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Politics chat: U.S. bans travelers from 8 African countries to slow COVID-19 variant

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Most travelers from eight countries in southern Africa will be barred from entering the U.S. starting tomorrow. The Biden administration announced the new restrictions shortly after the World Health Organization's designation of omicron as a variant of concern. Joining me now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Kelsey.

SNELL: As a candidate in March 2020, Joe Biden was very critical of then-President Trump's China travel ban. Why move so quickly to put this new one in place?

LIASSON: Well, the rule on travel bans is you got to do them sooner rather than later. I think Joe Biden understands that getting the coronavirus under control is his job No. 1. It was the most important campaign promise that he made. And without getting the virus under control, he can't get the economy back and a whole lot of other things that he wants to do. But as you just heard about the omicron virus, it's not clear how easily it spreads. It's not clear yet whether the vaccines are effective against it - effective in terms of stopping people from getting really sick from it, not necessarily from just testing positive. But the administration has continued to push vaccinations. And as you just heard, the U.S. still has a very low vaccination rate compared to other developing countries. And they need to get that vaccination rate up. I should say that the U.K., European countries are doing the same kind of travel ban as the president announced. And Israel actually has banned travel from everywhere for the next two weeks, not just from those African countries.

SNELL: So the White House is trying to be seen as doing something here. And the president also announced that the U.S. would release 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to address inflation - which, by the way, has about 605 million barrels in it. Some energy analysts say this won't affect the cost of gas that much, maybe 5 to 15 cents. So why are they doing this right now?

LIASSON: The president is doing this in the hopes that putting more oil on the market will cause the price to go down. But most economists will tell you that there's really not much a president can do to affect the price of gas. And gas prices are kind of the leading indicator of inflation. They're the thing that hits people every day when they go to the pump. And inflation is a very powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition party, and the president is getting blamed for the economy. The buck stops at the White House. And he has both houses of Congress. And the Republicans have been very organized at - and it's been easy to send the message that inflation is here and that it's Joe Biden's fault. You see those little stickers on gas pumps all over the country with pictures of Biden pointing to the price saying, I did that.

SNELL: Yeah.

LIASSON: So it's important that the president be seen as understanding how inflation affects people's daily lives and trying to do something about it.

SNELL: Well, it's almost December. And in Washington, that means it's time for Congress to rush to clean up all of the loose ends they left hanging all year long. And it's going to be a really busy month. Remind us of what needs to get done before the end of the year.

LIASSON: Yeah, a really busy month. First, you've got to pass temporary funding for the government because funding for the government expires on Friday. They have to do that in order to avoid a government shutdown. Congress also will need to raise the debt ceiling, so the U.S. doesn't default on its debts. The Republican minority leader in the Senate has made it very clear that Democrats will have to do that by themselves. Republicans will not vote to avoid default. Then there's the National Defense Authorization Act. That's a must-pass bill. In the past, it's gotten bipartisan support. They - that usually gets done by the end of the year. One big incentive for lawmakers to get all of this stuff done is that they really want to go home for the holidays.

SNELL: They often do want to go home for the holidays.

LIASSON: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: That's right. But there's also the Build Back Better bill. Senate Democrats say they want to get that done by the - by Christmas. They say that getting it done is part of making sure that the party has a real political strategy for survival. So what are the prospects of them actually meeting their deadline?

LIASSON: Well, who knows? But what we do know is that it passed the House, but progressive Democrats in the House didn't get what they wanted when the House voted on this measure. They were hoping to get some kind of an ironclad assurance from Senator Joe Manchin that he would vote for it. Instead, all they got was this vague framework that Manchin didn't really commit to. And he has said recently again that he's in no rush. He wants to wait. He thinks it's better to pass the bill next year. He wants to see whether inflation gets better or for worse - or worse. So the - we know that the bill will probably change in the Senate. Maybe it'll get smaller. Certain things will drop out of it to satisfy Manchin and get his vote. What we don't know is how long that will take.

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

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