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Week In Politics: With Vaccines 'Done,' Biden Now Turns To Surge At Southern Border

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

America is reopening thanks to accelerating vaccinations. Is America also reopening to migrants now that there's been a change in administrations? NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Let me raise this like this. President Biden says the U.S. is hitting his vaccination goal weeks ahead of schedule and this country will send doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine not being used in the U.S. to Mexico and Canada. He's been in office just two months. This is, of course, first and last, great news for millions of people. Does some credit have to go to the previous administration?

ELVING: The previous administration did not prioritize the pandemic itself, as we know, but it did prioritize finding a vaccine. It does get some credit for that. At this point, shots are finally being produced, being distributed and getting into arms, and that's what matters. So instead of wondering when things might get better, we are seeing things get better. And while there are still variants and other wolves in the woods, we can finally better - feel better about the weeks and months ahead.

SIMON: Of course, another surge of unaccompanied minors at the border. Elsewhere on the show, we talked to Senator Murphy of Connecticut about the visit that they made, and he said that he thought the press, in fact, should be permitted in and that you wouldn't want children staying in those conditions for 10 minutes. What is the Biden administration doing that's different than the Trump White House did?

ELVING: The Biden White House supports the bill that passed in the House this week. That bill would create a path to citizenship for the DREAMers, the residents here illegally but brought here as minors, and also for certain farmworkers. Those are generally popular provisions. So it's easy to see why there's a different signal being sent and why we're seeing big numbers at the border again. And the U.S. has not built back the infrastructure that was dismantled, the infrastructure to deal with such numbers humanely.

But there is at least a difference in the preeminent intention here behind the respective policies of the two administrations, this one and the last one. The current emphasis is on relieving a humanitarian crisis as best as possible while trying to manage the spikes in new arrivals. And the former administration's paramount priority was closing down and showing that new arrivals were not welcome and will be dealt with harshly.

SIMON: Could more get done on so many issues, including recovering from the pandemic, immigration, infrastructure and climate change, if that Senate distinction known as the filibuster was at least modified?

ELVING: It might be better to ask whether anything can get done if the filibuster remains intact, Scott. Filibusters have had a long history, but suffice it to say they've primarily been used to preserve arrangements from the past, such as segregation in the South, most famously. As such, the tactic was usually reserved for issues of paramount importance for each senator.

But nowadays, we have what's called the silent or the virtual filibuster, and it gets used routinely to block the majority on virtually everything of any importance at all. That's changed the dynamic and made the tradition much harder to defend. And now it seems to represent not just the rights of the minority party, but the rule of the minority party. So if some senators want that, they should be willing to come to the floor and say so and to own up to it in broad daylight.

SIMON: Meetings in Alaska between the U.S. and China this week didn't last very long. I was taken by the BBC's description of them as ill-tempered.

ELVING: Yeah, and that may have been a British euphemism. Both sides seemed primarily interested in a display of toughness toward the other country, a contest to see who had the most crust, as the Brits might say. But while that made the headlines, you know, there were also negotiating sessions that followed, and those were a lot less bellicose.

SIMON: Ron, President Biden agreed in an interview that Vladimir Putin is a killer. Vladimir Putin told the press, I wish Joe Biden good health. Sounded like a quote straight out of Al Capone. Next week, possibly new sanctions will be leveled as punishment for Russia's interference in U.S. elections. Are the West and Russia in a new cold war?

ELVING: We should make a distinction between the Putin regime and the Russians. As a people, they might very well prefer a warmer relationship with the West. The Putin regime has a highly self-interested agenda, even a personal agenda, built around the survival of an autocrat. And Putin and his cronies are under increasing pressure at home and abroad. So this is a relationship bound for turbulence for some time to come.

SIMON: NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.