other hand, I think people are - what can we do about it? Is there anything that can be done about it? Is my governor at fault? Is my president doing what he should? And people are really floundering right now.

KHALID: And, Noel, you know, she says that COVID and the economy are tied together, that there's aspects of the Democratic agenda that could be seen as solutions to things that people have experienced during the pandemic. That's all part of that big budget reconciliation package. The tricky thing is Republicans are also pointing at it, saying it's going to drive up inflation. So the question is, whose message resonates with voters?

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. New York state will have its first woman governor soon. Kathy Hochul is going to take over from Andrew Cuomo.

ELLIOTT: Cuomo resigned yesterday. And as he did, he talked about being caught up in, quote, "generational and cultural shifts." He said the investigation that found he harassed 11 women and had him facing impeachment was politically motivated. Also he apologized to the women.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann has been following this story. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: My family are all in New York, and they've been telling me there's no way he's going to step aside. A lot of people thought that. What happened?

MANN: Yeah, this was a truly stunning pivot for Andrew Cuomo, but pressure on him just kept growing. First came those troubling allegations. He concealed the true rate of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes. That clearly weakened him. Then these women who served on his staff started coming forward, saying he sexually harassed or even groped them. Details of those allegations were outlined in that devastating investigation by the state attorney general's office. And his political support just imploded. The state assembly leader signaled he would cut no deals with Cuomo. That meant impeachment was nearly certain. And yesterday, Cuomo acknowledged it was just all too much.

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ANDREW CUOMO: This situation, by its current trajectory, will generate months of political and legal controversy. That is what is going to happen. That is how the political wind is blowing.

MANN: So Cuomo says he'll step aside in two weeks and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will take Cuomo's place.

KING: How difficult will this be for her?

MANN: And it's going to be hard. She released a statement yesterday saying she is ready to lead, but Albany's a notoriously tough town. Hochul is from upstate New York, the Buffalo area, which is not the political center of gravity in New York. She's going to have to find a way to govern with this fractious Democratic Party, big rifts between moderates like herself and more progressive lawmakers. And there's real-world stuff. Right now, the delta variant is strong in New York state. The state economy is still reeling. There's been a sharp increase of crime in New York City and other cities. So as she emerges from the crater that Andrew Cuomo has left behind here, she's got a big to-do list.

KING: She's got a big to-do list. And in the meantime, not to get ahead of ourselves, but there is an election next year, which means she's also going to be facing competition.

MANN: Yeah. That could make it harder for her to get things done. She's likely to see political rivals emerge pretty quickly ahead of next year's Democratic governor primary. Probably the figure being watched most closely right now is State Attorney General Letitia James. Her office produced that investigation that sealed Cuomo's fate. James has won praise from progressive groups for taking on corporations and the NRA and former President Donald Trump. If James runs, she'll be tough to beat.

KING: What does this all mean for New York Republicans? Do they get kind of an edge amid the mess?

MANN: This is interesting. You know, Republicans pushed hard in the press and in social media for Cuomo's ouster. They are definitely celebrating this as a victory. Remember, Cuomo pushed policies that many conservatives fiercely opposed, including strict gun control laws, same-sex marriage. He was also an outspoken critic of Trump. But another thing that's important to note is that this - you know, Cuomo was a big bogeyman for them, someone that they planned to run against next year. So it's going to be hard to see how they're going to capitalize now that he's gone. Yesterday was definitely a good day for the GOP, but they now have a huge uphill battle ahead of next year's election.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann in New York City. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thanks, Noel.

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KING: OK. The CDC says right now the delta variant is responsible for more than 93% of all the new COVID cases in this country.

ELLIOTT: It's being blamed for the current surge in cases. And internal CDC presentation even claimed it's just as transmissible as chicken pox. But is the delta variant really that contagious?

KING: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff got extremely curious about that question. Good morning, Michaeleen.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so the CDC presentation comes to light and the headline is everywhere - delta is as contagious as chicken pox. And you were like, really?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. You know, I was skeptical because the chicken pox is one of the most contagious viruses in the world. Outbreaks can explode. And respiratory viruses like coronaviruses or the flu, they aren't that contagious. So I decided to look into it because, you know, getting this right is really important. The more accurately we understand the virus and its behavior, the more we can protect ourselves from it.

KING: OK, I'm rubbing my hands together. What did you find?

DOUCLEFF: Well, to understand what I found, I need to explain how scientists calculate contagiousness. A common way is something called an R-naught. This is the number of people each sick person infects on average when the entire population is vulnerable to the virus. So nobody had it or nobody is vaccinated.

KING: OK, so give me a sense of what that contagiousness value is for other viruses.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So take the flu. Its R-naught is about two. So on average, each person that gets it passes it onto two more people. Then they pass it onto two more people and so on.

KING: How does that compare to COVID-19?

DOUCLEFF: When SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in 2019, it was slightly more contagious than the flu. It's R-naught was about two or three. Then late last year, it started to mutate really quickly. And in December, the delta variant emerged. I talked to Tom Wenseleers. He's a biostatistician at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He was one of the first scientists to recognize how dangerous the delta variant is. He says the R-naught is more than double the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.

TOM WENSELEERS: For the delta variant, it's now calculated between six and seven. So they are - 6 1/2 is probably about right.

KING: That seems like a big jump from two or three to 6 1/2.

DOUCLEFF: It is a huge jump. The delta variant is very, very contagious. With an R-naught of six or seven, Wenseleers says it will be extremely difficult to stop.

WENSELEERS: Intrinsically, of course, it is true that this delta variant now is - for a respiratory virus is probably the most contagious one that we know about for the moment.

DOUCLEFF: To slow it down, he says, a community must reach a very high level of vaccination.

KING: OK, let's go back to the question that sent you down the rabbit hole. Was the CDC right that delta is as contagious as the chicken pox?

DOUCLEFF: So even with an R-naught of six or seven, delta is still not as contagious as the chicken pox is typically. That virus has an R-naught around 10. So that leaked CDC document was a bit of an exaggeration. A federal official told me that it was based on some preliminary data. But that said, the bottom line message is the same. He said delta is highly contagious. It can leap from person to person very easily. And if you want to protect yourself from hospitalization, the best way is to get vaccinated.

KING: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Thanks for looking into this, Michaeleen. We appreciate it.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you so much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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