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Rep. Abigail Spanberger talks about the future of Build Back Better

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly on Capitol Hill, where after a weeklong recess, the House is back. And Democrats, with their wafer-thin majority, are back with a mission. They are hoping to pass President Biden's social spending package, the one known as Build Back Better. They are trying to get that done this week, but their return to Washington comes as President Biden's approval ratings hit new lows and inflation hits new highs and following big losses in the off-year election this month. Well, we have come to talk through what's at stake with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, moderate Democrat from Virginia, former CIA officer-turned-politician. Let's go meet her.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: Nice to see you. Oh, my goodness.

KELLY: We're taking over your office.

SPANBERGER: I'm so happy.

KELLY: Spanberger, like everyone else in her party, is waiting to find out how much the bill will cost taxpayers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is supposed to give them an answer by Friday, and I wanted to know, will that be good enough for her to support the legislation?

If the CBO later this week produces a number and says, you're good; this is going to be paid for, will you vote for this bill?

SPANBERGER: So I support the - I mean, there are provisions in this bill that I have aggressively lobbied for - lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is in fact cost-saving not only for the American people but also for the federal government from the Medicare standpoint, climate change, making meaningful, real investments in fighting climate change, extending the refundability of the child tax credit, which is so vitally important to kids and families throughout central Virginia. And so this is a bill that, in principle, I support. This is a bill that I want to see get across the finish line. And certainly...

KELLY: So will you vote for it?

SPANBERGER: (Laughter).

KELLY: I notice you're not saying yes.

SPANBERGER: I mean, at this point, this is a bill that I support and a bill that I intend to vote for. Yes.

KELLY: If the CBO comes back and says the bill is not paid for, Congresswoman Spanberger says she's not drawing red lines, that one way or the other, she is confident House Democrats will pass it and send it to the Senate. She told us the elements of Build Back Better that she plans to fight for - addressing climate change, the child tax credit and lowering prescription drug costs. She says these are what Americans want. What she is less sure about is whether the different wings of her party can come together and communicate their priorities.

You get why Americans might be confused...

SPANBERGER: A hundred percent.

KELLY: ...As they look and try to figure out, what is the unifying message here?

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: What do Democrats stand for?

SPANBERGER: And that is the - I mean, frankly, that's the fault of quite a few Democrats who are arguing on television, talking about numbers that have no real sense of size and scope. I think that we as a caucus, we as a party need to do a much better job of saying, these are the things we are working towards. But as we're going through the negotiations, like, these are the priority elements that we're working towards.

KELLY: There's a messaging challenge - isn't there? - because Democrats just got through the bipartisan infrastructure bill...

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...The victory lap yesterday when President Biden signed it at the White House. But for ordinary Americans trying to get through their day, a bridge that might get built at some point in the future feels really abstract when you're looking at how much it costs to fill up your car...

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...To get to your job or how much it costs you to pay your grocery bill. And they look at who controls Washington, and they think...

SPANBERGER: That's right.

KELLY: ...Do something about it.

SPANBERGER: That's right. And so there will be - there are, like, real responses to the challenges we're facing now in this bill and ensuring that people know that we're working on it and ensuring that people know that we're taking legislative action. You know, the results aren't necessarily going to be immediate, but they are there.

KELLY: So how do you explain - clearly, you believe democratic policies, including the ones advanced in this Build Back Better bill, will make Americans' lives better. The president's approval ratings are down. Democrats just took a drubbing in elections, including losing the governor's race in your state...

SPANBERGER: That's right.

KELLY: ...In Virginia - drubbing the right word? What would you use?

SPANBERGER: Shellacking.

KELLY: Shellacking. What's the disconnect? What are Americans not getting?

SPANBERGER: I wouldn't put it on the voters. I think it's ultimately our responsibility. Voters, our constituents, the people we represent - however you want to phrase it, the American people are busy. Life is difficult. Things are hard. You know, we had so much hope in the spring headed into the summer about where we were going with COVID, and then the delta variant popped up and really just pulled us back multiple steps.

KELLY: I'll note you and I are sitting here, talking to each other in N-95 masks...

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Which I thought we were done with. And here we are.

SPANBERGER: Which we - and we all wanted to be done with. And then, you know, we saw a tumultuous, difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan. And we saw just an uneasiness. Kids going back to school - I myself have three school-age kids, only one of whom at the beginning of the year was eligible to be vaccinated. And if you listen to people in my district, it's prescription drug costs. It is supply chain issues. It is just overall worry about where we are as a people. It's the fact that people are constantly fighting. Still, the partisan divide is great and profound.

Years ago, we said we want to get to a place where people can have Thanksgiving with their families again and not fight over politics. But yet we're still there. And now some people can't have Thanksgiving because they're worried about where to buy their turkey or whether or not they can do it safely because of COVID. And that's the connection that I don't think is made enough.

KELLY: To the chaos...

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That you're describing, that people feel it in their daily lives - you told The New York Times...

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Talking about President Biden, that people didn't elect him to be FDR. We elected him to be normal...

SPANBERGER: Yeah, and stop the chaos.

KELLY: ...And stop the chaos. Has he?

SPANBERGER: I think from a policy standpoint, if we look at what happened in the very beginning of his presidency - aggressively going after vaccine deployments, aggressively ensuring that anybody who wants a vaccine can get access to it, moving us, leading us towards the end of that pandemic - that he and the White House did very, very well. The American Rescue Plan, which, of course, you know, the House and the Senate passed with the White House's engagement, was incredibly meaningful to our recovery efforts, extending Paycheck Protection Program dollars - so more money to small business, to families that are, you know, facing real challenges - through the child tax credit as well as all of the other things that we did related to combating the pandemic.

KELLY: That sounds like a yes and no to that. Has he stopped the chaos?

SPANBERGER: Well...

KELLY: You're pointing to things he's gotten done.

SPANBERGER: Yeah.

KELLY: And yet we all still feel our lives are in chaos.

SPANBERGER: Yeah. And I think, you know, there's outside factors, right? You know, there's always the possibility with a pandemic that there will be variants, but the delta variant hit us particularly hard. And then there was our withdrawal from Afghanistan. So kind of moving forward, we are in a place where I think we are plodding forward. We are, you know, pulling ourselves with all of our weight. And I think the president is working really hard to get us to that place of normalcy, to get us to that place of tamped-down chaos. But we are not there yet.

And I guess in my comments, my message, my focus, my desire is that we keep that as a central goal of making it so people can just take a deep breath without worry for just a minute or just a day. And the president can and does play a large role in getting us there, and I want that to continue to be a focus in his mind.

KELLY: So as you look to next year, to the midterms...

SPANBERGER: Let me tell you what. I plan to win. I plan to continue defending democracy and advocating for policies that matter to people. But I am eyes wide open on how hard that would be. Perhaps I just have the advantage of always having difficult races (laughter). So my perspective is I expect this one to be just as difficult as my last two races. And if we think our policies are good, as I do, then we need to make the connection for the busy voter who - they elect us to do the work. They just want us to do our job. And we have to continue demonstrating that that is indeed what we're doing. And that's what I'm attempting to do. That's what I'm working to do. And if we do that, we will be fine.

KELLY: Congresswoman, thank you.

SPANBERGER: Thank you.

KELLY: That is Abigail Spanberger, Democrat from Virginia. We've been speaking in her office on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.