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U.S. Senate Takes Up Biden's $1.9 Trillion Legislation; 15 States Without Mask Mandates Amid Variant Threat; Investigators Examining Contacts Between Rioters and Lawmakers; Italy Blocks Export of Vaccine Doses to Australia; Pope Francis Departs for Baghdad on Historic Trip. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired March 5, 2021 - 04:00   ET



KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to all of you watching us here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber and this is CNN NEWSROOM. Just ahead --


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Senate being equally divided, the Vice President votes in the affirmative.


BRUNHUBER: With that tie breaking vote, Americans came one step closer to another round of pandemic stimulus, but the COVID relief bill's difficult journey really begins later today.

Then, mask mandates dropped while infections are still rampant. Why some states say it's time to end COVID restrictions.

And a new development in the Capitol riot investigation as authorities take a close look at communications between members of Congress and the pro-Trump mob.

U.S. President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill has been taken up by the Senate and debate will begin in the coming hours. The massive measure would provide direct aid and tax credit to struggling Americans and businesses, extend soon to expire unemployment benefits and allocate money for reopening schools and vaccination efforts.

Thursday afternoon Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie to advance the bill. Then clerks began reading the entire 628 page bill aloud. A Republican delay tactic we'll explain in a moment. Senate Democrats hope to get the bill passed this weekend. For more on that, here's Jeff Zeleny.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the Oval Office, President Biden looking ahead to the next big item on his agenda, rebuilding the nation's ailing infrastructure. JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It not only creates jobs, but it makes us a hell a lot more competitive around the world if we have the best infrastructure in the world.

ZELENY: But first, the White House is making one final push to pass the COVID relief bill through the Senate over the objections of Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the Senate and cast a tie-breaking vote to open the debate.

HARRIS: The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative.

ZELENY: The $1.9 trillion package now has more limits on stimulus checks, meaning some Americans who received payments under President Trump will not from the Biden administration. The bill spent 628 legislative pages and is now being read aloud in full.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The American Rescue Act of 2021, section two. Table of contents.

ZELENY (voice-over): A stall tactic demanded by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): All I'm trying to do is make this a more deliberative process, you know, obviously shining the light on this abusive and obscene amount of money that's going to further mortgage our children's future.

ZELENY (voice-over): Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called it obstruction that could take up to ten hours, followed by what is expected to be a long debate.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): We all know this will merely delay the inevitable. It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.

ZELENY (voice-over): The White House has abandoned any hope of winning bipartisan support for the American Rescue Plan, but the president said he has no doubt it has the strong backing of the country.

BIDEN: Each piece isn't just defensible. It is urgent and overwhelmingly supported by the people. It's good policy and it's good politics.

ZELENY (voice-over): The outcome of the Senate debate and what happens when it goes back to the House for a final vote is the biggest test yet for Democratic unity in the Biden era.

ZELENY: And it is that test of party unity on this COVID-19 bill that the White House believes will pave the way to other agenda items like infrastructure. But for now the White House focusing on getting the COVID-19 bill across the finish line. The votes are expected to go into the weekend. Republicans forcing amendments, the White House trying to keep Democrats together.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN, the White House. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BRUNHUBER: Well as Jeff Zeleny mentioned, Republicans haven't made it easy for the Senate to vote on the relief bill. They forced clerks to read the entire document aloud. They say the bill is too big and too expensive to rush through.


JOHNSON: By the way, I feel bad for the clerks who are going to have to read it, but it's just important. You know, so often we rush these massive bills that are hundreds if not thousands of pages long. You don't have time -- nobody has time to read them. And so you start considering something buy that you haven't even read.


So at a minimum somebody ought to read it, and this would give everybody time quite honestly, if the clerks read it, we as well, our staffs will have time to consider what the provisions are, to start crafting amendments.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (r-UT): I think what Senator Johnson is doing -- I should let him speak for himself. But what I see he's doing is making sure we communicate very clearly that the $1.9 trillion plan has good objectives but it's massively misdirected. That a lot of the spending is not going to where it's needed, that it's wasteful, that it's adding debt to our next generations and Senator Johnson wants to make sure people understand that on both sides of the aisle.


BRUNHUBER: But Democrats are slamming the Republican tactics as a political stunt. They say the need for the huge relief measures couldn't be more urgent.


