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Biden's budget proposal shifts to new priorities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden offered a $5.8 trillion budget proposal, which includes small parts of his signature policy agenda, the climate and social safety net bill that he called Build Back Better, which stalled in Congress. Biden's plan also calls to increase funding for the military, increase funding for police, and increase funding for affordable housing, along with a new minimum tax on billionaires and support for Ukraine. Let's talk this through with Democratic strategist Dan Sena. Good morning.

DAN SENA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: More military spending, more police spending - is that more in line with what voters expect in this election year?

SENA: Well, I think this does a very good job - I think the president's agenda does a very good job of really setting up a frame and a narrative for where he wants to take the country not only going forward, but in particular as we head into the midterms.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about one of those items - increased funding for police, especially. Biden, we should note, never favored defund the police, but he was lied about because some progressive Democrats did favor defunding the police, very much so. Is this a definite break with the more progressive wing of his party?

SENA: Well, I don't think it is. And if you look at some of the prior recovery - if you look at the prior recovery bill that was passed in early 2000, there was actually a fair amount of police funding in that initial bill. And so the Democrats in some ways have fallen victim to the Republican sort of campaign message machine. And I think this helped set the record straight and, frankly, deals with rising crime that the vast majority of mayors in midsize and urban cities are having to deal with across the country. So this is meeting the electorate where they are.

INSKEEP: This is facing something that voters are really concerned about. You can talk about the statistics, about whether they're historically low or not, but people are concerned about crime.

SENA: One hundred percent. It is by far one of the top issues coming out of the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Is it politically smart to deemphasize things like climate legislation?

SENA: Well, I think it's more a function of choices as we enter the election cycle of the year - of this year, and really also forcing the Republican side to have to make choices of their own and go on the record on their own on some of these key issues.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?

SENA: Well, I think as this debate plays out over the budget, whether it's over the billionaires tax or it's over funding for security or it's over funding for housing, you know, the Republicans themselves are going to have to go on the record as to whether or not they support this budget.

INSKEEP: Let's talk through the housing part. Affordable housing - sounds like something that people might really sympathize with because housing prices are out of control, or it sounds like something that might be cast as a giveaway to somebody. What are the politics of that?

SENA: Well, again, in prior recovery legislation, there was a fair amount of money that had been set aside for mortgage support and for rental support. And so this is a continuation of that. I can tell you, in polling that we have seen across the country, the ability to keep people in their homes and the anxiety around being able to pay their rent is at an all-time high. So this meets voters where they are and meets people with what they need.

INSKEEP: Does a call for higher military spending meet people where they are?

SENA: Well, I think for the first time in at least many people's new - in lifetimes, you know, we're looking at the potential of a new Cold War. And I think that that is raising the level of concern not only for Democrats, independents, but really for every American. So, again, I think this meets people where they are.

INSKEEP: Now, you said something about Republicans being challenged by this. What is the choice that Republicans will now face - at least the choice that Democrats would like to push on them?

SENA: That's a great question. I really think the Republicans are going to be forced to have to choose, what side are they on? Are they on the side to fund to keep communities safe? Are they on the side of taxing billionaires or an equity - an equitable tax system? Are they on the side of really reining in spending and setting up a long-term way to reduce the deficit in the country, which is what this budget does? And they're going to have to go on the record for that.

INSKEEP: That's a really interesting point, because the way that policy debates, so-called, have gone for the last decade or more is one side proposes something and the other side says absolutely not. We're unanimously against that. Republicans have made that a signature move. Is it possible that on a couple of these items, there could be an actual policy debate, that Democrats say, I want better policing in this way, and Republicans respond, no, we want better policing in this other way, and they actually compete for ideas?

SENA: Well, I think that's, in part, part of the hope here. But to be honest with you, as we set up going into the midterms this year and we get ready for November, politically speaking, setting up the contrast between what the Democrats are willing to deliver for Americans and what Republicans are willing to deliver for Americans, I think will, in the end, net result, benefit the Democrats.

INSKEEP: Dan Sena, thanks very much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

SENA: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: He's a Democratic strategist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.