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Politics chat: Influx of migrants at southern border; Gaza aid; economic hope

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's Christmas Eve in Washington, and not a creature is stirring - not even the House. Congress, House and Senate, has left for the holidays, but there's still politics in the air. So NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning. I loved that intro, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Oh, thank you. Well, you know, we got to have a little Christmas cheer. So the most pressing political story this weekend isn't even here in Washington. It's at the southern border. So let's start with the migrant crisis down there.

KHALID: Ayesha, and this is a logistical problem as well as a political problem. In recent days, authorities have reported a record number of migrants trying to cross the southern border into the United States. And we're talking about more than 10,000 a day. So really just seeing stories about this record number, I think, does put the issue - the political issue - front and center. And the fundamental divide here in Washington is that the White House and some Democrats want additional resources to deal with the situation at the border. Republicans want to change the rules for who is seeking asylum.

You know, I would say Republicans and Democrats both agree something needs to be done. The question is whether they can agree on what ought to be done. Before leaving town for Christmas, Biden called the president of Mexico, and they specifically discussed efforts to manage migration flows. President Biden is also sending a delegation to Mexico this coming week to meet with Mexican officials to discuss further actions to address the challenges of the border. So, you know, coming up on Wednesday, we're going to see the secretary of state, the secretary of Homeland Security and the White House Homeland Security adviser all head down to Mexico.

I will say, Ayesha, immigration has long been a vexing issue in American politics, but there is this urgency to deal with something at the border both because of the situation, but also because President Biden wants this national security funding bill passed. And he tied together this issue of the border along with funding for Ukraine and funding for Israel. And so I am sure we're going to keep an eye on this into the new year.

RASCOE: So you mentioned aid to Israel there. And the U.S. is a strong supporter of Israel, but there is a lot of pressure on Israel right now to pull back on its attacks in Gaza. What about that?

KHALID: I mean, this is an ongoing issue, I would say, globally, also here in Washington and for President Biden. On Friday, we saw the U.N. Security Council adopt a resolution about humanitarian aid in Gaza. And this is a resolution that the U.S. did not veto. It did abstain. But this came about even after a lot of negotiations. You know, I will say, when it comes to issues at the U.N., I think a lot of countries are used to the U.S. being a bit of an outlier in terms of its unwavering support of Israel. But the question is, you know, is that going to continue as the conflict goes on?

We're now looking at a situation where more than 20,000 people have been killed in Gaza. The World Food Program is warning of a famine. And what I will say about President Biden is, broadly, he is someone who does not believe necessarily in kind of the public airing of diplomacy. He believes in privately having conversations. This is something that the White House points out that it did in May of 2021, when Israel and Hamas were fighting at a different moment in time - that they were effective, they feel, and doing sort of backdoor, quiet diplomacy.

And the question, I guess we're all wondering, Ayesha, is will that work this time? Because I do think that this is a full-out war in a different dynamic that we have not seen. And so, you know, the question for President Biden is this is not really just a foreign policy crisis. It's also become a domestic challenge for him. We're seeing poll after poll show that his own base of Democratic voters are split on this issue. And I imagine that's going to continue to be an issue as we head into an election year.

RASCOE: You just mentioned polls. As always, the economy is top of mind for voters. And you were just on a call with some pretty bullish administration officials - right? - when it comes to the economy.

KHALID: Yeah, Biden's top economic advisor, Lael Brainard, held a call with a small group of U.S. reporters just ahead of the holidays. And, Ayesha, what stood out to me is that, you know, if we were having this conversation a year ago, we probably had been talking about how many economists were warning of a potential recession. And now you're hearing the White House sound really confident about a so-called soft landing, which is where you curb inflation without actually having a major economic downturn, without having some sort of massive unemployment. And, you know, the economic indicators, the data does show that unemployment has remained below 4% for a record number of continuous months.

I think the challenge for this administration is that when you ask folks about the economy, what you hear is that there's this ongoing anxiety because of high costs. And that's specifically around things like health care and housing. And so what I heard from Lael Brainard, and what you're also hearing from the White House, I think, is a greater acknowledgment about people's pain and frustration around this issue. And she told us that curbing costs will remain the president's top economic priority heading into 2024. And I think it's a real recognition of what is at stake and what's on voters' minds also heading into 2024.

RASCOE: And lastly, we said at the top that Congress is out of town for the holiday. What about President Biden?

KHALID: Well, yesterday, he left for Camp David, and he's planning to stay there through the Christmas holiday. He joins, I think, a long legacy, you could say, of other presidential families who've similarly spent the holidays there at Camp David. It's this wooded retreat in Maryland. And, you know, a number of families, I will say - both George Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon - all chose to spend the holidays there as well.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Asma, thank you so much.

KHALID: My pleasure. 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.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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