Return to Transcripts main page


President Joe Biden And First Lady Heading To Texas Following The Devastating Winter Storm; Johnson & Johnson Shots Should Be In Americans' Arms As Early As Next Week; A COVID Variant, B117, Is Spreading Widly Through The United States; Joe Biden Carried Out The First Known U.S. Military Action Of His Presidency Last Night. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 09:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM HOST: Very good Friday morning to you. It's Friday. I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM HOST: And I'm Poppy Harlow, well moments from now President Joe Biden and the First Lady will depart the White House for Texas. This is, of course, following last week's devastating winter storm there.

Tonight, the president will speak from a mass COVID vaccination site in Houston. His trip comes as the House prepares for a critical vote today on the president's first major piece of legislation, that $1.9 trillion stimulus package. It is expected to pass the chamber strictly across party lines even though polls show it hold wide support from Americans.

SCIUTTO: Even among Trump, Josh Hawley, some populist Republicans for at least some of the elements of that. We will bring you all the developments on that plus this. The first Johnson & Johnson coronavirus shots could be in Americans' arms as early as next week.

Today and FDA Advisory Committee will review the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Authorization could come as soon as this weekend. To begin, though, on Capitol Hill CNN's Lauren Fox following the latest on that stimulus bill. So first step, of course, in the House then the Senate. Are they on schedule, right, for this to be passed before those enhanced to unemployment benefits expire?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well they are right now, Jim, and they got a boost, if you will, from the Senate Parliamentarian last night who ruled that they could not include the $15 minimum wage. And while that was disappointing to a majority of Democrats up of Capitol Hill it was good news for Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, who supports the minimum wage himself and had been pushing very hard for it behind the scenes, but he had some difficulties in his own caucus for moving that provision thought the Senate. Essentially there were two Democrats - Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona - who were opposed to including that $15 minimum wage increase in the underlying bill. This makes the job for Schumer much easier even though, as I said, he was a big proponent of pushing through this $15 minimum wage.

We expect the House bill today is going to pass with overwhelming Democratic support. Meanwhile, Republicans are whipping their members against this bill despite the fact that, like you said, it's very popular with the American people.

So what you'll see is the House will pass their version, which will include the $15 minimum wage. Then it will go over to the Senate where they will have to strip that provision out. They will pass their own version of this bill, and then it will go back to the House of Representatives for one more vote. So the first step in the process, of course, beginning today, but momentous still. Jim and Poppy -

HARLOW: For sure. Big, big day ahead for that. Lauren thanks so much for the reporting. Well a Biden administration official tells us here at CNN they expect that minimum wage provision will be stripped ultimately from the - you know, from the bill from the Senate - the one that goes through the Senate. The president is expected, though, Jim, to push for a standalone, a whole separate bill that would push for a federal minimum wage increase.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Jeremy Diamond, he's following the latest. So Jeremy, if it's a separate bill, right, you would still be able to go through reconciliation in other words and only need 50 votes, but would he necessarily have support for that or is there a compromise on the horizon?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No. The Senate Parliamentarian's ruling here wouldn't just apply to this bill but would essentially nix the idea of getting a standalone $15 minimum wage bill through that reconciliation process.

And so, that makes the odds of a stand alone bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 all but dead in a Senate that already with this reconciliation process was likely not going to be able to pass a bill with a $15 minimum wage because of the opposition from two key Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of the state of Arizona.

And that is why the White House not only expected that the Senate Parliamentarian would rule out this $15 minimum wage from the reconciliation process but frankly they were counting on it because of how complicated the math would be.

The parliamentarian's decision here really makes it a lot easier for the White House to be able to pass this bill, the coronavirus relief bill, through the reconciliation process. It removes a lot of the obstacles that the $15 minimum wage presented. Not to say that the White House didn't want to increase the minimum wage but they knew what the math was in the Senate. Now they are going to move forward. The White House Press Secretary made very clear that they were disappointed in the outcome of the Senate Parliamentarian and that President Biden would like to move forward with the $15 minimum wage. The president has suggested that himself, but again the math here very, very difficult.

Now today we will see President Biden leaving the White House this hour and heading for the state of Texas. He will be in Houston where he's going to tour some of the damage from that severe weather and the loss of power that resulted in so much damage in the state of Texas.


