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Texas Governor Lifting Statewide Mask Mandate Wednesday; Some States Lifting Restrictions Despite Experts' Warnings; By 50-49 Vote, Senate Passes Biden's $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Plan; Senator Tina Smith Is Interviewed About The $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill By President Biden; FL Governor Faces Growing Claims Of Vaccine Favoritism. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired March 6, 2021 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:00]

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: CNN's Manu Raju is following the developments from Capitol Hill. So Manu where do things stand?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the end is near. We do expect a final vote to happen potentially as soon as this hour after this marathon series of amendment votes that have lasted now 13 hours straight.

Members have not slept, they've been on the floor, they are exhausted, and they're ready to go home. They're bleary eyed. They're staring into space. They're looking at their phones in their iPads. I just was in the chamber watching them as many are just ready for this to end.

And the significant vote being the final passage $1.9 trillion of economic relief to try to deal with this pandemic. Republicans overwhelmingly, potentially, almost all are going to expect to vote against this. One Republican Senator to watch Lisa Murkowski we'll see if she breaks ranks, but we do expect all Democrats to support it.

And that is all that is needed for final passage, just 50 Democratic seats in the Senate right now. All of them they vote yes, this will move ahead as where we expect right now. So at the moment, they're trying to figure out some final procedural steps as they get into the final process.

Now they've been in session so long Fred that the new calendar day of the Senate is about to begin that happens at 12 noon every day. So, one - a matter of right now you're seeing the Senate Chaplain actually reading a prayer to the Senate that happens at the beginning of every calendar day. And then there's they're saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

And then after that, they're going to move on to the final series of votes. One, a technical amendment offered by Chuck Schumer then followed by the vote on the Democratic onset, the Senate Democrats relief package, and then after that, that vote will be the final packet.

So probably three votes remaining here but they as I mentioned, these members have not slept at all this has been a marathon session, as they're trying to push this through the chamber. And if they do get this through, assuming they do, then it will be back to the House for final passage.

And the goal of Democrats all along has to get this bill done before a key March 14th deadline. That's when millions of jobless benefits are set to expire under this bill a deal that was reached that actually held up the Senate for 12 hours, where they did virtually nothing but be negotiated behind closed doors and horse trading with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

That deal would extend jobless benefits for $300 a week for individuals through August up until September 6th. It would ensure that the first $10,200 of jobless benefits could be deducted--

WHITFIELD: Manu - for a moment because a Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is talking right now let's listen in. But we did hear from Schumer if he resumes. All right, well, we missed the comments there from Chuck Schumer. We'll try to rewrite that and listen in as Patrick Leahy is talking now so Manu, back to you.

So, there may be some amendments included. But one has to wonder if the White House would be pleased with that.

RAJU: Yes, they will be because this is - the amendments of the Democrats have agreed to have been modest changes to the underlying bill, one of which was agreed to just moments ago to redirect funding to education money to homeless children that was actually Lisa Murkowski, that Alaska Republican swing vote who offer that amendment.

So measures like that that have had bipartisan support have generally been adopted, the ones that have other changes that have been made have been done with the blessing of the White House in the Senate Democratic leadership. So the core tenants of the Democratic bill have not been changed despite Republican efforts try to gut and change the content here.

So that's why Democrats are confident that this will get done. Chuck Schumer making remarks there probably saying that they are on the path to getting this finally completed here within the next hours, they finish the last couple of votes, and then get into final passage.

But this could be a huge victory for Joe Biden that Republicans will say that he did not reach across the aisle and work with them to try to get this through. But nevertheless, $1.9 trillion and relief, a massive relief package, one of the biggest in American history could be closer to getting to the president's desk.

WHITFIELD: All right, Manu Raju, thanks so much on Capitol Hill. We'll check back with you. All right, so Manu says, you know, perhaps the White House will be happy core tenants virtually unchanged? Let's find out what kind of reception might be coming from the White House?

Our Joe John's is there. This piece of legislation has been number one priority. It allows the president if indeed passed to say, you know he has fulfilled his number one promise while on the campaign trail of bringing some relief immediately to the American people.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And that is why we are very much hoping to hear from the president presuming this bill passes the Senate even though in fact, we'll have to go back to the House of Representatives for a few more tweaks.

