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House to Vote on COVID Relief Bill Tonight; Interview with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ); Johnson & Johnson Vaccine is Under Consideration as CDC Director Warns Cases Are Rising. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 14:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It is the top of the hour, I am Brianna Keilar. And we are tracking multiple stories that are breaking this hour, both within and beyond American borders.

Moments ago, the U.S. officially accused one of its own global allies of the murder of "Washington Post" columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. A just-released intelligence report finds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible, and we are going to have much more on that story here in just a moment.

Also breaking, President Biden arrives in Houston to survey the aftermath of the deadly deep freeze that left millions without food, water or heat.

Tonight, the House will vote on Biden's nearly $2 trillion COVID relief bill, the first step in the first significant legislative priority of his presidency.

Also happening now, an FDA board is reviewing Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, the first single-dose option to fight the coronavirus that not only prevents most sickness, but may also stop transmission.

And we are also watching Syria, after the president launched the first airstrikes of his administration. The Pentagon says the attack was targeted against militias there backed by Iran in response to recent attacks on American forces.

Let's begin with this big day for President Biden on Capitol Hill. Tonight, the House will vote on the president's ambitious nearly $2 trillion COVID relief plan to bring help to millions of struggling Americans. Biden's first major piece of legislation is expected to pass the House with only Democratic support.

But Democrats also suffered a big setback. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the $15 minimum wage increase that was in the bill violates the rules of the Senate.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. Manu, what happens with this bill now?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's going to go the House floor, and it is expected to pass. I just talked to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, he is the chief vote counter on the House Democratic side, and he told me that he actually does not expect all Democrats to vote for it. He said that there could be a Democratic defector tonight.

But they can't afford to lose three votes. He said three votes is the most they could afford to lose because of the narrow majority the Democrats control in the House. And he was confident they would not lose more than three votes.

He said confidently, the bill will pass, we will not lose three votes. So perhaps there could be one Democratic defector, it's possible that Democrat is Kurt Schrader, who's an Oregon Democrat, he's been concerned (ph) and opposed in the past to increasing the federal minimum wage to the $15 level that it is in the House bill. He could break ranks, we'll see if others do as well. But the Democratic leadership is confident, ultimately, that this will pass.

TEXT: President Biden's COVID Relief Plan Includes: $1,400 stimulus checks; Enhanced unemployment aid; Small business assistance; Nutrition assistance; Housing aid; Money for child care; Aid for states and schools; Increased support for vaccines; Tax credits for families and workers

RAJU: This bill touches virtually all aspects of the American economy. It provides money for state and local governments, it extends jobless benefits, relief payments up to $1,400 for individuals under a certain income threshold. But it has that provision about increasing the minimum wage that will not survive in the United States Senate.

TEXT: Minimum Wage Provision: Penalize large corporations that don't pay their workers at least a $15 minimum wage; Democrats could add as an amendment during floor debate next week; 51 votes needed to approve

RAJU: Once this does pass tonight -- as it's expected -- the Senate will take it up and essentially strip out that minimum wage increase because it does not fall within the rules of the Senate under the process they're employing to advance it by just Democratic votes. So the question will be how do they deal with it from there.

And behind the scenes, Brianna, Democratic leaders are scrambling to try to figure out another solution to increase the minimum wage, perhaps by penalizing corporations who -- that do not provide a $15 minimum wage to their employees. But there are still questions about whether that would fall within the rules of the Senate, and whether or not there would even be 51 votes in the Senate to adopt such a provision.

So still a lot of questions about that, but at least confidence from the Democrats that they could get this bill through, $1.9 trillion, and we expect all Republicans in the House to oppose it, likely all Senate Republicans to oppose it because they contend, Brianna, this is too big and not targeted -- Brianna. KEILAR: Manu, thank you so much for that update.

We are watching, right now, also this panel of medical experts at the FDA that is in charge of monitoring vaccines, because it's possible that they could vote before the afternoon is over to authorize the emergency use authorization of the nation's first single-dose coronavirus vaccine.

This is a vaccine that's made by Johnson & Johnson, and once the FDA gives it the green light, then it's going to be up to the CDC to do the same. CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is at a mass vaccination site in Chicago, in the Chicago area, I should say. Adrienne, how are health care workers there preparing for this additional vaccine?