He's going to meet with Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, as well as Senator John Cornyn of that very same state. He's going to tour an emergency operation center in Harris County. That is where Houston is. And he's also going to head out to a food bank to meet with some of the volunteers and people impacted by the situation there in the state of Texas.

There will also be a vaccine coronavirus component to his visit as well. He'll head to Energy Stadium, which is one of the largest mass vaccination sites in the state of Texas, in the country, in fact, that the president will be there to kind of stress his message about increasing the supply of vaccines to the states. Just yesterday, of course, he marked 50 million shots that have been administered since he was inaugurated on January 20. Jim, Poppy -

SCIUTTO: Yes. On the minimum wage you wonder if compromise is possible. Joe Manchin's talked about $11. Josh Hawley is now talking about $15 for billion dollar corporations. Maybe you could have a compromise. We'll see. Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thank you.

Today a critical meeting in the race to vaccinate Americans. The FDA's panel of independent advisors are discussing Johnson & Johnson's vaccine. If approved, President Biden says it would roll out immediately.

HARLOW: It's a big deal. Let's bring in Michael Osterholm, Infectious Disease Expert and Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. We're so glad to have you. We have so many questions for this morning, but let's just start there on J&J. Assuming it gets the green light from the FDA, how much does it change the game?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT: Well it surely adds to the vaccine availability, but unfortunately the amount that's going to be provided in the next few weeks is just a start.

We clearly need much, much more vaccine than we have right now particularly as we're going into this possible surge with the B117 or U.K. variant, which very well could cause a surge of cases in the next four to 12 weeks.

So it's a - it's a good thing. We welcome it, but at the same time it's not a game changer in that suddenly we go from we've got a problem to we've got a solution that's going to take care of everything.

SCIUTTO: Professor Osterholm, the direction of new infections, new hospitalizations, and new deaths has been down. If we could put these numbers up on the screen, somewhat encouraging. I mean, that's a steep fall. It is flattening out a bit at the bottom on the right-hand side of the screen there. You have warned that the U.S. could be facing a category five storm at the start of the month. You said that. Do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like we're on the cusp of another rise and why?

OSTERHOLM: Absolutely. If we follow right now what's happening underground you might way with this virus, meaning where do we see the B117 variant, the one that we're so concerned about spreading, it is starting to spread in the United States. It's doubling about every 7 to 10 days the number of cases.

And where that has happened in the past is in England and other countries of Europe, in the Middle East we have seen usually within about four to seven weeks after that starts a big surge in cases.

So I think it's still too early to pick up a B117 surge in this country. I know everybody is filing their numbers every day. I don't think we're going to see this upturn probably until the middle of March at the earliest, but when it happens it could happen very quickly and that's exactly what's been seen.

I don't think most Americans understand that if you look at England, you look at Spain, Portugal, I mean, go through all the countries, they've pretty much been in lockdown since Christmas just to keep those numbers down. And so, that's what we're very concerned about as we now have clear and compelling evidence that B117 is spreading wildly through the United States.

HARLOW: Yes. OK, your team jut came out with this new report really this morning, and it has data that you say furthers your argument that you would like to have more people get the first dose - first dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine and delay second doses in order to get more people at least with one dose. Dr. Fauci does not think that's a good idea. Can you explain what your data shows and if the Biden administration has responded at all to what you found?

OSTERHOLM: Well it's not just our data. In fact, there's a new report, again, published this morning. You know, we've continued to hear from a number of people that while, you know, we already - we have to go with the science, we have to go with what data were available when this - these vaccines were licensed or authorized last fall, there's a whole lot of new data that's become available since then.

Just in the last 7 to 10 days there's been a whole series of publications supporting how effective a single dose could be for a substantial period of time. And so, you know, you can't use the discussion anymore that while we don't have the data there is science. And that's what I've been saying for the last five weeks that this data was coming. We could have collected this and used it a long time ago. So I think the challenge we have right now is helping people understand that if we don't change what's happening right now we could have up to 30 million Americans 65 years of age and older that by the end of March will not have had access to a single drop of vaccine. That's the group that is most likely to have a severe illness, be hospitalized, or die.


