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Politics chat: White House Correspondent's dinner, control of Congress

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A rite of spring in Washington, D.C., last night, the annual White House Correspondents' dinner, where roasts are always on the menu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN JOST: It's after 10:00 p.m. Sleepy Joe is still awake...

(LAUGHTER)

JOST: ...While Donald Trump has spent the past week falling asleep in court every morning...

(LAUGHTER)

JOST: ...Though Fox News said he was just being anti-woke.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: That was "Saturday Night Live's" Colin Jost. Joining me now is NPR political correspondent, Susan Davis. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So last night's dinner was attended by journalists, lawmakers, celebrities. There were lots of jokes at the expense of former President Trump and at President Biden's age and ability, including this one from Biden himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's been a year since I delivered this speech, and my wife, Jill, who's with me tonight, was worried how I'd do. I told her, don't worry, it's just like riding a bike. She said that's what I'm worried about.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Ayesha, this is sort of the president's regular routine now. He talks about his age a lot. I was just traveling with him this past week, and he spoke at a Democratic fundraiser, and he made a joke there about how he keeps a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office to remind people that he knew him. You know, the age is a factor in this race. Voters bring it up over and over. The president can't ignore it. They seem to have taken the tactic that it's best to just make light of it. As you well know, the White House Correspondents' dinner is a perfect evening for that. It's generally a light affair. He did speak seriously at times about what's at stake in the election.

And of course, wherever Joe Biden goes these days, protesters follow him. There was protesters outside the Washington Hilton last night calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, but Biden did not address that.

RASCOE: The House returns tomorrow after a week off. When it was last in session, Speaker Mike Johnson pushed through a number of foreign aid bills, including long-delayed aid to Ukraine, and ticked off conservative members of his own party in the process. Is he going to face some consequences from his conference over this?

DAVIS: You know, he could. He still is running a House that operates under the same rule that helped throw out former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, that any one member can bring a resolution to the floor forcing this vote. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who's a Republican from Georgia, has introduced that resolution, so she could bring - ask to bring it up at any time.

What's different this time is that Democrats do seem inclined to have the speaker's back if it comes to that. They were not willing to give Kevin McCarthy the votes to save his job. But what Democrats have said on the record, including the leader of the Democrats, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and other rank-and-file Democrats, is that Speaker Johnson's kept his word. He said he would bring these bills to the floor. He's had to rely on tremendous amounts of Democratic votes to get through the agenda this year. And because he's done that, if members of his own party - and a small element; he still has the support of the vast majority of House Republicans - that they would likely step up and save him because the chaos in the House has not really been helpful for the running of the government.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk about that. Republicans have had what I would call a fighting spirit...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...Amongst themselves.

DAVIS: That's a polite way to put it.

RASCOE: You know, chaotic is another word that's been used. How might that perception affect the GOP's quest in November to keep control of the chamber?

DAVIS: Look, the House is absolutely in play. Both chambers are. Democrats need just four seats - to net four seats to flip control of the House. And what's interesting here is down the ballot, you know, a lot of these House races are being fought separately than the swing states in which will determine the presidential election. For example, Democrats are looking at a group of up to 10 races in states like California and New York, safe blue states where Democratic voter turnout is expected to be a lot higher in a presidential year. Democrats have also benefited from some new redistricting in states like Alabama that's allowed them to pick up a Democratic seat there.

But the orbit of truly competitive races for the House, it's just really tiny. We're talking about 20 to maybe 30 seats if it's a really big wave election year, which we don't seem to be. The era of having these, like, big, defining House majorities is really over. Whichever party controls the House after November, it's still likely to be by, you know, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 seats.

RASCOE: But it's the reverse in the Senate, where Democrats have control, but they're at a disadvantage in keeping it there, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, Senate Democrats, which currently have the 51-49 majority, they need to basically pitch a perfect game. They've already lost West Virginia because Democrat Joe Manchin is retiring, and they're not really going to put up a fight in a seat like that. And then they're fighting on exclusively red territory, for the most part. Democrats are defending seats in Montana and Ohio, states where Joe - excuse me - Donald Trump is heavily favored to win. So Democrats are going to need to rely on a lot of split-ticket voters. And what the last several elections have taught us in American politics, people don't really split their tickets anymore. They've - if you pick a party, you stick with it.

So I think Republicans, as it sits right now, are heavily favored to pick up control of the Senate. The best-case scenario for Democrats is a 50-50 Senate, which would rely on Joe Biden winning reelection to keep the majority.

RASCOE: That's NPR political correspondent, Susan Davis. Thank you so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.