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Week in politics: Infrastructure bill provides money for bridges, broadband and more

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

After weeks of discouraging news, the White House is looking forward to a little celebration tomorrow. The reason? The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, much fought and negotiated over, will become law as soon as President Joe Biden puts his signature on it. Joining me to discuss this and other political developments is NPR's own Scott Detrow. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: So this is the $1 trillion bipartisan bill, first passed the summer in the Senate, that got stalled in the House. We have had so much congressional drama, it's been easy to lose the scope of this legislation, so tell us what it will do.

DETROW: Yeah, this got lost not only in that endless drama, especially among Democrats, but also the scale of COVID relief bills passed over the past two years. You know, we've almost gotten used to trillion-dollar bills at this point. It does a lot, and it does a lot in areas where there's wide agreement that this spending was long overdue. I will just tick off a few - $40 billion for bridge construction, $65 billion to build out broadband lines and access in rural areas where it's lacking. And this is interesting to me. It also spends billions to try and kick-start electric vehicle charging stations across the country. If that takes hold, it could speed up the shift from gas power to electric vehicles, which would be big for climate change.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. That would be a really big change. So, OK, that is the substance. Now, please, back to the drama.

DETROW: Back to the drama.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Progressive Democrats were holding up the final passage of this bill as leverage to advance the Build Back Better package, which is a huge social spending bill. What's the status of that legislation?

DETROW: Yeah, this is a sweeping bill touching on all sorts of democratic priorities - climate change, expanding pre-K access, many things in between, though the exact amount of things in between is, of course, what is being debated right now. The White House is hoping that the leap of faith that many House progressives and moderates took together to pass that infrastructure bill could carry over and create more mentum for this measure.

But of course, its fate remains entirely in the hands of those two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. In the 50-50 Senate, they have had a lot of leverage, and they've been pretty skeptical, and that is why some key climate measures and paid family leave programs have been cut from this bill. And this is pretty key. Joe Manchin made it clear this week, he is really alarmed by rising inflation, and he's hesitant to vote for more spending, even though the White House insists that this bill would not make inflation worse and, in fact, could even improve the situation.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, let's talk more about that because the administration was downplaying concerns about inflation early on, specifically around the signing of the American Rescue Plan back in March. But now they're singing a different tune, right?

DETROW: Yeah, I think there's been a pattern over this past year where the White House is often very eager to focus on its priorities, but it sometimes had a hard time dealing with or it's slow to focus on unexpected challenges. And this is a good example of that. The White House really almost dismissed this for months, saying it was a short-term problem. Now it is very clearly not a short-term problem. It is clearly worrying a lot of voters, contributing to Biden's low approval ratings, among many other things, so the White House is trying to scramble to show they're taking it seriously. One big step is working to pour extra resources into ports to move some of the shipping backlog. You're also just hearing Biden talk about inflation more. That's something he did on a day last week that was supposed to be all about selling this new infrastructure law. He was appearing at a port in Baltimore. And of course, those shipping containers behind him really tell the story of what's going on in inflation, and that's what he talked about instead.

KURTZLEBEN: All right, well, looking forward, President Biden also has a virtual meeting tomorrow with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. What's going to be on the virtual table?

DETROW: Probably a little bit of virtual tension.

KURTZLEBEN: OK.

DETROW: I think we know that for sure. Biden has focused so much of his foreign policy on countering China, and that's added to tensions between the two countries. And at the same time, China has taken a lot of really aggressive steps in terms of how it deals with Taiwan. It tested a new missile technology, among other things. The White House says this is about opening up communications, but you're also hearing them talk about the fact that there are areas the U.S. and China can work together. You know, one example is climate change. The two countries did announce a new agreement at the U.N. Climate Summit that just wrapped and played a big deal working together to get the final language. So that's just one example in some of the positives that you'll be hearing from the White House and their counterparts in Beijing over the next days.

KURTZLEBEN: NPR Washington desk correspondent Scott Detrow. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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