And so, what we're talking about and the analysis we did, we showed that if we can get a single dose to everyone over 65 we could prevent thousands of deaths, hospitalizations, and severe illnesses. It's just that simple.

SCIUTTO: Before we go, quickly, if you believe we're on the cusp of another surge here based on this new variant, what do you do about it? What do we do about it as a country beyond try to accelerate vaccinations?

OSTERHOLM: Well vaccinations obviously are important, but again there's only going to be a small percentage of U.S. residents that are going to get vaccines before the surge hits in April. One of the things that, you know, we keep coming back to is helping the public understand that we're going to have to pivot quickly here in terms of our recommendations.

We're opening up America like it hasn't been opened up since March. There will be a lot of people who will not want to hear this, they will be angry, but in fact if we just look at what has happened in Europe, we look what's happened in the Middle East, and you can see that unless there were lockdowns basically they could not control that virus in of itself.

And so, one of the things we have to do is how are we going to pivot quickly going from opening up everything to now saying wait a minute. That's not going to be the answer, and we just have to prepare the public for that. And, you know, we're up against the virus. We're not up against the public policy.

SCIUTTO: Sobering to hear. Michael Osterholm, thanks so much.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, President Biden authorizes and airstrike on targets inside Syria. Those are pictures there. His first known at least military action of his presidency. Why now? What was the threat? And the acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief says that law enforcement is tracking militia groups that want to, quote, "blow up the Capitol when the president addresses Congress." Alarming. How are law makers responding?

HARLOW: Also should pregnant women get a COVID vaccine? Pfizer is attempting to answer that critical question with their first clinical trial well underway. Later, we'll speak with one expectant mother. She's a teacher, and she says she and her baby are safe for now that she has had a COVID vaccine. She'll explain her decision making ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


Overnight, President Biden authorized and it was carried out the first known U.S. military action of his presidency, an airstrike on Iranian- backed militia groups in Syria.

SCIUTTO: U.S. officials say a quote - say, quote, "Up to a handful of militants were killed on Thursday." This comes more than a week after a rock attack - rocket attack in Northern Iraq killed a civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member. CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon has the latest.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jim, Poppy, President Biden ordering this military strike Thursday, the first known military action by Joe Biden as Commander in Chief, something that will be watched very closely around the world.

The strike was against a target in Syria just over the Iraqi border that the U.S. say s was a weapon storage site being used by Iranian- backed militias. They are using Iranian-supplied weapons the U.S. believe to launch a number of recent attacks against U.S. troops and U.S. interests over that boarder inside Iraq.

The U.S very much trying to send a message to these militias to stop it, to cut out these attacks, so it was what the Pentagon is terming a very defensive precision strike, very much limited to these militias that are backed by Iran, the Pentagon taking pains to talk about that because they don't want to go too far. They wanted this mission to stop short of any type of escalatory action that would provoke the regime in Tehran.

They are hoping to leave this as it is right now, sending a message to those militias to stop their rocket attacks against U.S. interests. Jim, Poppy -

SCIUTTO: Well this just in to CNN. The original plan by the U.S. military was to strike two sites but at the last minute the second location scratched because of concerns about the possibility of civilian casualties in the area a U.S. Defense official tells CNN.

Well joining me now to discuss this and a whole host of other topics, Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York. He is Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He also sits on the Financial Services Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: So first your reaction to these attacks in Syria. Your Democratic colleague, Ro Khanna, who also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, he criticized these strikes and I'm quoting him here. He says, "There's absolutely no justification for the president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense." This is not unlike the protests we saw from Democrats to military action by Trump for not seeking congressional authorization first. Do you agree with Khanna that Biden - President Biden should have gotten authorization from Congress for this?

MEEKS: Well I'm expecting to get more information. You know, we are the committee of jurisdiction (ph) in - as it pertains to the War Powers Resolution. And so, I'm expecting to get some more information in short order. And then we can make a determination to where we go, but I'm waiting for more information from the administration.

SCIUTTO: OK, we will follow up with you on that. As a matter of principle, though, should a president get authorization for military action from Congress?


MEEKS: I think that as a matter, president - that the - any president should give information to all of the committees of jurisdiction, the Foreign Affairs Committee being one, and that's why I fully expect to get the additional information from the administration.