And we'd like to hear from the president sometime this afternoon. Just to hear his thoughts and his first big legislative initiative moving through now both Houses of the United States Congress. We do know that the president has been involved over the last 24 hours particularly with that delay involving Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

[12:05:00]

JOHNS: And the 10, 12 hours of conversations apparently that went on. Apparently, the president talked to Manchin during that period. Not clear at all, exactly what they talked about. We also got a statement that came out last night from Jen Psaki, the Press Secretary, essentially the president saying he agreed with that compromise that was struck last evening on unemployment benefits.

Also saying it extends supplemental employment benefits into September and helps the vast majority of unemployment insurance recipients avoid unanticipated tax bills and keeping their eye on the ball here.

Most importantly, this agreement allows us to move forward the statement says on the urgently needed American rescue plan with $1400 relief checks to finish the vaccine rollout open schools and help those suffering from the pandemic.

So one of the things that I think we also have to point out just sort of the micro politics of all this, the president has had apparently repeated conversations, a series of telephone conversations with Senator Joe Manchin as well as Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another moderate Democrat, because as you know, Fred, this is a 50/50 Senate and anyone Democrat can hold up Joe Biden's initiatives and priorities up on Capitol Hill, back to you.

WHITFIELD: Alright, Joe Jones. We'll check back with you. Thank you so much. And we'll continue to keep an eye on the U.S. Senate there. All right, so with a third vaccine - COVID vaccine now available, some Governors are loosening COVID restrictions.

Soon 17 states will have no statewide mask mandates despite all the data suggesting masks are key in keeping people safe and getting through what remains of this pandemic. Evan McMorris-Santoro joining us live now from New York. So, Evan, this is a familiar, you know, story, right now and how public health meets politics, where are things?

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. It was only a few months ago during that second surge of the pandemic. And I felt like the whole country had finally come together and had one single message on this virus. But now we're seeing it that's all falling apart again. And it's just state by state once again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): The COVID-19 pandemic is still all around us, and still deadly. But this weekend, the question someone American may be asking is, is the danger gone? In Texas, businesses are reopening at full capacity, no more state mandate.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): Just like you can set the standard for anybody coming into your home. A business owner can set the standard for anybody coming into their business. It's just like no shoes, no shirt, no service, and they can set whatever standard they want to set for anybody who comes in into the business. And that is their right.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Some business owners are nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What he's telling us is he has put the burden on the business now.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Governor Tate Reeves also lifting mask mandates in Mississippi, citing improved numbers while blasting continued government overreach. But Governor Jim Justice reiterates his current mask mandate in West Virginia, even as businesses return to 100 percent capacity today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we continue to vaccinate more and more and more, we'll get rid of the mask. But I don't know really what the big rush and if we don't watch out, we can make some mistakes.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Arizona a COVID-19 hotspot last summer has experienced success with mitigation efforts. On Friday, Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order reopening all businesses at full capacity but keeping mask rules in place. Other states are also loosening restrictions.

On Friday, Michigan increased indoor dining capacity, while Connecticut began rolling back apps on retail and restaurant numbers. And while nationwide numbers of new cases are down public health officials warning that moving too fast to reopen could be dangerous.

A new CDC study shows mask mandates and restricting indoor dining could reduce COVID-19 cases and deaths.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: I would advocate for policies certainly while we're at the spot to have a high number of cases that would listen to that public health science.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): And Dr. Anthony Fauci telling CNN, the daily new case number still regularly over 60,000 needs to come down a lot more before states move to fully reopen.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I would say less than 10,000 and maybe even considerably less than that. We're now up to about 2 million of vaccinations per day. That means every day that goes by every week that goes by you have more and more people protected.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCMORRIS-SANTORO: So, Fred, public health officials are going to monitor very closely these changes in these states to see if numbers go back up. But obviously what we're dealing with here is politics is once again entered this conversation, and we're back to a place where depending on where you live; it depends on how closely your state is keeping an eye on this pandemic, Fred.

