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Politics chat: Politicians get COVID; Jackson confirmed; Mitch McConnell interview

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

BA.2, the highly contagious subvariant of the coronavirus, is fueling an increase of infections in the United States. It's a very slight increase. A database compiled by The New York Times clocks it at about 1%. And right now it's concentrated in a few places, like here in Washington, where the secretary of Agriculture is just the latest high-profile official to test positive. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk about the pandemic and more items in the news. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced yesterday he had tested positive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive on Thursday - also in recent days, the Commerce secretary, the attorney general, the president's sister, and so on and so forth. These infections are less worrisome now than before we had vaccines and boosters, but they're still noteworthy, right?

LIASSON: They are. And it shows just how contagious this latest Omicron variant is. You know, 10% of this big black-tie dinner in Washington last weekend - the Gridiron - reported that they tested positive. Everyone there had to show their vax cards, but masks were optional. Full disclosure - I went. I'm negative. But this is the new story of COVID. You know, infections are up. Hospitalizations and deaths are down. If you're not vaxxed and boosted or have an underlying condition, you're in danger. But maybe the virus is on its way to being endemic, not pandemic - something like the cold or flu. And the key is still vaccinations and indoor ventilation.

RASCOE: Ketanji Brown Jackson - she'll be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court after Justice Stephen Breyer steps down at the end of his term. How big of a political win is this for President Biden and his party?

LIASSON: It's a big political win. He promised to put the first Black woman on the court, and he delivered. The question is, will it give the Democrats a boost at the polls? And that's unclear. You know, Black women are the core of the Democratic Party base. Will this energize them, help them to turn out other Democrats? The Democratic base has been extremely unenergized, disappointed at what Biden hasn't been able to get passed in Congress, kind of beaten down by the pandemic and inflation. And the big question is, when you look at these polls about enthusiasm, the enthusiasm gap is very wide, and it favors Republicans. Will the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation turn that around for Democrats? We don't know yet.

RASCOE: Speaking of some Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave an interview this past week to Jonathan Swan of Axios. And I want to ask you about it because McConnell doesn't do interviews like that very often, and it seemed like this one was a revealing one. What did you think about this interview?

LIASSON: Well, it was revealing mostly for the questions that he would just simply refuse to answer. That is often his - McConnell's modus operandi. One of the most striking things he wouldn't answer is whether he would give - if he becomes the majority leader after the next election and there's a Supreme Court vacancy, would he commit to giving a Biden nominee a hearing? Remember, he refused to give Merrick Garland...

RASCOE: Yes.

LIASSON: ...Barack Obama's nominee, a hearing because he said, at that time, it was an election year. The election was 11 months away. He said voters should have a choice of the new president. But now it looks like there might be an end to having any Supreme Court confirmations in an opposition Congress whether it's an election year or not. So potentially, another little D democratic norm discarded.

RASCOE: And McConnell also pledged to support Trump if Trump runs again, even though he quite publicly condemned Trump over January 6. That, to me, seems to be a sign that Trump is still the undisputed kingmaker of the GOP.

LIASSON: Well, Trump is certainly the most popular Republican in the party. If the nomination were held right now for 2024, he'd get the nomination. But whether he's a kingmaker is something we're going to find out very soon. He's been endorsing a lot of Republican Senate and House candidates, and not all of them have been doing that well in the polls. Take Pennsylvania. The first candidate for Senate that President Trump endorsed was Sean Parnell, but he had to drop out after he was accused of domestic abuse. Then yesterday, Trump endorsed another Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor. He passed over David McCormick, who's a hedge fund manager and the husband of a former top Trump White House official. Some Republicans think Trump's endorsements are just not going to be electable in a general election. And Democrats, quite frankly, are thrilled about the Oz endorsement.

RASCOE: That's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.