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Week in politics: Job numbers; debt ceiling; State of the Union


And Chinese surveillance balloons over the U.S. weren't something many of us had in our 2023 bingo cards, including NPR's Ron Elving, who usually knows every - Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: It's being described as an international incident, but there are U.S. political consequences, too, aren't there?

ELVING: Yes, and maybe Chinese domestic political consequences as well. The Pentagon says this is no threat. We know the Chinese have satellites surveilling us all the time, as we have watching them. But this is different because people in Montana and Kansas can see it from their driveways, and they feel violated. And they can share their feelings and their videos on social media. We know that talk about China has been getting tougher and rising in popularity in both parties in Congress.

And it's been a big crowd pleaser for candidates on the campaign trail for a while. This is only going to add fuel to that fire. And on the Chinese side, part of the mystery here is, why now? - because China in recent weeks had been seen as dialing down the heat, conducting something of a charm offensive, as some have called it, around the world. There may be some disagreement about that within the Chinese power structure. So we have to wonder if someone over there just didn't want this Blinken visit to happen just now.

SIMON: Yesterday's job report was head-spinning - 517,000 jobs created in January. Given inflation, it wasn't expected to be nearly that high. What does it tell us about the U.S. economy now?

ELVING: We've been hearing about all the headwinds the economy was facing for several months now - the end of COVID stimulation spending by the government, the high prices, fuel costs, supply chains. We've been hearing that recession was all but inevitable. And perhaps it will still come, but it's not in these numbers. Now, if you're an investor who watches bond rates and prices hour by hour, this was not a good report because the Fed will now continue raising interest rates, at least a little more, for at least a while longer. But if you're looking for a job or you might be soon, the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years has to look pretty good.

SIMON: And it happens just in time for President Biden to deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday. Ron, what do you expect to hear?

ELVING: A lot about that jobs report, I suspect, just for starters, and also some tough talk toward China, which may have been in the offing anyway. Suspicion toward China may be our one area of bipartisan agreement these days. Beyond that, a lot of praise for the American people and their efforts to overcome COVID and bring the economy back successfully and some credit claiming by the president for his party as yet another presidential election cycle kicks off. You know we're less than a year away from the first primary of 2024?

SIMON: Oh, my word. Well, I'm sure we'll - I'm sure it'll get a little attention on all of our shows. Of course, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the president have been in discussion over raising the debt ceiling. You know, who's putting the most pressure on the speaker, the president or his own Republicans?

ELVING: Well, right now it's the House Republicans, and it's a cadre within that group who are determined to make the debt limit a weapon. They feel they got McCarthy's buy-in for that tactic in exchange for the votes that made him speaker. And now they expect him to spearhead that confrontation. And if he wavers, he may face another round of votes just to keep his job. So Biden can bring pressure to bear, too, of course. But ultimately, McCarthy is more likely to respond to Republicans and ultimately not just the ones in the House but also those in business and finance, who traditionally fund the party. They want limits on spending, too, but they don't want a crisis brought on by a U.S. debt default.

SIMON: As Congress got down to business, it assigned members to committees and also kicked them off some committees, notably voting this week to remove Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from the Foreign Affairs Committee. How unusual is this?

ELVING: It's unusual to see individual members pilloried like this. But it is part of the cycle of revenge that we now see in much of what happens in the House. Republicans were angry that two of their own were denied committee seats two years ago, and they were angry that Nancy Pelosi would not accept certain Republicans as members of the January 6 investigating committee. So now they have the majority, and they are settling scores.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much for being with us.

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

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for