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If Biden drops out of the presidential race, what might a plan B look like?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For years now, President Biden and the people around him have made a virtue out of not reacting to events. They have dismissed social media criticism, not real-life. They have dismissed allies they see as panicking. And over the weekend, amid calls for the president to drop out of his bid for reelection, Biden campaigned as scheduled in Pennsylvania.

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PRESIDENT/DEM PRES CAND JOE BIDEN: We're on the cusp of getting so much done. I really mean it.

INSKEEP: But his party is talking about what to do. So we catch up with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and our congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, Good morning to you both.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: And I'll note, a Congressional correspondent is along here, Deirdre, because Congress is important. The Democratic members of Congress are important. What are you hearing?

WALSH: Well, there are new calls for President Biden to step aside as the party's nominee. In the days following his poor performance in the debate against Trump, there've been five public calls from House Democrats. But on a private call yesterday with House Democratic leaders, four senior House Democrats who serve as the top Democrats on key House panels told leaders they want to see a change at the top of the ticket. Others on the call expressed concerns.

It's really been a mixed review, a lot more privately calling for Biden to step aside than publicly coming out. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has publicly backed the President. But that call was really his chance to take a pulse, and he got a lot of blunt feedback.

But the divisions inside the party are real. There's real concern about what switching to another nominee could mean. Could it be risky? And their - top of mind for Hill Democrats is what Biden's impact will be on their chances for flipping the House and keeping control of the Senate.

INSKEEP: Mara, I'm watching all these statements, and it's almost like I'm doing kremlinology here. Like, Adam Schiff of California's on TV yesterday - he's sounding like he favors Kamala Harris without quite directly saying it. And I'm thinking, well, he's close to Nancy Pelosi. What does that mean about Nancy Pelosi? But then I'm remembering this is actually up to - if Biden were to withdraw at all - would be up to Democratic convention delegates to decide.

LIASSON: That's right. The Democrats have not coalesced yet around a position. Delegates are mixed. Some donors are on strike. They say they won't give any more money unless Biden steps aside. Other donors are still supporting Biden. A lot of talk about plan Bs. What happens if Biden releases his delegates? And that's the only way that they can move on to another candidate.

Right now, Biden has been adamant that he will not drop out. It's almost as if he's reverting to the origin story of his long political career, which is he's always counted out, and he always proves his critics wrong.

The problem is that every plan B has problems. The easiest one to imagine is that Biden releases his delegates and gives them to - tells them to vote for Vice President Harris. After all, it's the Biden-Harris campaign. She can inherit his money and infrastructure very easily, but that would be anointing someone.

The other plan B is a little more transparent and democratic. You could have what's called a mini-primary, a debate a week until the convention with five to seven candidates. That's sometimes considered to be the Aaron Sorkin Hollywood fantasy because that has a lot of problems, too.

INSKEEP: What were the problems, then? Why would that not work?

LIASSON: Well, it would be hard to imagine who exactly is in the debates. You can imagine people like California Governor Gavin Newsom, Vice President Harris, Michigan Governor Whitmer, Pennsylvania Governor Shapiro. But even if somebody did emerge from that to win the convention vote, then they would have to stand up a billion-dollar campaign in a matter of weeks. That would...

INSKEEP: Wow.

LIASSON: ...Be pretty hard. Also, this would take the focus off of Trump, and Democrats wonder, is that a good thing or a bad thing? A lot of times when the focus is off of Trump, he benefits.

INSKEEP: Yeah. So, Deirdre, how are Democrats feeling then?

WALSH: I think there is a lot of frustration that the focus hasn't been on the contrast with Trump, as Mara points out. I mean, Democrats are very nervous. They're worried. There's a lot of frustration that it took President Biden days to call top leaders like House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and even former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a close ally. They've been urging the president to do more public unscripted events. He did some of that yesterday on the trail, more interviews, town halls.

The one thing that's notable so far is that there aren't any public calls from Democratic senators. Biden really is a - sort of a creature of the Senate. He served there for decades. It's more likely he would probably listen to Democratic senators than House Democrats he doesn't know as well.

So far, there was a rumored huddle today that was supposed to be coordinated by Virginia Senator Mark Warner. That's been called off and Senate Democrats are going to huddle at their weekly lunch on Tuesday. They're really giving the president some room to prove that he can be up to the job. Yesterday on CNN, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy says, Biden has to show this week that he's up to the job.

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CHRIS MURPHY: I take him at his word. I believe that he can do it, but I think that this is a really critical week. I do think the clock is ticking.

INSKEEP: OK, so, Mara, how does he prove that at age 81 he's still up to the job and that he would be up to the job at age 86?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. I mean, I think the interview with George Stephanopoulos - the premise that that was going to be the place he could show that he was up to the job was really faulty. The next week is very critical for him. There are a couple events. He's going to have a couple more rallies. On Friday, he's going to go to Michigan. He's also going to have a press conference when the NATO leaders come to Washington. It's a solo press conference. There won't be a teleprompter. So that's an opportunity for him to show that he has the stamina and the mental ability to run and win and govern.

But at the same time, as Deirdre explained, you're going to get growing calls for him to step aside. And Biden cares about his legacy. He cares about his party. He cares about defeating Trump, which, in his mind, is the only way to save American democracy. So what does he decide? This is really all up to him. And it's a - still a very, very open question.

INSKEEP: Deirdre, I guess it matters that people are saying so much in private, but ultimately, it may only matter what people are willing to stand for in public. Do you expect the calls for Biden to step down to keep coming?

WALSH: I do, and that's what Democrats have been telling me. Some have been privately saying they were hoping that there would be, like, a high-level delegation of, you know, top Democratic leaders appealing to Biden in private. But since he's been publicly out there insisting he's not going anywhere, there are expected to be more public calls when lawmakers get back to the Capitol today.

You know, referring to Mara's plan B, the other issue for congressional Democrats is there's no unity behind any plan B. And there's a lot of nervousness about the unknown and the short window before the Democratic Convention in August.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Thanks to you both.

LIASSON: Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Steve. 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.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.