SEN. GARY PETERS, (D-MI): We have unemployment benefits ending in just a few days. People have that certainty. They're worried about putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their head. They want the certainty of knowing that legislation has passed and will extend that through the end of August. We've got small businesses that are looking for funds so they can stay open. We've got FEMA that we're trying to provide additional resources so we can expand the distribution of vaccines. So we can get it in as many arms as quickly as possible. We're in the middle of an health care crisis. We're in middle of an economic crisis. And yet ye're seeing a political stunt on the floor of the Senate that is only delaying the inevitable.


BRUNHUBER: Health officials are sounding the alarm as some American states are lifting mask mandates. But Dr. Anthony Fauci warns against moving too quickly. CNN's Nick Watt has the story.


GOV. KAY IVEY (R-AL): While I'm convinced that a mass mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object and believe that this was a step too far in government overreach.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): So, Alabama's governor says their mask mandate will end April 9, even though her top medical adviser says this --

DR. SCOTT HARRIS, STATE HEALTH OFFICER, ALABAMA: We believe that evidence supports their use and that they prevent disease, and they prevent death.

WATT (voice-over): Right now, no mask mandate in 15 states.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I really just truly see this as sabotage.

DR. PETER HOTEZ, PROFESSOR AND DEAN OF BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: This is not the time to do it, not with the U.K. variant starting to accelerate, which we know is so much more transmissible.

WATT (voice-over): Joining the maskless club next week, Texas.

ERIN ZWIENER, (D) TEXAS STATE HOUSE REPRESENTATIVE: This would be a political decision, not a public health decision.

WATT (voice-over): Where average case counts, and death tolls are already back on the rise.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): Exactly when would be the right time? Would it be when everybody gets the vaccine? Will it be when COVID is completely over? And the answer to those of course is, no.

WATT: Meantime, doctors in Cypress, Texas, say there's nothing more they can do for Victoria Gallardo, a young mom of 5.

ARMANDO GALLARDO, HUSBAND: I sit here and wait for my wife to die. I don't know what to do.

WATT (voice-over): Vaccines are what to do for the country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, I don't like needles.

WATT (voice-over): On average, more than two million doses now going into American arms every day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to tell everybody, do not be afraid.

WATT (voice-over): Some states want to see more of this before thinking about less of this.

GOV. JIM JUSTICE (R-WV): And as we continue to vaccinate more and more and more, we will get rid of the mask. But I don't know really what the big rush to get rid of the mask is, because these masks have saved a lot, a lot of lives. And if we don't watch out, we can make some mistakes. WATT: Now it's not how many people you vaccinate. It's who you vaccinate. So here in California 40 percent of doses are now going to be ear marked for underserved hardest hit communities.

Nick Watt, CNN, Los Angeles.


BRUNHUBER: The U.S. Capitol Police want National Guard troops to stay nearby at the ready for two extra months. The troops were brought in during the deadly Capitol siege on January 6th and were scheduled to leave next week. The Capitol building is still surrounded by fencing and razor wire because the security threat is still high. And federal investigator are now looking at records of communications between members of Congress and the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol. Evan Perez has the details.


EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Federal investigators are examining records of communications between members of Congress and the pro-Trump mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. One of the big questions that the FBI and prosecutors are looking to answer is whether lawmakers wittingly or unwittingly helped the insurrectionists.

The data that been gathered so far includes indications of contacts with lawmakers in the days around January 6th, as well as communications between the alleged rioters discussing their associations with members of Congress. Now the existence of these communications doesn't necessarily indicate wrongdoing by lawmakers.


And so far, there's no indication that investigators are targeting members of Congress in this investigation. In some cases accused rioters have claimed that they provided security to lawmakers who attended events around January 6th.

Now some Democrats have claimed that Republican members of Congress provided tours to people who later ended up participating in the riot. Now new phase of the investigation is in line with what the acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin told us to expect. Investigators are going to move beyond the rioters to people who may have provided money or other help to those who carried out the attack. Prosecutors have charged about 300 people in the January 6th riot.

Evan Perez, CNN, Washington.


BRUNHUBER: Many lawmakers are welcoming those investigations into possible communications with the mob that attacked the Capitol, but at least one Republican Congressman is urging people to let the investigations play out.


REP. PETER MEIJER (R-MI): Absolutely we need to make sure that we're not jumping to conclusions first and foremost. But that following every lead to have a full a picture of what's going on as possible, and what happened in the days leading up to January 6th. What happened on January 6th is essential.

