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The week in politics: government funding, debt ceiling and infrastructure


It's October 9, but December 3 is a day to watch. That's when the federal government funding runs out and when the U.S. will likely hit its debt ceiling after a vote in the Senate this week to lift it temporarily. And also, trillions of dollars at stake as infrastructure talks drag on. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Ron, I remember when raising the debt ceiling was kind of just a procedural affair. And now it sounds like, oh, I remember rotary phones. It's become highly contentious, hasn't it?

ELVING: Yes. Like so many things in Washington these days, what was once a formality is now a full-blown crisis. The Congress has raised or suspended this ceiling a hundred times since it was first imposed in 1917. They did it three times under former President Trump. But it's always there in the tool bag. And when you combine it with the filibuster weapon, which some minority parties are willing to use on something like this, it's a way for the minority to hang everything up - take hostages, if you will.

So whichever party is in power has to raise this limit. There's no choice about it. The spending to be covered here has already happened. So you raise or suspend, or else Social Security checks are going to bounce, and maturing bonds of this government will be dishonored. So with all of our history of partisan wrangling, Scott, the U.S. has never defaulted, not even once. But in recent years we've been to the brink of the abyss at least a few times. And this week was one of them. December 3 may be another.

SIMON: It's not the only cliff Congress is confronting, is it?

ELVING: It seems we have more cliffs all the time. I count at least four right now. The federal fiscal year ended 10 days ago. We needed a stopgap funding bill to prevent a shutdown. That was one. Now that's a December 3 deadline, too. Then, this week's vote on the debt limit. Next, the House and Senate showdown over budget reconciliation - that's where the trillions of dollars are at stake. And then finally, if all else goes well, there should be approval of that bipartisan deal on roads and bridges - hard infrastructure.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ELVING: That's that issue you love, Scott. But at this point, that looks like dessert after they've finished a heavy three-course meal of fiscal compromise.

SIMON: All the infrastructure and budget talks continue - lots of attention to centrist Democrats who are pushing back against some of President Biden's signature proposals. What do you think might end up being cast off?

ELVING: They probably will not be able to go to the extent of improving Medicare benefits that they would like to do. Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Budget Committee, particularly would like to do that. They might not be able to guarantee paid federal leave for people who have a baby or for people who have a sick child at home, sick parent to care for, Family and Medical Leave Act with pay. And there are a number of other things that may take a haircut, or they may just eliminate entire benefits that they're considering at this point, and they'll probably have to cut back on some of the tax measures just to keep some of those Democrats on board who don't want to raise taxes on certain categories.

SIMON: Jobs report yesterday was much lower - much lower number of jobs created than some had expected. I gather you don't think that tells the full story, though.

ELVING: It doesn't. It's certainly not the report anyone wanted. Fewer than 200,000 new jobs was less than half of what was expected - the weakest numbers of the year, in fact. But job growth does continue. There is a rather obvious culprit, which was the delta variant surge of a month or so ago. And overall, the report showed we're back down below 5% unemployment. That used to be a pretty good number. And it's improved that much, down back below 5%, in just 17 months after the 2020 COVID recession bottomed out. So compare that to the more than 70 months it took to reach the same level of recovery after the recession of 2008-2009.

SIMON: Finally, President Trump - former President Trump says he wants to invoke executive privilege to keep papers from a House committee investigating the January insurrection. Can he?

ELVING: He can try, but he's no longer president. That makes his claim rather dubious in the eyes of many. And even greater stretch is his claim of executive privilege for Steve Bannon, a former staff member he had fired years before the insurrection. The Bannon claim is not going to bolster Trump's other claims of privilege, but this is now one more question for the courts to determine.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for