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As Democrats try to hang on to power, Republicans have their own Midterm agenda

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republican strategist Scott Jennings joins us next. Scott, welcome back.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Hey. If we just review the year here, Republicans were favored as the year started. Then Democrats had what seemed like a very good summer for them. But here we are in election week, and who knows what's going to happen? But Republicans are favored. What has your party in strong position?

JENNINGS: Well, I think the return to the fundamentals of a normal midterm. Joe Biden's approval rating is still charitably in the mid-40s, in many places in the low 40s. That usually bodes poorly for the party in power. And number two, the economy and inflation have reasserted themselves as the biggest issues. Those are the issues on which the Republicans chose to run their campaign. So it's no surprise to me that they're doing better because of the way the American people have come to view our economic status.

INSKEEP: Is Trump helping by talking about 2024?

JENNINGS: No, not particularly. He's - you know, obviously, he's helping himself, but he's never been known to be the ultimate team player here. So no, I think Republicans all need to be thinking about this Tuesday as opposed to 2024. And he's not doing that. So not particularly helpful.

INSKEEP: Well, senators did not agree, we should note - Senate Republicans did not agree on a unified campaign plan, a set of promises of what they'd do if they get power. House Republicans did put out a document. Do you think that House and Senate Republicans broadly at least know what they want to do if they gain power?

JENNINGS: Well, two different conferences, two different attitudes and two different roles. The House, I think, is going to be heavily focused on investigations. They really want to go into the Hunter Biden situation, which they now consider to be also an investigation of Joe Biden. And in the Senate side, you've got still some people over there who want to do what you would call policy making between the 40-yard lines, the idea that you could potentially reach some agreement on things in a bipartisan way as long as it's not, you know, too extreme one way or the other. But you've got a much more aggressive and, I think, rambunctious House Republican majority that's all but certain to take power. And it really is focused on looking into various aspects of the Biden administration.

INSKEEP: Is it wise to start out impeaching Biden administration officials, which some Republicans have been talking about?

JENNINGS: I don't think you're going to see impeachment starting out, certainly. And I'm dubious that you'll see any. I do think you're going to see investigations, as I mentioned, on Hunter and Joe Biden, the border, the pullout from Afghanistan, the origins and the response to COVID. Those things, I think, are broad buckets that you're going to see investigative efforts, though.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the debt ceiling here. Kevin McCarthy, who could very well be the next House speaker, has said he may want to use raising the debt ceiling, which the U.S. has to do early next year, as a moment of leverage to demand parts of the Republican agenda from Democrats. There's at least one senator who's interested in this. We talked with Senator Rick Scott on this program last week. Let's listen to some of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RICK SCOTT: Look at the interest expense. I mean, it's just going to eat up - it's going to eat up more and more of our budget, which means, you know, somehow, there's going to be a day of reckoning. And so how are we going to pay for all this?

INSKEEP: But does that mean that you would say, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, which tends to finance spending already passed?

SCOTT: What I've been clear...

INSKEEP: We're not going to raise the debt ceiling unless the White House gives some concession on some other issue.

SCOTT: What I've been clear is we shouldn't raise the debt ceiling unless we figure out ways to reduce costs to that extent going forward or we have a structural change so we can start living within our means.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, I think you know the history here. Last time Republicans tried this in a big way was in 2011. It caused economic calamity. It lowered the U.S. credit rating. Are a lot of Republicans really ready to try this again?

JENNINGS: Well, Republicans are ready to try anything to reduce inflation. I mean, it's been the core of their campaign. And, of course, Republicans believe that spending less would be, you know, center to that strategy. So yes, I think Republicans are ready to be aggressive in cutting government spending. Now, whether that ultimately leads to a government shutdown, I hope not because I don't think that will be good for the United States. But if Republicans win this election, they'll have a strong political hand to play.

INSKEEP: Let me just stop you for a second. You talked about a government shutdown. That's one tactic. But if you go after the debt ceiling, you put the United States of America into default. Are Republicans really ready to do that?

JENNINGS: I mean, I think some Republicans are ready to be as aggressive as possible to reduce spending. Whether that means going into default, I'm dubious that we would do that. And I think in the Senate, again, as I mentioned earlier, you have a much different attitude ultimately in the conference about, you know, what this means. But if you take over both chambers, you do have governing responsibility at that point, it becomes less esoteric and more real about your statements regarding what you would be willing to do.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you talk to - you raised the Senate here again. Of course, people will know that you're close to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. He made a remark recently about confirming judges. Of course, if Republicans recapture the Senate, they would be the ones to give advice and consent or not to Joe Biden's - President Biden's judicial nominations. And I believe he made a remark to the effect of finding some way to find more moderate judges. Of course, it's easy also to imagine a scenario where Republicans just don't allow the president to nominate any judges anymore. Do you think that they'd do business on judges if Republicans have the majority?

JENNINGS: I think that fully depends on Joe Biden. I think Mitch McConnell and most Republican senators think that most of the nominees he has sent for the bench and frankly, for other government offices - you know, the Senate is in the personnel business, something the House doesn't have to do - have been pretty extreme. And so yeah, I am anticipating a slowdown in this. If Joe Biden moderates himself, I think he could see an area where you could you could find them doing business. But it's entirely up to the president on who he sends up there. But I wouldn't expect a Senate Republican majority to rubber stamp a bunch of judges they consider to be far out of the mainstream.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering some agreements during the Clinton administration when there was a Republican Senate where Bill Clinton got some judges and some people that maybe he didn't like so much also got nominated and confirmed. Could you imagine something like that?

JENNINGS: Yeah, I think if the people are reasonable, I could imagine some deals. But again, this is on the president and the White House. And he'll be under some political pressure not to moderate as he heads into his own presidential campaign, as well.

INSKEEP: Scott, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings is a Republican strategist and a founding partner of the PR firm RunSwitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF NANEUM'S "STRATIFICATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.