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, representatives with Cook County Health say they have the capacity to vaccinate 60,000 people a week, and they aren't even there yet. Right now we're in Tinley Park, and you see this vaccination site is massive. They are on pace to administer 2,800 shots today. If you look around, you'll notice they have multiple vaccination stations, about 55 of them.


I met a new friend today, her name is Mary (ph), she's sitting at station 82. And Mary (ph) is prepared to get her second dose of the vaccine. Here with her today is her grandson Jax (ph).

And we were talking earlier, what's on your heart as you get ready to get this shot?

MARY (PH): I'm just like so excited, and I wish everyone would get it so that we could end this horrible virus that has plagued us everywhere.

BROADDUS: Mary (ph) says she's so excited, and she's ready to end the virus. That's the feeling we've had throughout the day. We're going to let Mary (ph) get her shot. Spencer (ph) with the National Guard is going to administer that shot.

And you'll notice, there are a lot of members with the National Guard here today. This is a different type of mission for them, but part of what they signed up for is service and sacrifice. And when we were speaking with members of the Guard earlier today, they said this deployment, this time around feels different.

And there it is, Mary (ph) got her shot. How are you feeling?

MARY (PH): I'm feeling great.

BROADDUS: And I can see Mary (ph) smiling behind that mask.

Well, Brianna, we're going to get ready to send it back to you. Know that there's a lot of sacrifice here in Cook County. They have vaccinated 40,000 people at this site since they opened, 30 days ago today. KEILAR: Go Mary (ph). Adrienne, thank you for that report and tell

Mary (ph) thank you for letting us share that experience with her, we do appreciate it.

This just in to CNN, U.S. intelligence that points the finger squarely at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of "Washington Post" columnist and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An intel report just released by the director of National Intelligence finds that the crown prince approved the capture or kill of Khashoggi. He was killed just minutes after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul -- in Istanbul in October of 2018.

I want to get right now to our senior national security correspondent Alex Marquardt. This report is surprisingly short, that's the thing I noticed, Alex --


KEILAR: -- you know, you have it in your hands, it's like four pages. What is -- but there's a lot in there, so let's not, you know, make any mistake about it. What stands out to you?

MARQUARDT: Yes, Brianna, it's four pages, and that includes the cover page, and it's really just two pages.

This is a very big deal. This is the U.S. intelligence community, the Biden administration now saying that the de facto ruler of one of the U.S.' closest allies is responsible for murder. So we shouldn't lose sight of that.

At the same time, anybody who was expecting groundbreaking details in this unclassified report is going to be disappointed. There's no smoking gun, there's no evidence -- particular evidence that the intelligence community is pointing to as the order that MBS gave to kill Jamal Khashoggi.

What they do point to is the control that he has over the kingdom, and in particular over the security and intelligence services of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the very, very first line of this report, the intelligence community is saying that MBS is responsible for this murder. I want to read you what is in this report.

It says that "We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decision making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi."

So they go on to say that it is unlikely that the people who carried out this operation would have done so had it not been for MBS' order. They point to members of the team having worked for Saud al-Qahtani, who is one of MBS' top lieutenants. They mention that others were on his protective detail, including on a trip to the United States.

So it is clear, according to the U.S. intelligence community, that MBS had zeroed in on Khashoggi as someone who was a dissident, and whose words, through the "Washington Post" and elsewhere, were certainly not welcome.

Towards the end of the report, the intelligence community says that "The crown prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him."

Now, Brianna, this was -- this unclassified report came out today because of a law that was issued in 2019, and it's something that the Trump administration ignored. So President Trump, his top advisers, including Jared Kushner, who we knew to be close to MBS, they were essentially -- they would have known everything that is in this report, and they essentially ignored it.

Now, we are hearing from the Biden administration, but at the same time we are missing a lot of details in here. We know that Gina Haspel, the then-director of the CIA, that she heard taped intercepts -- she heard recordings from inside the consulate that Turkish intelligence had, that were extremely convincing and pivotal in the CIA assessment that MBS was behind this killing.

The big question now, Brianna, MBS, according to the U.S. government, is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What repercussions will there be against him -- Brianna.


KEILAR: Exactly, what will the repercussions be. Alex, thank you so much for that report.

