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Democrats on Capitol Hill are consumed with questions over President Biden's future

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden, who was on the road campaigning and is now back in the Capitol, as are lawmakers, back from a recess in their states - the President sent a letter to lawmakers saying the discussion is over. He is staying as his party's presidential candidate despite some calls to get out. Biden says it's time to focus on his Republican opponent, former President Trump, whose party convention is coming right up. Some lawmakers don't seem to think it's over because another called for him to go after the letter went out. So let's talk this through with NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt. Hey there.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Are Democrats getting any closer to a consensus on this?

SPRUNT: You know, the dam has not broken yet. We did not see a critical mass of Democrats come out last night on the Hill saying they want President Biden off the ticket. Now, they've been back in the building less than a day. It's a very long week ahead. But here's what I think is notable from yesterday. I heard a lot of lawmakers in the House and Senate talk about the stakes of the election and the desire for President Biden to better articulate a strategy going forward. There's no question that people are still spooked after that poor debate performance, and many lawmakers are stopping short of calling on Biden to step aside but are basically pleading with him to do more to demonstrate that he can campaign aggressively enough to beat Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: Can you give an example of that somewhat nuanced message there?

SPRUNT: Yeah. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet said Democrats need to have an open discussion about the path to winning the White House. And when asked about the complicated process that could ensue if Biden were to step aside after so many primary votes have been cast, here's what he had to say.

MICHAEL BENNET: Well, I'm sure we could figure it out if we had to figure it out. That's no one's first choice. That's no one's first choice. But I think we have a moral obligation to the country to establish that we can win.

SPRUNT: Lawmakers say this is a critical week, and they'll be talking a lot about this at caucus meetings and Senate lunches today.

INSKEEP: You know, I just want to pause to note there are some people listening to this story who are like, why is the media covering this? Why are you covering this? It's because it's a debate among Democrats. So who are the main supporters and detractors here? What are they saying?

SPRUNT: Well, Biden has the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries. He has more than two dozen lawmakers on the record saying they want him to stay on the ticket. That includes some progressive members, like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and senators in key states, like Arizona's Mark Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK KELLY: Joe Biden is our nominee. Millions of people voted for Joe Biden to be on the ballot. He's on the ballot, and I truly believe he's going to win in November.

INSKEEP: OK, that's meaningful because he's a guy in a swing state. So he's saying that. On the other side, who's there?

SPRUNT: Well, you have lawmakers like Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who said Biden continuing this campaign is a mistake. But I think some of the biggest eyebrow-raisers, to me, aren't necessarily the people saying he should step aside. It's these strongly worded statements of concern that I think are so notable, like Washington Senator Patty Murray, for example, the Senate pro tem. She said last night that Biden has to seriously consider the best way to preserve his legacy and secure it for the future.

INSKEEP: How's the president responding?

SPRUNT: Well, he's doing more outreach to members. He had a call last night with the Congressional Black Caucus. Of course, Black voters helped propel Biden to the White House four years ago and will be a critical bloc for him this cycle. He also gave an interview doubling down on MSNBC, basically saying, put up or shut up - you know, if you don't think I should run, challenge me at the convention.

And he sent a two-page letter yesterday as well to Democratic lawmakers, saying he's committed to staying in the race. And there's a standout quote I want to read from him. He says, "the question of how to move forward has been well-aired for over a week now, and it's time for it to end."

But it's hard for me to see how that satisfies the Democrats I spoke with yesterday. There's a sense that he had a job to do in the debate - reassure the public who had these worries about his age that he can do the job. And he wasn't able to do that, and that's why Democrats are in this area of navigation right now.

INSKEEP: How does this end?

SPRUNT: It's hard to say. I mean, let's remember, I'm talking about Congress. They don't have actual power here. You know, they can wage a pressure campaign, but this comes down to the President and what he decides, and he's pretty adamant so far that he's not going anywhere. He has a news conference after the NATO summit on Thursday, and I am quite sure that everyone on the Hill will be very closely watching his performance there.

INSKEEP: And every performance after that. Barbara, thanks so much.

SPRUNT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.