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Senate Gears Up for Marathon Effort in Push for COVID Relief; Interview with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Narrow Income Eligibility for Stimulus Checks; House Passes Sweeping Voting Rights Bill Over GOP Opposition; Texas Governor Stalled Federal Aid to Test migrants for COVID; Inspector General Report Says Elaine Chao Used Office to Help Family; Meghan Accuses Royal Family of Perpetuating Falsehoods. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired March 4, 2021 - 15:30   ET



MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When that is done at that point, they will open up to 20 hours of debate over the bill on the floor.

But that is only the beginning of the process. After that is a process in the Senate called "vote-a-rama" which means that any Senator can offer as many amendments as he or she would like. And that can go on for quite some time.

One Senator, for instance, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama just told me he wants to offer 23 amendments himself. Each amendment vote takes up to about 30 minutes to vote on. And that process if Senators -- Republicans in particular -- plan to continue to offer amendment after amendment after amendment, it could go on for quite some time.

Now why this is allowed under the rules is because Democrats are trying to move this through a process called "budget reconciliation" which allows them to approve the $1.9 trillion relief plan without Republican support. Because it cannot be filibustered in the Senate. Meaning you pass by just 51 votes rather than advancing with 60 votes. But if you're going to use that process, you have to deal with the free-flowing amendment rules on the Senate floor.

So that's why they are stepping into a daunting series of days in which Republicans are lining up a series of amendments. The big question for the Democrats is can they stick together, can they fend off Republican amendments that could change elements of the bill, core elements of the bill? And if it does change any elements of the bill, how will that upset the delicate balance between moderates and progressive Democrats who are trying to stick together to get this bill onto Joe Biden's desk by mid-March?

So a lot of key questions, Bianna. Because even Republicans say this bill is not unwieldy, not targeted, too expensive. Polls do show that a majority of Americans do support it because it provides money relief to Americans, up to $1,400 in checks under a certain income threshold. Money for small businesses and schools, vaccines in states and cities.

So a lot is riding on the line here, not to mention millions of people who are waiting to see if their jobless benefits can be extended at least through late August.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Yes, some safety nets policies are set to expire in just a couple of weeks. Manu Raju, thank you.

Well let's talk to a Democrat. Joining me for more on the bill is Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell. Congressman, great to see you.

So as we heard from Manu Raju, some of your more Democratic colleagues got their wish, a narrow income eligibility for the next round of stimulus checks. Do you support these changes, or is this a broken promise to Americans?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): No, I support President Biden's, you know, call for unity and to compromise where it's in the better interest of everyone. And so it's not what I wanted, it's not what we had voted on in the House, but if it gets, you know, a single penny more to someone who needs it, we should do it.

GOLODRYGA: Your Republican colleagues are hoping to slow down the process as much as possible, as we heard, to the intro to this segment, reading on the floor there from Senator Ron Johnson pledging to force Senate clerks to read the entire bill out loud before any vote can commence. This could take up to ten hours.

This bill has massive support amongst Americans from both parties. And yet we're seeing this obstructionist behavior on the right. Do you have a problem with Americans seeing everything that's in this bill? I know it's time-consuming but maybe it's worthwhile for them to hear it.

SWALWELL: Americans should see the bill. That's why it's posted online. But to hold up the process on the floor and to have a clerk read the bill for ten hours when anyone could read it online, that's just a stunt. And Ron Johnson should go to a food bank and see how long the lines are.

Go to an unemployment office and hear about the need or talk to people who are struggling to pay rent. And every hour that stunts like this are pulled off is an hour that a hungry person is not fed, and an unemployed person is not at work. And someone in need of a vaccination like a teacher doesn't get it.

GOLODRYGA: And again maybe he's not seeing the polls where this is popular amongst both parties. What we're not seeing in this bill is an increased minimum wage, which is also popular amongst Americans, both Democratic and Republicans. They need it, many argue. A second stand- alone bill is being questioned now whether that will hold. Do you support that, and how quickly could that get done?

SWALWELL: I do, Bianna, because it's also needed. And I recognize the need to compromise and to get this aid out as quickly as possible. But, yes, a $15 minimum wage, I would like to see a massive infrastructure bill so that we go from relief to recovery.

I'd like to see paid leave for all finally in this country. All things that we can do to help families who have really suffered through this pandemic. When I look at Republicans not only defying and delaying popular policies. They don't seem to be a party anymore. They seem to be a cult that worships Donald Trump, and they don't seem to have policies anymore that they stand on. They seem to only have grievances.

And we're going to just keep uniting Republicans and Democrats across America even if the Republicans in Congress don't want to work with us.