[12:10:00]

WHITFIELD: Indeed. All right, Evan McMorris-Santoro. Thank you so much. Let's talk more about all this Dr. Richina Bicette she's the Medical Director of at Baylor College of Medicine. And she's joining us now from Houston, good to see a doctor.

DR. RICHINA BICETTE, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Thank you Fred.

WHITFIELD: So, come Wednesday, your state will no longer have a mask mandate. How concerned are you about that?

DR. BICETTE: Extremely concerned. I'm actually petrified, you know, I don't know what the numbers are going to do once the mask mandate is lifted and once businesses are allowed to open at 100 percent. But I do know what the numbers look like with that mandate in place.

And I will tell you that with massive mandates in place, and with businesses under restrictions, Texas still ranks in the top three in terms of daily new cases. We rank in the top three, in terms of total number of deaths, and we're at the bottom of the country in terms of vaccinations being given per capita, and this is with mitigation strategies in place. So, I'm so fearful to see what things look like without those strategies.

WHITFIELD: So Governor Abbott, you know, has said, you know, by removing the mask mandate that it really is a decision left up to businesses, and based on all those numbers that you, you know, just spout it off? Do you feel like businesses and patrons will largely adhere to wearing masks? Or do you feel that they'll be just tossing away?

DR. BICETTTE: I really don't think that businesses and patrons are just all going to decide to wear masks, because those are numbers that I know. Those are numbers that people in the medical community, people who study data, people who study epidemiology know, but those who are in the community may not know exactly what the data is, and they're looking to our leaders for direction.

You know, it's the mixed messaging that's been kind of shooting us in the foot since the beginning of the pandemic. Because if the leaders in this country really thought that mask mandates and keeping businesses at certain levels were important, then we wouldn't be lifting those restrictions.

WHITFIELD: So, what's the data that you want people to hear? Because, gosh, it doesn't seem like it was even a month ago, when we were being encouraged to wear two masks. And now, it means abandoning it altogether, that much progress has been made?

DR. BICETTE: Well, we still need to wear two masks. I think what people are hearing is that cases are going down and hospitalizations are going down. And we're starting to celebrate. But we're starting to celebrate a little bit too early; you have to take those decreasing numbers into context.

In December, and in January, we saw spikes that we have not seen since the beginning of the pandemic. So yes, numbers are decreasing, but they're decreasing from record highs, where we are right now, or we're still showing high levels of disease in the community. And our current numbers are about where we were in July and August when we were so fearful of that second wave.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dr. Richina Bicette, good to see you thank you so much and be safe.

DR. BICETTE: Have a good afternoon, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, back to Capitol Hill. We understand that they are really close. Let's listen in to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): --colleagues, strongly recommend a no vote.

WHITFIELD: All right, you heard the tail end of Mitch McConnell there saying he's recommending a no vote. We expect that somewhere within this hour a vote will come in the U.S. Senate on the bill that had already passed the House $1.9 trillion American relief bill. We'll continue to watch. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:15:00]

WHITFIELD: All right. Right now, you're looking at live pictures on Capitol Hill where Senators are voting on that $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Listen right now for the yeas and nays.

All right. You hear the yeas and nays based on party lines and we just heard Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially telling his GOP Caucus, you know he recommends a no vote and so far, it appears Republicans are following suit.

But again, what they need is a 50 - Democrats need 50 votes. They feel like they might have them. Manu Raju knows better than I. Manu is joining us right now on Capitol Hill. At the same time, we believe that probably the White House is bracing for a first legislative victory in the administration right. Manu?

RAJU: Yes, this is going to be one huge step towards achieving a central pillar of the new president's domestic agenda. This bill is going to pass and it's going to pass by on a straight party line vote. We expect the vote to be 50/49. Two key votes who just announced their votes Joe Manchin, of course, he had been a subject of intense speculation, scrutiny and negotiation behind the scenes yesterday. He voted yes, he's a Democrat from West Virginia. He was likely to vote yes after he secured his deal yesterday on jobless benefits.