Now this is also the first time I'm hearing about it. Obviously, it would not surprise me that there were some communication. I had a constituent who was joining the rally and gave me a call. It was an innocent call. Told that constituent to stay safe. So there's plenty of very logical, rational reasons as well. So I would just caution against jumping to conclusions, but we need to investigate every angle.


BRUNHUBER: The was Republican Michigan Representative Peter Meijer.

Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Community chairman, Democrat Adam Schiff, says he's concerned that some of his colleagues may have aided the Capitol rioters.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): If there was any kind of communication was it witting or unwitting. It would be obviously deeply, deeply disturbing if some of the people I serve with were giving aid and comfort to people who were planning to attack the Capitol or assisting them in some way or as some have alleged were given tours to potential insurrectionists.

It may be that some of these communications in terms of the members were unwitting, but we need to get answers. You know, both to protect the existing members of Congress, but also to hold anyone accountable who may have played an affirmative role in that attack.


BRUNHUBER: The man seen wearing face paint and horns during the Capitol riots, is making a new legal argument. He claims he wasn't acting violently. He was, quote, bringing positivity. The filing for Jacob Chansley -- also known as the "QAnon Shaman," is portraying the siege as a joyful celebration in which Chansley delivered a prayer. Now that's despite prosecutors claiming he left a threatening note to Mike Pence saying justice is coming. Five people died because of the siege. Which the head of the FBI calls domestic terrorism. Chansley insists he wasn't attacking the U.S.


JACOB CHANSLEY, CHARGED IN CAPITOL ATTACK: And my actions were not an attack on this country. That is incorrect. My actions on January 6th, how I describe them. Well I sang a song and that's a part of shamanism. It's about creating positive vibrations in a sacred chamber. I regret entering that building. I regret entering that building with every fiber of my being.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE. CBS, 60 MINUTES: But you don't regret the loyalty to Donald Trump?



BRUNHUBER: Chansley of course is enjoying an all organic diet after arguing he can't eat typical jail food because of his spiritual beliefs.

All right, up next on CNN NEWSROOM. Coronavirus numbers are heading the wrong way across much of Europe. We'll explain where the spike is the worst and why Italy says it's holding on to a quarter million vaccines.

Plus --

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Their intention was evil. It was to kill, he says. They considered everyone in the church an infidel deserving death.


BRUNHUBER: Christians in Iraq remember their violent persecution at the hands of the Islamic state because of their faith. As Pope Francis makes his way to heal their wounded church, we'll go to Baghdad coming up. Stay with us.



BRUNHUBER: Well, despite a year of lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions across Europe, the case numbers once again are heading in the wrong direction. So in this map here in all of those countries in orange, new infections are up at least 10 percent compared to last week. In the red countries new cases are up at least 50 percent. And on Thursday, the World Health Organization warned of a COVID resurgence in Central and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Italy is sticking its move to block the export of a quarter million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia. The foreign ministry says there are ongoing vaccine shortages in both Italy and the European Union. Now no comment so far from AstraZeneca, but Australia says it has enough of that vaccine for now.

So for more on all this, let's go to Paris now and CNN's Melissa Bell. Melissa, so Italy blocked vaccine shipments. France I just read, now says it might do the same in the future. What's going on here? Why is this happening?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well it is the first time, of course, Kim, that a European country has used the export ban mechanism that was introduced amid that row with AstraZeneca back in January. 174 applications had been made to export vaccines from the EU. They had been approved. This was the first time one that one was not.

So 250,000 vaccines that will not be leaving. The French saying, as you say, that they could follow suit. And it is really a measure of how badly Europe needs this vaccine. First of all, because we've just heard Denmark's become the latest European country to change its advice with regard to the delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over the age of 65. Following in the wake of Germany, France, Italy all changing their advice as well.


And what we've seen these last few weeks, is the supply shortages really down to the fact that not only were there delays in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, but because that AstraZeneca vaccine could not be delivered to those priority populations, older people, people in nursing homes, the people most at risk. Well those vaccination campaigns have essentially slowed or in some parts ground to a halt.

So a lot of need for the AstraZeneca vaccines to be able to be kept in Europe. A whole bunch of them were bought and now that they can be delivered to younger people, it's crucial that they are.

One other point, Kim, and the reason there is such pressure in European countries with regard to this, is that the EU is essentially splintering over this. We've seen Denmark and Austria announce that they're now working with Israel, a future vaccine procurement. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia all now looking at the Chinese and Russian vaccines that have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency yet. And so it is important that Europe ensures that what vaccines it has managed to secure, it managed to accept -- approve rather -- and that includes the AstraZeneca vaccines are kept within European countries.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, and then the need there because, you know, some countries cases going down more slowly than before or going up -- as we mentioned. So how worried should we be about this?