Let's talk about what the repercussions may be, should be with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, I want to thank you so much for coming on. You want more sanctions against Saudi Arabia; what should they be?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Well first of all, I do want to acknowledge that President Biden did what should have been done under the law when we as leaders on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked for this disclosure to take place. And President Trump basically, as he admitted to Bob Woodward, saved MBS from this disclosure.

So this was never about figuring out who was responsible for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, this was about having the courage of holding those responsible accountable.

So I appreciate that the administration has listed some original actions. I certainly hope they will go beyond that. We should be looking at our weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, we should be looking at Magnitsky potential sanctions. I think there's a responsibility here to send a global message that you can, even if you're an ally of us, cannot kill someone with impunity, violate the international law and ultimately get away with it.

KEILAR: How do you balance -- how should the U.S. balance the relationship with Saudi Arabia, a key ally, and the fact that Saudi Arabia, MBS did something despicable here, that was so organized and you know, so involved?

MENENDEZ: Well, this is a challenge of the relationship. President Biden is trying to reset that relationship, first of all, engaging only the kind and not the crown prince, putting a series of sanctions on people who were engaged in this heinous crime.

And then thinking about how do you change the dynamics of our relationship with Saudi Arabia? For example, beyond the assassination of Khashoggi, we have Saudi Arabia's engagement in Yemen, which is a humanitarian disaster. Getting them to change their course there. So there are many ways in which the administration can use diplomatic and other sources to reimagine this relationship in a way that brings it within the context of the international order.

KEILAR: I want to turn now to these airstrikes that were carried out overnight against Iranian-backed militia just inside of Syria. CNN has learned congressional leadership were briefed ahead of the airstrikes, but key committees were not. Were you?

MENENDEZ: No, I was not. And I think the administration will be well served in the future of having key committees advise as well as congressional leadership.

But I do believe that the strikes are justified, based upon the fact of the attacks that we have taken by Iranian-backed militias against our facilities in Iraq, some which have caused injury and death. And it is a targeted strike in a way that sends a very clear message that you cannot hit our soldiers and our facilities with impunity and not face a consequence.

KEILAR: Do you know why you weren't briefed, have you registered this concern with the administration?

MENENDEZ: We have, but I'm not sure exactly whether it's the beginning of having the first experience in such a process, or there was some failure. But hopefully we won't have that again.

KEILAR: All right. We will be tracking that along with you, Senator Menendez, thank you so much for being with us today.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, good to be with you.

KEILAR: Oh actually, sir, I'm going to bring you back in. I want to talk -- I actually want to talk about the COVID relief bill with you, so pardon me for not mentioning that.

Right now, this is something that is going to go before the House, it is expected to pass. And then of course the next stop will be the Senate. So you've got a $1.9 trillion package, it is huge. It is not going to include this $15 minimum wage proposal.

Senator Schumer met with moderates in the party yesterday to discuss what they need to be on board. Does this have the votes in the Senate?

MENENDEZ: Oh, I believe that at the end of the day, it will have the votes in the Senate. It is needed by the American people. We have too many people still unemployed, in the millions; we have a looming deadline in March with the end of unemployment compensation benefits. We have too many people who are on the verge of losing their homes or their apartments. We need the resources to accelerate the president's efforts on vaccines and its distribution.


And so this is essential. I was in the Senate when we failed to robustly respond to the Great Recession; that caused heartache and economic consequences to American families for years after it should have. Being robust and responsive to the needs of the American people, getting ahead of this pandemic finally and beginning to help people out in the economy, I think, will robustly turn things around.

And so I think my colleagues, as disappointed as we are that the $15 minimum wage is not within the bill that we may ultimately vote on, understand the importance and the fierce urgency of now.

KEILAR: Is there another way to take that up? There's a lot of possibilities being considered right now. Is there another way for Congress to deal with that, whether it's an amendment to this bill or something else?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think that there's a series of considerations under way, whether you rework the language in a way that might make it eligible, the parliamentarian might find it eligible under reconciliation. And so I'll -- we'll look to see whether or not we can successfully come up with such an effort.

