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Recall voters said Covid was their top issue but budget takes center stage in D.C.

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
U.S. President Biden Campaigns With California Governor Newsom
Gavin Newsom, governor of California, speaks during a campaign event at Long Beach City College in Long Beach on Sept. 13, 2021.Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Covid was a winning issue for Democrats in California’s recall election. In fact, it ranked as the top issue for voters in the NBC News exit poll, and those who selected it No. 1 broke overwhelmingly against the recall.

And Virginia Democrats are seizing on the issue, too, ahead of this November’s gubernatorial contest.

But after months and months of a Covid-centered agenda, Democrats find themselves in a tough box. Is there still room to push their non-Covid agenda, particularly as cases and fatalities have been on the increase?

Today, Biden delivers remarks on the tax increases for the wealthy that he’s pursuing in the Democrats’ reconciliation package. Yesterday, he met with moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to discuss that package. And earlier this week, he was talking reconciliation and infrastructure out west.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democrats are fighting over drug prices (more on that below) and gearing up for battle over raising the debt limit.

We get that Biden and congressional Dems never foresaw — at least back in June and July — Covid still being this kind of a problem (because, in large part, enough Americans would refuse to get vaccinated).

And the White House and Democrats will tell you that they can do multiple things at the same time. (In fact, Biden yesterday discussed Covid with business leaders, and he talked about the issue while campaigning for California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.)

But as we discovered in California, voters still care a lot about the Covid situation around them.

As the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter wrote earlier this month after listening to focus groups of independent and less-engaged Democratic voters, “It’s clear that [these voters] are more interested in solving the challenges presented by Covid than anything else. Until they feel like it's OK to stop worrying about Covid, it is going to be hard to get them to pay attention to the Democrats' plans on anything else.”

Vaxxed California counties vote against the recall, unvaxxed counties voted for it

Yesterday, we told you that the share of California voters opposing the recall (63.9 percent so far) was almost exactly the same as the portion of voters who told exit polling they viewed Covid vaccination as a public health responsibility over a personal choice (65 percent).

A similar relationship appears between Covid vaccination and recall vote — counties with high vaccination rates tended to back Newsom, while counties with lower vaccination rates tended to want to kick him out.

Here’s a look at the trends in each of the state’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 vaccinated counties (per the LA Times’ data on fully vaccinated residents) .

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

Almost 49,000: The number of Afghans temporarily living in American military bases as they wait to be resettled.

4: The number of American soldiers killed by a top ISIS militant that France believes it killed in a recent airstrike.

Almost 500,000: The number of children diagnosed with Covid from Sept. 2 to Sept. 9, a number the American Academy of Pediatrics said has “increased exponentially.”

41,672,149: The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 167,309 more since yesterday morning.)

670,615: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 2,476 more since yesterday morning.)

382,294,795: The number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S., per the CDC. (That’s 841,530 more since yesterday morning.)

54.1 percent: The share of all Americans who are fully vaccinated, per the CDC.

65.2 percent: The share of all U.S. adults at least 18 years of age who are fully vaccinated, per CDC.

Talking policy with Benjy: Drugged out

We wrote previously that Democratic plans to empower Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices have taken on outsized importance in the reconciliation bill, both as a policy goal and as a means to fund the bill’s other health benefits.

House Democrats put out a plan this week that would allow Medicare to open talks over the most expensive brand-name drugs starting in 2025 and force companies to offer rates similar to other countries, which often pay less than half as much for the same drugs.

But their plans are in serious jeopardy as three members — Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. — voted against the provisions in the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, blocking it from advancing. E&C Chairman Frank Pallone said after the vote he was disappointed, but “confident it will be part of the final Build Back Better Act."

The three “no” votes are part of a group backing a more industry-friendly bill, which they released this week, that would restrict Medicare negotiations to a much smaller group of drugs and place more limits on the potential price reductions. Other co-sponsors include Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and J. Luis Correa, D-Calif.

That puts leadership in the tough position of having to placate a bloc that’s trying to reduce one of the biggest sources of savings in the Build Back Better bill, even as some of the same members are vocally concerned about its overall cost. What’s more, the Senate has yet to release its own proposal, which could face similar resistance from members in states closely tied to the industry who might be emboldened by the House vote.

Drug pricing reform is extremely popular in polls, but the pharmaceutical industry is a tough well-funded opponent and is already up with a seven-figure ad campaign warning the changes will reduce access to new drugs as well as a joint campaign with some allied unions.

President Joe Biden has made drug pricing reform a top priority in recent weeks and it’s a favorite cause of Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well, so it will be interesting to see how much pressure both the White House and Democratic leaders are willing to exert in order to get a more far-reaching drug measure into the bill.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Hospitals in Idaho and other western states are struggling to find beds for critically ill patients as hospitals fill up with Covid patients.

Now that Newsom survived the recall, Democrats want to change the process moving forward.

The FDA may decide on Friday whether to approve booster shots for Pfizer’s Covid vaccine.

The fate of Democratic-backed immigration reform rests in the Senate parliamentarian.

Pennsylvania state Senate Republicans approved subpoenas for voter information as they continue to call for a review of the 2020 election results.