SCIUTTO: OK. We'll see - we'll see when you get that if that meets your standard for this military action. Let's move onto stimulus. As you know the $15 minimum wage will no longer be in the Senate version of this. That's dead for this COVID relief package. Will you still vote to support COVID relief knowing that in the end that provision will be removed?

MEEKS: Jim, you know the American people deserve a raise. However, there's a lot of good things in this bill that are tremendously important. The unemployment insurance is there. The stimulus checks are there. Aid for state and local authorities is there. Resources toward vaccine distribution, other credit - tax credits for the poor and middle income is there. Opening schools, you know, make sure that schools get open, all of that is in this $1.9 trillion stimulus package which people desperately need.

And so, though I would want the $15 an hour to be apart of this it is my firm belief that we will still fight to get it done. There will be other bills that we can attach it to, but I want to make sure that the relief that the American people need they receive as in short a period of time as possible.

SCIUTTO: Looking ahead -


MEEKS: So yes, I'm would vote for the bill.

SCIUTTO: So you're going to vote for the bill. I got it. Looking ahead you would still need - I mean, not to get too much into the weeds here, but this is a result of Democrats using reconciliation so they didn't need to break a potential Republican filibuster, but you would have to meet that standard if you were to separate this out and have a separate bill to raise the minimum wage. I wonder given that those 10 Republican votes certainly not guaranteed on that, would you support ending the filibuster to get Democratic priorities like this one through?

MEEKS: Well look, I know of the procedures that take place in the Senate, and I think that there is ways that we can get this $15 minimum wage through because of the need of the country raising the salaries of primarily women, Jim.

You know, when you look at who's making the $15 an hour it is women. Not just Democratic women, Republican women and the poor, many of them who have children. You know, people need to look at and we need to get that messaging out to all of Americans. And I think that we can then - we should be able to push it up so we can get a bill passed.

So I think that it's too early to talk about getting rid of the filibuster at this point. I'm not in the Senate. You know, that's their business, but I do think that we cannot stop until we make sure that America gets the raise that it deserves.

SCIUTTO: I get that aspiration, but the fact is that all of Biden's legislative priorities are going to run up against the filibuster, and one that is particularly important not just to Biden but to you and other members - Democratic members of Congress which is voting rights. And I wonder would you support a separate option of carving out - in effect to carve out for election reform legislation from the filibuster, in other words targeted ending of the filibuster for certain priorities. Would you support that?

MEEKS: Well elections, you know, the right to vote is key to who we are as a country and making it sort of more available for individuals and easier for individuals to vote is essentially who we are. You know, I go around the world talking to other world leaders now to talk about democracy.

And so, I've - and I am interested in looking and listening and figuring out how we could make sure that every American has the opportunity to vote in a manner that is - that is legal and is important to them. The voting rights act is absolutely essential to who we are as a country. Democracy -


SCIUTTO: We will watch -


MEEKS: You know, the three Ds from our committee. I talk about diplomacy, democracy, and diversity. And I think that's, you know, should be what we take the lead on.

SCIUTTO: All right, we'll watch the progress of that bill in the coming weeks and months. Congressman Gregory Meeks, good to have you on the program this morning. We hope you have a good weekend.

MEEKS: Good to be with you, Jim. HARLOW: Well ahead for us, a terrifying possibility. The acting Capitol Police Chief warned in her congressional testimony yesterday that militia groups want to, in her words, "blow up the Capitol", and they want to do it during a specific event. We'll tell you what that is and reaction, what's being done to protect the Capitol ahead.



All right, we're watching as any moment now the Biden administration is set to release an intelligence report expected to really directly implicate Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he's referred, in the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. This comes just a day after President Biden for the first time since he took office spoke on the phone with the Crown Prince's father. That is King Salman, but it's just unclear, Jim, at this point if there was a mention in that call of Khashoggi ahead of this read out.

SCIUTTO: True. It is a change from the Trump administration. The president at least refused to directly blame the Saudis.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: This also comes as two Democratic law makers are expected to introduce a resolution today which holds Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi's murder as well as other human rights violations. CNN's Alex Marquardt has been following.