GOLODRYGA: Let me ask you how you do that. Because the House just approved the HR-1 bill that directly counters state-level Republican efforts to restrict voting access. But Republican state legislatures are already passing these laws. So how do you prevent states from creating voter legislation based on a big election lie?

SWALWELL: We need a popular voting rights act signed into law. And you alluded to the popularity of the COVID package, the voting rights act that we passed yesterday in the honor of John Lewis has also over 70 percent support. It would also get rid of dirty money and dirty politics -- I'm sorry, dirty money and dirty maps that are gerrymandered. It's widely popular because it's seen as anti- corruption and, you know, pro-transparency.

I think if we cannot get 60 votes in the Senate, they should break the filibuster for this. Because if they do not, you're going to see states like Arizona and Georgia learn the wrong lesson from 2020, the most secure election ever. And they're just going to make sure that they never have to certify an election where a Democrat wins again.

GOLODRYGA: But, as you know, the president at this point at least does not support getting rid of the filibuster. So how realistic would that be?

SWALWELL: And I understand that position. I think he wants to give Republicans every chance to be reasonable. He ran on that. He won on that, and he should govern on that.

But if they continue to prove themselves as unworkable and obstructionist, I do believe that we should consider, it's a Senate decision but they should consider the consequences of not, you know, breaking the filibuster to pass voting rights.

GOLODRYGA: Well, Congressman, look, a lot of Americans are suffering. I don't have to tell you, 745,000 just filed for unemployment benefits this week alone. Americans are suffering, and I think they'd like to see some unity in Congress, at least on this one big issue. Thank you. We appreciate your time.

SWALWELL: Agreed. Thank you, Bianna. GOLODRYGA: Well, a developing story to bring you out of Texas where

Governor Abbott has just opened the state back up, no masks required. CNN now learning that the governor is stalling a federal offer to test migrant workers for COVID. Why would he do that even as he blames them for spreading the virus? We'll have more, coming up.



GOLODRYGA: First, he stalled efforts made by the Biden administration that were aimed at funding COVID tests for migrants. And now Texas Republican Governor Abbott is blaming those very migrants for coming into the state and exposing residents to the virus.

CNN immigration reporter Priscilla Alvarez is on the story. Priscilla, this seems to be a game of politics and not making sure that his state becomes as healthy as possible.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN IMMIGRATION REPORTER: So the Department of Homeland Security here is offering federal funds for cities and counties along the border to test migrants released from custody. But moments ago the Texas governor telling us in a statement that it is the federal responsibility.

So he is saying here border security is strictly a federal responsibility, the federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen, and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID.

So, again, the governor here accusing migrants that are released from federal custody for spreading COVID. But not seemingly uninterested in the federal funds to help with the effort to mitigate that.

Now, we should remind our viewers that the Biden administration is still turning away the vast majority of migrants that are encountered at the border, and only a few families are being released into the country.

GOLODRYGA: Priscilla Alvarez, I think a lot of people will hear this story and say it doesn't make much sense, but I know you'll continue to follow it for us. Thank you so much.

Well, did former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao use her office and her staff for personal benefit to help family members? Those are some of the allegations in a new released report from the Transportation Department.

We're also learning the department's Inspector General asked for a criminal investigation into the former Trump cabinet secretary last December over ethics concerns. It's also worth noting that Chao is the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

CNN's Kristen Holmes has the latest on this bombshell. Kristen, what are some of the specific claims here? KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bianna, the

inspector general concluded in this report that Ms. Chao had allegedly misused her staff for, quote, what appeared to be tasks of a personal nature.

So, what exactly does that mean? Well, here is just some of the allegations. Having her staff reach out to the Department of Homeland Security about a work permit of a student recipient of her family's charity. Also planning to include her family on a work trip to China, which was ultimately canceled. Tasking her staff with editing her father's Wikipedia page, and sending a copy of her father's book to a, quote, well-known CEO of a major U.S. corporation.

And, again, these are just some of the allegations. Now it is important to note that investigators did not make any formal findings that Chao had actually violated ethics rules. But as you say they did request the Department of Justice open up a criminal investigation, which the Department of Justice declined doing.

So, because of that, here is what the spokesperson for Ms. Chao said.

This report exonerates the Secretary from baseless accusations and closes the book on an election-year effort to impugn her history- making career as the first Asian-American woman appointed to a president's cabinet and her outstanding record as the longest tenured cabinet member since World War II.

So saying that essentially all of these allegations make it so that it shows that she is exonerated.


Now I do want to also mention, you said that she is in fact the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell's office is not commenting on this report -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Kristen Holmes, I know you'll continue to follow this story as well for us. Thank you so much.

