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Politics Chat: Biden Administration Pushes On With Promise To Control The Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now. And we should say, Mara, before talking, I understand that you are the victim of a summer cold, not the coronavirus. We want to make that clear. You are fine.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm fine. I just sound terrible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. Well, we're still happy to have you. So on to the actual coronavirus. The key to getting this country moving again is getting more eligible Americans vaccinated. You know, right now, about 58% are fully vaccinated. The urgency of this moment is so much more than it was just a month ago.

LIASSON: That's right. Remember, on July 1, there was a real sense of optimism. Vaccinated Americans were told they could go without masks inside and out. Seven-day average of new cases was only around 12,000. It seemed that President Biden was making good on his big promise to get the pandemic under control.

Now we've got 77,000 new cases a day because of the delta variant. And this is threatening Biden's ability not only to deliver on his big promise, but also it's threatening the economic recovery. You heard Senator Tester. If the president and the administration and local health officials can't convince more people to get vaccinated, the economy can take a hit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, to that end, last week, the president came out with new rules for federal workers to either get vaccinated or to get regular testing. And then some big employers, like Walmart and Disney, followed suit. This is not a mandate. And some are warning that imposing on won't move the needle on many Americans who just aren't willing to take the shots.

LIASSON: That's right. This is really hard. The U.S. hit a plateau after a very strong start. Those who wanted the vaccines got them. Then it just turned into a slogging effort to entice the reluctant with incentives. And it got very political. If you look at a map of the counties that voted for Trump, the counties that voted for Biden, you see the Trump counties are much less vaccinated.

Now we're seeing reports of people who are sick. Some of them are dying in the hospital saying they wish they'd gotten vaccinated. But you're also seeing vaccination rates ticking up as more and more people, including conservatives and Republicans, are telling their constituents to get vaccinated because vaccines work. If you are vaccinated, it doesn't stop you from testing positive. But it stops you from getting sick or dying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, turning now to another one of our recurring topics, which is infrastructure - you just heard Senator Jon Tester say he's feeling optimistic on the bipartisan bill passing in the Senate this week. Do you think his good feeling is warranted?

LIASSON: Well, all I can say is that this bill has always been on the verge of collapsing, but it never did. It has momentum. It has Republican support. It needs 10 Republicans to get over the finish line. I think the big question now - excuse me - is how the Democrats handle this two-step strategy that the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, has outlined.

He wants to move the $1 trillion infrastructure through Congress and the $3.5 trillion gigantic human infrastructure bill at the same time. This is the bill that will need all 50 Democrats in the Senate. No Republicans are going to support it. As you mentioned earlier when you talked to Senator Tester, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not want these bills to be considered separately. And just as the Senate's infrastructure package changed as it went through the sausage-making process, I think that big $3.5 trillion package is also going to change over time. It has to in order to get support from moderate Democrats in the Senate who have been very skeptical about spending that much money.

And this is what legislating looks like in a evenly divided Congress at a time of incredibly low trust between the parties. It's really hard. It's really messy - takes a long time. And it doesn't always succeed. But I would say that the infrastructure bill is the bill that just would not die.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, please feel better. And thank you so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BURRELL'S "WEAVER OF DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.