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How Republicans Plan To Win Back Control Of Congress In The 2022 Midterms

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are working this week to unite their party around a massive spending bill that funds President Biden's priorities. They're selling it as the largest remaking of the social safety net since the New Deal. And congressional Republicans are already campaigning against it. They say inflation worries and a backlash against trillions more in federal spending are factors that could help them win back control of Congress in 2022. NPR's acting congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh reports on how the GOP strategy is shaping up.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: President Biden isn't on the ballot in next year's midterms, but Republicans say his handling of the economy will be. And Biden himself is keeping the issue front and center.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When I came to office, our first job was to stop the economic bleeding, and it was the worst bleeding since Roosevelt. We passed the American Rescue Plan. That delivered shots in arms and checks in pockets and provided that extra breathing room for working families.

WALSH: Those policies gave Biden high approval ratings through the early summer, but since then, his poll numbers have dropped. The messy withdrawal from Afghanistan combined with the delta variant still preventing the country from getting back to normal has shifted the political landscape. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on Fox News Radio recently, is confident Biden will be the factor.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: We all know that next year will be a referendum on how you feel about this administration. Presidential approval is the corner of the realm in these off-year elections two years into a new administration

WALSH: In districts across the country, GOP lawmakers say inflation, higher prices for things like gas and groceries, is outweighing other issues. At a town hall in Iowa last week, Republican freshman Ashley Hinson brought up Democrats' plan to push through a $3.5 trillion package.

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ASHLEY HINSON: What we're seeing happen right now - the spending spigot has been turned on.

WALSH: Republicans say the Democrats' plan - which includes expanded health care, universal pre-K, climate programs and more - will make inflation worse. Texas Congressman Kevin Brady, the top Republican that began drafting the plan last week, railed on what it would do to the economy.

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KEVIN BRADY: Today, Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats began ramming through trillions of wasteful spending and crippling tax hikes that will drive prices up even higher, kill millions of American jobs and usher in a new era of government dependency with the greatest expansion of the welfare state in our lifetime.

WALSH: Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House Republicans, says the midterms are about sending a message to the party in power. He says some voting blocs Republicans struggled with in the last election are in play.

DANIEL CONSTON: Now that the country is governed by one party, that party has made a decided shift left that is already turning off voters in the middle, independents, suburban voters, college-educated men.

WALSH: Republicans are also focusing on the president's mishandling of the U.S. military's exit from Afghanistan. It may not be top of mind for voters next fall, but they believe it adds to a buyer's remorse about Biden.

CONSTON: He ran as the competence president, and this fundamentally goes at odds with that.

WALSH: But for both parties, domestic policies are the centerpiece of their message to voters. Democrats point to policies they are trying to pass right now. They say things like paid family leave, elder care and free community college would make a big difference for American families for years to come. Here's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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NANCY PELOSI: For our economy, for our society, for our country, what the president is advocating is transformational. It's not incremental, it's transformational.

WALSH: One X-factor - redistricting. It will be months before House candidates know the shape of their districts. Republicans hold an advantage in that process no matter the state of the economy.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.