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Politics chat: Biden fights inflation; Republicans address partying rumor; Palin runs

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Joining me now for our weekly politics chat is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what do you think about Biden - about the Biden administration's release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve? Is it less about bringing down gas prices and more about the president showing that he is trying to do something?

LIASSON: He certainly wants to bring down gas prices if he can. The problem is there are just very few tools at his disposal to do that. In terms of inflation in general, the Federal Reserve is the one that can try to do something by raising interest rates to bring prices down, hoping that it won't spark a recession in the process. But what Biden can do, as you and Kevin Book just discussed, is show that he knows it's a problem. He's trying to do all he can do. Lawmakers are in the same bind. You hear members of Congress saying they want to suspend the federal gas tax. Of course, that won't pass. But all this is performative. Performance matters in politics. The president wants to convince American consumers who have sticker shock at the pump that he cares about people like them. And like all presidents learn, there are many things that are not their fault but they are their problem, and oil prices is one of them for Joe Biden.

RASCOE: But Republicans are, you know, saying inflation is President Biden's fault, and they are beating him up over it, you know, at least, you know, verbally.

LIASSON: That's right. Well, the opposition party always tries to say that the president has a magic wand and he could fix things if only he wanted to. And Republicans are arguing that gas prices wouldn't be so high if he had allowed drilling on public lands or approved the Keystone pipeline. But experts say that even if the Keystone pipeline was approved, it wouldn't have been online by now. And as for those drilling permits, the administration points out that there are about 9,000 of them approved and given to oil and gas companies for drilling on federal land, and they're not being used. So the other thing is that inflation isn't just affecting gas prices. It's hitting everything - the cost of food, the cost of housing. That's because of disruptions in the supply chain, pent-up demand during the pandemic, the war in Ukraine. And inflation is global.

RASCOE: Moving on to Congress now, there was this dustup with Republicans over comments made by one of their own about - I'm just going to call it extracurricular activities on Capitol Hill. Mara, can you tell us what that was all about?

LIASSON: This is pretty crazy.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LIASSON: First-term North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn alleged in an interview that he'd been invited to parties by political players that he looked up to where there was a lot of sex and drugs going on. There's nothing like accusing your colleagues of going to drug-fueled orgies to get their attention. And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled Cawthorn into a private meeting. Then he came out publicly and told reporters that when pressed, Cawthorn changed his story. McCarthy said there's no evidence of drug-fueled orgies. So what does this tell us? It tells us that for Republican members, if they attend events invited by white supremacists or advocate the overthrow of a free and fair election, there is a certain tolerance for that. But saying that you're throwing a cocaine-fueled orgy - that is not tolerated.

RASCOE: That's a step too far.

LIASSON: And remember; Madison Cawthorn is also on thin ice with McCarthy to start with. He's on the record calling Ukrainian President Zelenskyy a thug. He tried to sneak a GOP candidate onto the House floor by lying to a Capitol police officer. And now a member of his own state delegation, Senator Thom Tillis, is actively supporting Cawthorn's primary challenger.

RASCOE: Well, speaking of elections and not so - quite so much sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: ...Former Republican Governor Sarah Palin - that blast from the past - has decided to run to fill the late Alaska Congressman Don Young's seat. Does she have a shot?

LIASSON: Well, she has a shot, but so do the other 50 candidates who are running for that seat. What's really interesting about Alaska is they've adopted a new election system, which means they'll use a top-four special primary, then a ranked-choice special general election runoff. Sounds complicated, but what it means is that if a candidate gets over 50%, they win. But if no one gets over 50%, the candidate with the least number of votes is knocked out, and those that voted for that candidate have their votes go to their second choice. And that keeps on going till someone gets over 50%. What happens in these systems is moderate candidates get an advantage, and more extreme candidates are at a disadvantage.

RASCOE: You know, in the time we have left, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes tomorrow on whether to advance Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to the full Senate. You know, already, we have one Republican in general who has said that she'll support her confirmation. Are we expecting any more Republicans to get on board?

LIASSON: Well, of the three Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson last year to the U.S. Court of Appeals, only, as you said, Susan Collins - just one - has said they'll vote to confirm her to the Supreme Court. Lindsey Graham is a no. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska hasn't said which way she's voting. But the other thing we're watching is whether a successful confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court will help Democrats politically in the fall. There's a lot of pride among the Democratic base, which is mostly African American women, and there's also a lot of outrage over how she was treated by Republican senators. So we're seeing if that improves enthusiasm among Democrats, which has been lacking.

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

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.