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What Biden's 'Build Back Better' plan can do for the nation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a discussion next about what a giant budget bill in Congress would actually do. A Democratic measure contains so many of the party's priorities that it's been hard to discuss. It's even harder because the bill keeps changing over time. But a version has now passed the House. And something similar, though not identical, could pass the Senate, which allows us to get into some of the details of the bill that the White House promotes as its Build Back Better agenda. Democratic Senator Michael Bennet discussed some of this at a town hall meeting with constituents this week. And afterward, he joined us from Denver.

Is it likely that in negotiations, you're also going to lose some of the most popular parts of this measure? I think, for example, of an enhanced child tax credit, which I believe you favor. But Joe Manchin, a key Democratic senator, wants an income test that would exclude a lot of families from that tax credit.

MICHAEL BENNET: Yeah. I don't just favor it. I ran an almost completely unnoticed campaign for president on the idea that we could cut childhood poverty almost in half in this country by making three changes to the child tax credit that Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and I - Reverend Warnock - now have proposed. And it is now contained - in the negotiated bill, the White House has been able to make the full refundability of that tax credit permanent, which means that forever, millions of the poorest kids in this country are going to have the benefit of the tax credit. But the enhanced tax credit is only going to last for a year. And we're going to have to fight to make it permanent. And I have not so far been able to persuade my friend, Joe Manchin, that this is actually a pro-work measure, which I very strongly believe it is because families can use the money, for example, to pay for child care to be able to stay at work. Senator Manchin sees it in a different way. And we just have a principled disagreement.

INSKEEP: This is interesting. Does Senator Manchin see it as, effectively, an anti-work measure, something that gives people money and makes them less likely to get into the workforce?

BENNET: That's what he would say. He's worried about that. And I think that the data shows that I'm right and that he's less right. But I just haven't persuaded him of that yet. And on the other hand, I think it is enormously popular with the American people. It's broadly supported by members of the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate and the leadership as well. And Mitt Romney actually has a version of it himself. So I have high hopes that at some point, this is actually going to become a bipartisan piece of legislation.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about climate change because I know that's a big part of this legislation. My broad impression, Senator, is that you can get the votes, even some Republican votes, for measures to adapt to the effects of climate change or maybe work around the edges of climate change. But you don't have the votes necessarily to fight climate change in a big way. Is that correct?

BENNET: Well, I think that we have the votes to invest really meaningfully in innovation that's going to lead us down the path of discovering ways to address climate change. But you're right. There is not, for example, in this legislation a price on carbon. And there is not likely to be a clean electricity standard - two measures that I would support and think would push us farther along the curve to address climate change.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just define those things. A price on carbon, some would call it a carbon tax - some kind of cost for producing carbon. And when you talk about a clean electricity standard, that was the idea that states and different localities would be required, basically, to produce electricity without producing so much carbon. Those things aren't happening.

BENNET: That's right.

INSKEEP: You had a listener in this town hall meeting, a kind of remote town hall meeting, a kind of big conference call, who said I come from a coal-producing area - Colorado, of course, produces coal - and said, what's going to happen to people who work in the coal industry...

BENNET: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...If the industry shuts down?

BENNET: You know, a lot of times, I refer to the climate stuff we do in our office as my Craig, Colo., project. That person was from Craig, Colo., an area that's worried because they think they're likely to lose half their revenue because of coal mines shutting down and because of power plants shutting down. And I have long believed that unless we have meaningful ways for people to transition, it's going to be very hard for us to move ahead on climate change. But I think the most important thing is to make sure that we're investing in a new economy. There are discussions in northwest Colorado about the possibility of producing hydrogen there. There are discussions about how to train young people for the 21st-century jobs that are going to be there. But it can't just be lip service, you know?

This isn't just about, you know, a transition on the back end of this. It has to be central to what we're doing. And there's $27 billion in forestry work, which is incredibly important to my region of the country, where we - you know, and Colorado, for example, had three of the worst fires in our state's history last year as a result of climate change. Now we're actually going to be putting money on the landscape and creating jobs, doing the forest mitigation and watershed protection up front. And that's the kind of thing that I think can begin to create momentum in rural America for the work that we have to do on climate change.

INSKEEP: I'm really interested hearing you talking about rural Colorado. As a senator from a state with a lot of rural voters, what did you think about when you saw the election results in Virginia a few weeks ago, where Democrats in rural counties did even worse than they have in recent years? The trend was very bad.

BENNET: I think we have to try much harder. The Democratic brand is terrible in rural America. And - but we've got a path to it, to say people in rural America, look; we're trying to address the things that you need us to address. This infrastructure bill, which is bipartisan but signed by a Democratic president, is the most significant investment in infrastructure since Eisenhower. The work that we're trying to do to lower costs for preschool and for - and to make early childhood education available, the work that we're doing to limit the cost of prescription drugs for seniors to $2,000, the tax policies that favor our farmers and ranchers in Colorado over, you know, the biggest corporations and wealthiest people in the country, the broadband that we're creating as part of this legislation - now, none of that stuff is going to sell itself. One of the people on my town hall asked the question, why don't Democrats ever go on Fox News to try to explain what you're doing? And she's right about that. We've got to be out in rural America describing what we're doing and explaining what we're doing. The president is going to have to be out there in rural parts of this country saying, we're thinking about you. And we are.

INSKEEP: Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado. It's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

BENNET: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: He's one of the Democrats up for reelection in 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILT JACKSON AND WES MONTGOMERY'S "BLUE ROZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.