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Week in politics: Vaccine mandates; Voting rights and inflation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked one of President Biden's boldest moves to try to control the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 6-3 ruling, the justices said the federal government could not force large employers to require their workers to get vaccinated or, if they preferred, to get tested regularly. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Good morning, Ron.

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

SIMON: The court did permit another vaccine mandate, this one for health care facilities that get federal funding. How do you read this series of rulings?

ELVING: It's a blow to the Biden administration's effort to contain COVID. No question about it. The White House had estimated the mandate would mean 22 million more workers getting vaccinated and 25,000 fewer going to hospitals. And, you know, hospital overload is the most acute of all our COVID problems right now. But the Supreme Court focused on the issues of power and legal authority. They said the executive branch overstepped its bounds. Still, as you noted, the court did allow a vaccine or test mandate for workers in those health facilities receiving federal funding, which most of them do. So at least that element of the Biden anti-COVID strategy will remain largely in place.

SIMON: And, of course, omicron still surges across the country. What tools does the executive branch have left to try to confront it? I think we've learned to drop combat analogies.

ELVING: They're going to try to whittle down the remaining third of the population that's not fully vaxxed and, of course, the far larger portion that's not boosted. There's also going to be massive support for testing, promises of literally a billion tests being made available to all who want them. That would be about three tests for every man, woman and child in the U.S. right now. And there is still a lot of reliance on the mask, the first tool we had to slow the rate of infection. The best evidence says people are better off wearing them and getting the very best-quality masks they can.

SIMON: And then voting rights. Of course, this week, Senators Manchin and Sinema said they favor voting rights reform but not at the expense of getting rid of the filibuster, which requires bills to pass with a three-fifths supermajority instead of a simple majority. Are some Democrats beginning to ask whether they really have a majority?

ELVING: In the Senate, it's never been enough to support something. The question is what procedure you will support in order to get something done. This is a 50-50 Senate. With the tiebreaking vote of the vice president, the Democrats are the nominal majority party - emphasis on the word nominal. But this is a fragile arrangement, to say the least. Manchin and Sinema say they support voting rights reform, but that can't even come to the floor for debate unless 60 senators are willing. So the Democrats need a bunch of Republican votes, like they had back in the 1960s to pass the Civil Rights Act. But that was a different group of Republicans from what we see today.

SIMON: Historically, haven't both parties flip-flopped on the idea of abolishing the filibuster?

ELVING: Some in either party who have over the years come out against the filibuster at one time or another. And yes, it empowers the minority party, but it also makes individual senators powerful. It allows each one to slow or stop Senate business, makes each senator a kind of power center. That's why there are at least a few Democrats, other than Manchin and Sinema, who won't do what those two are doing but who are glad to keep the filibuster right where it is.

SIMON: Inflation getting worse again. Seven percent in December - highest year-over-year jump since 1982.

ELVING: Yes, and we're seeing more of its effects on the economy - consumer spending and stock prices. Wall Street had been setting records until very recently, but now the markets fear the Federal Reserve is going to be raising rates and damping down growth for at least the next year. And that makes stocks less attractive. Politically, however, what matters most is the bite that inflation takes out of family finances - gasoline, other energy prices. Some food prices are higher than we've seen in years. And while this is still not comparable to the inflation of 40 or 50 years ago, it's making households cut back. And that's more bad news for the economy and for the president.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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