But at the end of the day, we're going to, one way or the other, raise the minimum wage. Even our Republican colleagues finally admit that the minimum wage as it exists is just too low. When I see Senator Romney and Senator Cotton's proposals, they seek to raise it to, you know, $11. You know -- $10 or $11 --

KEILAR: Yes, $10, yes.

MENENDEZ: -- bottom line is it's far less -- $10. It's far less than, for example, Senator Cotton's home state of Arkansas, and it's far less that deep red states like Florida. So we have to give people a wage that at the end of the day, when they work hard and sometimes work two jobs, can ultimately be above the poverty level. That's what this is all about.

KEILAR: All right, very busy week ahead here. Senator Menendez, thanks for being with us.

MENENDEZ: Great to be with you.

KEILAR: Happening now, a critical meeting about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Will the company's one-dose shot get the green light and how soon could distribution begin?

Plus, coronavirus cases are dropping drastically, but the CDC says Americans should not let their guard down: the new warning about the pandemic.

And President Biden is in Texas right now, surveying the damage from last week's winter storm. I will talk with a family who is suing several power companies after their loved one froze to death.



KEILAR: An FDA panel is meeting right now to consider whether Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine candidate should be granted emergency use authorization. And if given the green light, first by the FDA and then later the CDC, the White House says up to 4 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine will be sent out next week.

Dr. Saju Mathew is a primary care physician as well as a public health specialist, and he's with us now.

Dr. Mathew, one vaccine researcher told the FDA panel the Johnson & Johnson vaccine checks nearly all the boxes in the pandemic. Tell us what that means.

SAJU MATHEW, PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN AND PUBLIC HEALTH SPECIALIST: Exciting news, Brianna, one more tool in the toolbox, if you will. Number one, this is a one-dose shot. We all know, a few months into the vaccine distribution, how difficult it is to get two shots into the arms of one person. So this is a one-shot vaccine and you're done.

Number two, it doesn't have to go through the cold-chain supply. Can you imagine rural areas, pharmacies, even primary care physicians like myself can actually store the vaccine in a fridge, in a regular refrigerator, and actually give these vaccines.

So it's actually huge that these two points will help the distribution process more efficiently. And also, everybody who got the J&J vaccine, no one was hospitalized, and no one died. I know we're so used to the 95 percent number with Moderna and Pfizer, but people should not think that this is a second-class vaccine. It's a very good, safe and effective vaccine.

KEILAR: The CDC director is sounding an alarm today, she says the recent decline in cases and hospitalizations that the nation has been experiencing may be over. Let's listen.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: But the latest data suggests that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number. We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory. The most recent seven-day average of cases, approximately 66,350, is higher than the average I shared with you on Wednesday. In fact, cases have been increasing for the past three days compared to the prior week.

Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions. We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants in the most recent data.


KEILAR: All right, that's the question. Are these variants cutting off the progress, cutting off the decline such that we are actually plateauing at such a high level and that we may actually be at risk of a fourth surge?

MATHEW: You know, Brianna, I've been talking to some of my CDC colleagues here in Atlanta, where I did a fellowship. And I think two words basically summarize my feelings this week with the whole COVID situation. Number one, caution; number two, optimism.

Yes, we do need to be cautious about these strains, especially there's a lot of prediction that the U.K. strain will be the predominant strain. We know that it's contagious, we know that it's potentially more lethal.

However, if you look at the downward number of cases, like the daily cases, the hospitalizations, and even the death rate, which is down by seven to nine percent, I think we also have to realize, finally, Brianna, that as Americans, we are following the social mitigation guidelines of masking and consistently trying to socially distance.


But also, let's remember that a good number of Americans already have natural protection from having the infection. That 28 million number that we see of the coronavirus cases is more between 80 to 100 million. so that protection, combined with the ramping up of the vaccines, is giving us some immunity.

So while, yes, there could be a surge in the number of cases in the next few weeks, I'm still optimistic -- and that's that second word (ph) -- I'm optimistic that perhaps we're not going to see the hospitalizations and the death rates, which are two other lagging factors behind cases.

KEILAR: Dr. Mathew, thank you so much. We're at this critical point in this, and we appreciate hearing your voice.

MATHEW: Thank you.

KEILAR: Next, a Texas judge just ruled that a national moratorium on evictions, designed to give people relief during the pandemic, is unconstitutional. My next guest is an attorney who fought to overturn it.