But Lisa Murkowski the Alaska Republican Senator, she had not said how she might come down. She just said she is voting no against the bill. She was really the only potential Republican swing vote here. But regardless, Democrats have used a process in which they can advance this bill by a simple majority votes.

[12:20:00]

RAJU: That means all 50 Democrats they stick together. They're going to get this bill through, and it appears all 50 Democrats, in fact, will stick together, which means why the Joe Biden will be one step closer to getting this $1.9 trillion package.

A massive rescue package out of the United States Senate after an arduous day of votes, arm twisting negotiation, they've managed to keep their caucus between progressives and moderates together to get this out of the Senate, then the final passage vote expected in the House in a matter of days.

Nancy Pelosi there will have to ensure she can limit the defections to no more than a couple of maybe four members. So, the expectation that she will be able to do that limit, those defections get this to Joe Biden's desk. But we're not seeing any Republican support in either the House or here in the Senate, as Democrats push through Joe Biden's key domestic achievement here.

WHITFIELD: And we were reminded last week, we heard from the president who said he wanted it on his desk by March 14th and time for, you know, to supersede that deadline of the unemployment benefits. You just mentioned, this was a simple majority vote 50 needed. There was no need for the vice president to step in here and be a tiebreaker.

RAJU: Yes, because Dan Sullivan, who's an Alaska Republican, he had to leave because of a death in the family he left yesterday. So as a result, Republicans are down one member, the Senate can pass legislation on a 50/49 vote. So that's exactly what's going to happen here.

If ordinarily we had expected this to be most likely a 50/50 vote. Kamala Harris, as the Vice President, President of the Senate would come in and vote to break that tie unneeded here, given Sullivan's absence. So regardless, either way, this is a straight party line vote are all Democrats siding together on this bill, overwhelmingly popular in the polls.

But Republicans believe that they'll argue against this, they'll take it to voters saying it was unnecessary, unneeded, wasteful spending at a time when the economy is showing signs of coming back to life, Democrats are making the opposite bet and blue voters will reward them for an aggressive intervention into the economy after so much else was done last year and a number of other rescue packages.

But those were passed on a bipartisan support much different this time straight party line vote coming out of the Senate, we expect a 50/49 vote and eventually getting on to Joe Biden's desk almost certainly next week Fred.

WHITFIELD: And not popular among Republicans who are voting today. But polling has showed that this relief bill is very popular. It does have bipartisan support when you look at the American electorate, but you don't see it demonstrated legislatively with bipartisan support.

RAJU: Yes. And that's exactly the message that Joe Biden actually has given to his fellow Democrats. I've told behind the scenes behind closed doors, he and I during a Senate lunch this week. He told them during a virtual meeting, he said, look the halls of Congress, this is not bipartisan, but out in the country it is.

And that message really resonated with a lot of Democrats. They believe that ultimately, come 2022 when they have to go back to their voters, ask them to be reelected ask them to hold on to both chambers of Congress that they'll be rewarded for acting and helping turn the economy around.

But the concern too, will be implementing this. $1.9 trillion is not easy to be spent. It's going to require a lot of rigorous oversight and methodical spending. And it takes a long time to get that kind of money into the U.S. economy too.

So, there are risks behind a package of this size and magnitude. But Democrats are arguing it is worth it and their party is united, and they believe that this is needed now Fred.

WHITFIELD: In that package $1400 checks for cash strapped families, help for paying for childcare, assisting local government and financial need and of course going to work costs of Coronavirus vaccine distribution. Manu Raju thank you so much. Keep us posted, I appreciate it. Again, the vote underway right now - oh, let's listen to the Patrick Leahy.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): Bill as amended is passed.

WHITFIELD: All right. What timing? All right, so amended package there passed. Manu Raju, now, it will be making its way back to the House before eventually making its way back to the White House for a signature.

RAJU: Yes. And you see that number on the screen important 50/49 that is straight party line. All Democrats voted yes. All Republicans voted no. And you saw the round of applause. That's usually does not happen in the Senate. In the Senate you're actually not supposed to show expressions of support in the Senate.