Well, explosive allegations from Prince Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah. Why Meghan's accusing the Royal family of, quote, perpetrating falsehoods.


GOLODRYGA: Meghan Markle is once again trading barbs with the Royal family. Ahead of her and Prince Harry's interview with Oprah Winfrey airing this weekend.


Buckingham Palace now says that it is investigating a bullying complaint lodged by staffers against the Duchess of Sussex. The couple sat down with Winfrey well before that announcement with Meghan accusing the palace of perpetuating falsehoods. CNN'S royal correspondent Max Foster joins us from Hampshire, England

now. And Max, this is getting really ugly, this back and forth just escalating. Where does the tension go from here?

MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a big question, but I think effectively what Meghan did with that 25-second clip today was really say the gloves are off.

I mean she has spoken about in the past with the tabloid pressure, she felt the lies that were perpetuated in the media. She's talked about how the palace stood by and allowed that to happen. Now she's effectively saying they worked against her.

She is now free to say and do as she please. She's not a senior royal, they don't have those restrictions anymore. And the palace aren't responding.

That is their policy on these sorts of matters, but I think like everyone else, they're probable just waiting to see how all of this all plays out on Sunday.

What was the context of the comment that Meghan made? They're also investigating these bullying claims which did actually come out of all of this. There were sources behind palace walls who felt they had to have their say that the palace was being too silent.

So it's a real mess. I think there is rivalry and it's broken out into the public and this sort of stuff, Bianna, normally stays behind palace walls, but not anymore.

GOLODRYGA: Of course, and one has to question the timing of this revelation of an investigation by Buckingham Palace into this alleged bullying. And because on the other hand, there's been no at least public investigation that we know of, of Prince Andrew who was wrapped up in the Epstein scandal. We know he stepped back from his royal duties, but, Max, why would the Palace be investigating her and not him? One could argue those one knows. I mean it's not even an argument, those charges and those allegations are much more serious.

FOSTER: Well, you're right to bring it up. It's a huge debate online, on social media and people are asking exactly that question. I mean, I'm not here to speak for the palace but I think what they would say in this situation is that Prince Andrew was sanctioned. He had his senior role effectively stripped from him. He was taken out of public life. Whereas Harry and Meghan chose to leave that position because they wanted something different.

Also, there aren't proven allegations against Prince Andrew. They're two separate debates. but of course, it's a huge debate online and the allegations against Prince Andrew are much more serious. But I think the palace and the Queen feels he has been sanctioned pretty severely and the rest of it in terms of the Sussexes was their own choice.

GOLODRYGA: And like you said, the palace tends to do these things behind closed doors, right? And not for the public to see. We also know that police say there will be no criminal investigation into a BBC journalist over his infamous interview with Princess Diana in 1995. What can you tell us about that announcement? How significant is it?

FOSTER: Well, I think this is a very significant investigation not just for the interview and Diana's legacy, but also for the BBC. Because the fundamental accusation here is that Martin Bashir who did this interview for the BBC at the time used falsified documents, fake documents to convince Diana to do the interview.

And as part of that there was a narrative that there were people in the palace that were out to get her, were spying on her and that made her paranoid and made her want to do the interview.

So it was an interview capitalizing on a vulnerable woman effectively, that's the accusation against Martin Bashir. Now the BBC is investigating that and that continues now. It will be an ethical investigation.

There might be something that comes out of that which the police will want to investigate, but so far, the police say there isn't anything in this for them to investigate. So far, it's not a criminal investigation. I do think it's an ethical investigation. I think this is something that will blow up this year possibly when the BBC inquiry which is independent, led by a former judge, when that takes place later on this year.

GOLODRYGA: And we do know that Princes Harry and William have been very outspoken about how traumatized her death was and her relationship with the media impacts their present-day relationship with the media, as well.

This is catnip for so many people but obviously this is a family, even if it's a royal one and all we can say is we wish both sides well. Max Foster, you are not a royals correspondent -- you're not a spokesperson for the royal family, but you are a royal correspondent. We appreciate your insight for that. Thank you so much.

And breaking the news coverage continues as the Senate begins the long process of reading the 600-page COVID relief bill out loud. What that means for the timeline of getting checks out to struggling Americans. That's coming up



GOLODRYGA: Markets are falling for a third day in a row on renewed fears of inflation. Fed Chair Jerome Powell saying a short time ago that the U.S. might see a temporary bump in inflation while the economy reopens. That accompanied more sobering job numbers out this morning about a year into the COVID economy.

The Labor Department reporting that another 745,000 Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week. Overall, roughly 10 million jobs lost since the pandemic began have yet to be filled.

And that's it for me at this hour. THE LEAD with Jake Tapper starts right now.