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Congress is campaigning — even when it’s in session on Capitol Hill

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Members of Congress are campaigning even when they're in session on Capitol Hill.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

That's right. It's messaging season on the Hill. Lawmakers are shifting their sights from legislating to proposing long-shot bills that seem to have just one purpose - to make a point. And it's happening on both sides of the aisle.

MARTIN: NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt is here to talk through the latest. Good morning, Barbara.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So there's a vote slated in the Senate today that would give protections for the right to access contraception. This is unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-led House. So what's the thinking from the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer?

SPRUNT: Well, this comes just ahead of the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down federal abortion protections. And since then, voters have backed abortion rights at the ballot box in at least six states. So, yes, this is a messaging bill. It's exactly the message that Democrats are trying to hammer home in an election year. Here's how Schumer put it himself on the floor earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Over the coming weeks, Senate Democrats will put reproductive freedoms front and center before this chamber so that the American people can see for themselves who will stand up to defend their fundamental liberties.

SPRUNT: Voters in up to 10 states could face abortion rights amendments this year - some of them in places that have critical Senate races, too, like Arizona, Montana, and Nevada. This vote and others down the road, as Schumer alluded to, are all aimed at centering Democrats' message on this issue and forcing Republicans to take votes on it as the election draws closer.

MARTIN: But is this a season of what you're calling messaging bills for both parties?

SPRUNT: Yeah, it is. I think that this is - applies to both parties. This isn't the only one by a long shot. Democrats have put forward a messaging vote last month with the stalled border deal, a way to give vulnerable incumbents in redder states a chance to vote for a bipartisan effort to address high levels of illegal immigration at the U.S. southern border. And Republicans are busy with their own messaging bill - one recently that would prevent non-citizens from voting in federal elections, something federal law already prohibits, to drive home one of their favorite issues to talk about on the campaign trail, what they call election integrity issues. And this is all happening as Republican-led House committees are holding hearings that ignite their base, but don't really have a legislative future. So that would be investigating the origins of COVID-19 or what they call the weaponization of the Justice Department.

MARTIN: Right, we saw those just this week. So - but Barbara, is there something different about this election? I mean, isn't this something that normally happens at this time of year during an election year?

SPRUNT: This is certainly something that happens often in an election year. But it is more dramatic this year when both sides have struggled to find any common ground. The messaging drive really started at the very beginning of this Congress, and they've reached a point now where there's virtually nothing left they agree must be done.

MARTIN: OK, so, apart from all that, is there something that Congress has to do before the election in November?

SPRUNT: The quick answer - fund the government. Regular order would mean they have to pass 12 spending bills in the House by the end of September. Republican leaders say they want to do that by August, but it's a tough thing to do. They have a very narrow majority, and they have diverse demands from within the GOP conference. Most people think they'll end up punting until after the election.

MARTIN: That is NPR congressional reporter, Barbara Sprunt. Barbara, thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.