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Politics chat: Debt ceiling talks; January 6 and the 2024 race; Trump returns to CNN

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's a meeting scheduled this week between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders from both parties to talk about raising the nation's debt limit. Republicans want spending cuts in exchange for doing that. On Friday, the president said the debt limit and the budget are two separate issues, and he accused MAGA Republicans of holding the U.S. economy hostage.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're not a deadbeat nation. We pay our bills.

RASCOE: Joining me now to talk about this is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So the Treasury secretary notified Congress on Monday that the U.S. could default by June 1. So that seems like it should be a highly motivating factor for this meeting. But is it?

LIASSON: That's a good question. In the past, negotiations on the debt ceiling have always found a face-saving off-ramp for both parties at the last minute. So far, there's no off-ramp in sight for this one. There are a lot of Republican lawmakers who think it's worth risking default - and that would be default on spending commitments Congress has already authorized - if they can achieve their goal of cutting funds for some of President Biden's priorities, like climate change and student debt relief. But the president is not interested in making those changes, so the two sides are very far apart.

RASCOE: So what are the outcomes that you're expecting following this meeting?

LIASSON: There are a couple of different outcomes. They could negotiate a deal, something that both sides could claim as a victory for them. They could stay at an impasse, let the country default, which would have horrific consequences. They also could kick the can down the road, agree to a temporary increase of the debt ceiling, which would then have to be raised again later this year, around the same time that the big government funding bill has to be passed. And that would risk a government shutdown, although there are many people in Washington who think that a shutdown is the lesser of two evils compared to a default.

RASCOE: Well, kicking the can down the road is something that Congress likes to do.

LIASSON: Yes.

RASCOE: But who would suffer in a default?

LIASSON: The American people would suffer. It would be economically disastrous, according to economists. Unemployment would go up. Inflation would go up. A recession would probably happen. In terms of political pain, the White House thinks the Republicans would be blamed for a default. But if there is any economic fallout, that would be on President Biden's watch, and it would certainly hurt his efforts to get reelected.

RASCOE: And this, I guess, would be a good time to talk about the latest jobs report, which was a little bit of a surprise, right?

LIASSON: A positive surprise - the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%. That's the lowest since 1969. African American unemployment fell to 4.7. That's the lowest since these statistics have been collected. And a lot of jobs were created. Wages went up. That's good for workers. But it also tells you the economy is not cooling off, which is making it harder for the Federal Reserve to bring down inflation without tipping the economy into a recession.

RASCOE: Mara, the Department of Justice had a big victory last week. A jury found four members of the Proud Boys guilty of seditious conspiracy in the attack on the U.S. Capitol over two years ago. What is the significance of that?

LIASSON: The significance is that seditious conspiracy is the most serious charge brought in the January 6 prosecutions. And so far, the Department of Justice has a pretty impressive record. They've charged about a thousand people, and apparently there are more indictments to come. This also raises the question of how January 6 will play in the 2024 elections. Former President Trump not only said in that 2020 debate to the Proud Boys, quote, "stand back and stand by," but he's talked about pardoning the January 6 defendants.

He's really leaned into his support for them. In a recent rally he held in Waco, Texas, he opened with footage of the insurrection and a recording of people who've been imprisoned for it singing the national anthem. And that shows you that a big part of the Republican base, Donald Trump's supporters, see the January 6 defendants - they don't think they did anything wrong. They see them as political prisoners.

RASCOE: Former President Trump is expected to participate in a CNN town hall on Wednesday. What will you be watching for with that?

LIASSON: I'll be watching for how he's treated by a, quote, "mainstream news organization." You know, he is - his account is back on Twitter. He is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He's going to get a lot of press coverage and a lot of scrutiny. And it shows you that while a large part of the Republican establishment may want Donald Trump to be in the rearview mirror, he is still very much on the hood of the car.

RASCOE: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.