But Republican - Democrats are relieved because this has been an arduous undertaking behind the scenes for weeks Fred they had been trying to get their caucus in line negotiate with the House Democrats tried to make sure to sort out all the differences tried to put in sweeteners to win over seem key democratic holdouts.

And then they were surprised when they couldn't get Joe Manchin on board yesterday, which led to that 12 hours of keeping one vote open, the longest ever that has happened in American history for - in modern history for a Senate vote to be open that long.

[12:25:00]

RAJU: But that was needed in order to get all members of their caucus on board, because as you see from this vote 50 49 vote all Republicans were no. So they needed to make sure that the Joe Manchin of the world could get behind it. And if Joe Manchin were to support an alternative amendment of jobless benefits, for instance, perhaps that could force some liberal members potentially in the House to vote no.

So such a delicate compromise on the Democratic side, realizing they could do it with just Democratic votes in this process that they employ to advance it successful in doing it here. They'll get it almost certainly to the president's desk in a matter of days. The question will be, will it turn the economy around? Will it help deal with this pandemic? And how will the voters respond, Fred?

WHITFIELD: Wow! And obviously, Manu, the White House will think that 12 hours was worth the wait. Let's go to the White House and Joe Johns joining us now. We are expecting to hear from the president momentarily, right? This is what he was waiting for before he makes his way to Delaware.

JOHNS: Yes, that's our hope is to hear from the president. Right now, we do have some reporting on that waiting for it to get cleared. I can tell you that it would be surprising if the president did not talk about this first piece of legislation to pass both the House as well as the United States Senate presuming that's what's going to happen here.

And I think it's also important to say that there are a lot of questions for the president, including one question about the delicate balance that Manu was just talking about. In the United States Senate with the Democrats, you've got a 50/50 split there anyone Democrat going off the reservation means a priority item potentially, of the President of the United States does not get through.

So, I'd like to hear from him on that. Obviously, there were a lot of objections raised during the Senate debate about some of the specific things in the bill that Republicans say have absolutely nothing to do with COVID or helping the economy along.

So, it'd be also good to try to get a question or two to the president there. But I think this, frankly, is going to be a good day for the president to come out and speak to the media. He has not done a news conference just yet. Hopefully, we'll get there at some point. And we'd love to hear what he has to say today back to you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Right. And so Joe, you know, remind us of the efforts that this president made. I mean, you know, decades long student of the Senate, he knows how it works and his involvement here whereas he may not have been able to be successful in getting that bipartisan legislative support.

He did sell this package, as we were just talking moments ago. He sold this package as a bipartisan package, because Republicans and Democrats, Americans find it very popular, you know, appeasing, this is what they wanted. What was his role in all of this?

JOHNS: Right. Well, that is the argument that's been coming out of the White House. And it's been picked up very much by the Democrats on the Senate side. And the argument simply is, despite the fact that no Republican in the House of Representatives voted for this bill.

And then there was clearly a great deal, if not all of the opposition to the United States Senate Republican Party, nonetheless, out in the country, in the cities in the states in the district where these people represent, you'll find a lot of folks who really liked the idea of what's in this bill, they liked the idea of the direct payments.

They like the idea of extending unemployment, insurance, and so on. So, the president's argument and the argument that's been made here is to go past the people up on Capitol Hill and speak directly to those people, even in red state America, even perhaps some old Trump supporters.

So say to them, look, these are the kinds of things that Republicans have supported before, in fact, Donald Trump's supported $2,000 payments to Americans before he left office. And now you find that virtually all of the Republicans up on Capitol Hill are opposed.

So they tried very hard to get that message out to Americans. And some of the polling definitely shows that a lot of Americans even Republicans support this bill Fred.

WHITFIELD: And then Joe, I'm told in my ear that we do have confirmation that the president will speak. He does plan to speak today. Do you have any insight and tell us to in what fashion do we expect to hear? Is he you know, walking to, you know, the helicopter? Marine One? Or is he going to be in the room? What in a room?

[12:30:01]

JOHNS: No. We do not have an indication and that's been a question of some debate going back and forth, just how and when the President is going to speak. But, I mean, last week, as you know, he gave a very, very brief statement just seven days ago on Saturday, I believe.