BELL: Well we've heard from the World Health Organization that has said that after seeing drops in the number of new cases in Europe for the last six weeks, that has now changed. And of course, what's really changed the game here, Kim, are the appearance of the new variants. So the U.K. variant that now represents 40 percent of all new cases in Germany, similar both here in France. The South African variant for instance, and Brazilian variant now represent 6 percent of new cases in France.

And what you've seen as those variants have made their very fast progress throughout the European Union, is that some parts have seen hospitalizations rise and ICUs once again become overburdened. Hence, Austria decision earlier this week, to announce a fresh full lockdown there. We've also seen France extending those parts of the country where the weekend lockdowns are now in place. And really is down to those new variants. So worrying trends in here Europe even as the EU really struggles to get its vaccination campaign up and going and moving along as quickly as it needs to. BRUNHUBER: Yes, and a warning for us here in the U.S. as so many

states, you know, reopening now and getting rid of their COVID restrictions. Thanks so much Melissa Bell for us in Paris. Appreciate it.

Pope Francis is flying to Iraq at this hour for the first ever papal visit to the country. The four-day trip will take in the capital, Baghdad, as well as Mosul, which was under ISIS occupation. Iraq's foreign ministry calls the visit a historic event which shows support for all Iraqis.

And Ben Wedeman is in Baghdad with more on this historic day. Ben, the Pope is meant to land in the next couple of hours there. With so many challenges ahead, how are the preparations coming?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well the preparations, Kim, have been quite intense over the last few weeks. We've seen roads being paved, lights being repaired, flags and posters going up to welcome the Pope. Now he is due to arrive by my estimation in about an hour and 20 minutes. Once he is finished with official meeting and greeting with the president and the Prime Minister, he will go to a church here in Baghdad where the memories of nightmares past are still vivid.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): The image of Pope Francis graces the blast walls protecting Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church. The messages of brotherhood, a facade perhaps, to the bitter memory of the worst ever massacre of Christians in Baghdad.

WEDEMAN: Each one of these red squares represents the spot where somebody died. In October 2010, a total of 58 people were killed in the attack.

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Terrorists from the Islamic state in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, burst into the church during evening mass. Deacon Louis Climis was inside and recalls the attackers made their purpose clear.

Their intention was evil. It was to kill he says they considered everyone in the church and infidel deserving of death.

CNN's Arwa Damon reported from the church in the immediate aftermath.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When the attackers stormed, and half of the congregation came back here into this room trying to keep themselves safe. They had barricaded the door, but the attackers were throwing grenades in.

There's blood on the walls here. People have been leaving candles throughout the evening. Here we were told the residue of one of the grenades exploded and all over the ceilings and the walls just splattered, splattered with blood.

[04:25:00] WEDEMAN (voice over): Deacon Climis shows us exactly where he was cowering on the floor with his son and dozens of others taking cover during the attack. Shrapnel ripped into his head. We stayed here for four hours in terror and fear he recalls. We had surrendered to fate and put our lives in the hands of the Virgin Mary.

Grainy amateur video shows the panic and trauma moments after Iraqi anti-terrorism troops stormed the church. The massacre was the final straw for many of Baghdad's Christians.

Since the attack almost everyone is left says Natiq Anwar, a survivor, before mass was held three times in the morning and twice in the evening. Now, there's just one mass a day.

The specter of terror has receded for now, yet corruption, political paralysis, chaos and perceived discrimination have left the Christian community desperate for help.

We need someone to stand with us as Deacon Climis because we live in a jungle, a jungle controlled by political monsters, a jungle in need of saints.


WEDEMAN (on camera): And to put this visit in perspective, keep in mind that back in 2014 ISIS was on the very outskirts of Baghdad. At its height, the terrorist group controlled about a third of the country. And today in just a little while Pope Francis will be landing here -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Wow. A harrowing story you told there, but great reporting. Thanks so much. CNN's Ben Wedeman in Baghdad.

All right, still ahead, a small piece of fabric at the center of so much political debate. We head to Texas where a decision about the masks is causing ongoing controversy.

Plus, Britain's Prince Philip is still in the hospital after a procedure for a heart condition. We'll have a live report from London just ahead. Stay with us.