Two camera talking about his essential satisfaction that we did get the bill passed out of the House of Representatives. Question, of course, is whether he do something like that again today, and keep moving or allow for a few questions, which would certainly be something that we, in the news media here at the White House, would love to get an opportunity to query him on this bill.

WHIITFIELD: OK. And Manu Raju back with us on Capitol Hill. Are you learning anything new?

RAJU: Well, we're trying to get a reaction from some of the members here, some of the Democrats there. Everyone's pretty much darting out of this building. I went downstairs after I came on with you earlier and virtually everybody is out, leaving excited to be gone after being in the chamber for more than 13 hours. That was the length of the voting session.

One Senator, Jim Inhofe, who said he, you know, he is a veteran senator, he's been in his body for a very long time. He was -- he didn't sleep at all last night that virtually, none of them slept last night. So they are ready to be done with this after such a grueling, grueling amendment process. But the Democrats are feeling emboldened here, they had just got a major victory here. They were questions about whether they could get this done. They were able to get it done by keeping together they're very fragile coalition.

Even though this bill is popular, it was so difficult for them to keep their party together because of concerns about some of the key elements in here, or some of the things that prompted a number of people to push back on. And that is why they had to go behind the scenes, sort out some of their differences.

This has been a large negotiation that's happened privately, a lot of private horse trading to get some members on board. But at the end of the day, Democrats confident they believe the voters will reward them. Republicans think that the view of this will change over time as they think it's just simply not needed. We'll see which calculation is correct, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, big victory, big legislative victory, first legislative victory for this Biden administration. Again, we expect to hear from the President confirmation. He will be taking to the cameras later on this afternoon. His response about the now Senate passage of the $1.9 trillion relief package.

All right, thanks so much, Manu and Joe, appreciate it. We're going to take a short break for now. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:37:13]

WHITFIELD: All right, just moments ago, the U.S. Senate voted to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in a 50 to 49 vote. Joining me right now, Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota. Senator Smith, good to see you. You probably are ready to just keel over and take a long nap after such an incredibly long night and morning. How are you feeling?

SEN. TINA SMITH (D-MN): Well, thank you. It's great to be with you. I have to tell you, I got to the Capitol yesterday morning at a little before 9:00 because I was the officer who presided at the Senate when we were -- when we came in yesterday morning. So it's been about 30 hours.

But the sense of making a real difference for working families in this country was just so palpable on the Senate floor. And the difference that this is going to make for reopening our schools safely, for lifting children out of poverty, for helping families directly recover from this COVID pandemic is just going to be so important.

WHITFIELD: Was there ever a moment where you thought, oh, wait for a minute, we may not be able to get this done?

SMITH: Well, as you know, we had quite a long, open vote yesterday afternoon. And we all knew that we were going to get it done now. You know, it is a complicated thing. It should be complicated to put together a package of this scale and of this size. But we hung together, we have done something I think that's really important. And mostly what's so important about this is that I believe that working families in this country are going to be able to feel it.

WHITFIELD: So tell me about the dynamic of Senator Joe Manchin. I mean, he was able to, you know, suspend things for about 12 hours in his fight for unemployment, you know, benefits and provisions. What does this tell you about his prominence, his power, whether this also signifies that unity is going to be very difficult for Democrats?

SMITH: Well, look, Joe is a fighter. He is a fighter for West Virginia, just as we all are in the caucus. We all fought really hard to get pieces into this package that were important to us. You know, I fought really hard to make sure that there was meaningful help for multi-employer pensions that have been teetering on the edge of disaster and that everybody would have access to a free vaccine. We all fought for the things that we cared about. And at the end of the day, we came together and we pass this bill and that is I think what really matters.

WHITFIELD: And then obviously, Democratic, you know, senators don't vote as a monolithic body.

SMITH: Right.

WHITFIELD: But how concerning is it because of the balance of power that all it takes is one, all it takes is one to underscore that, you know, you need each other, Democrats, in order to advance legislation, particularly under this administration?

SMITH: Well, you know, there are 50 of us in the Democratic caucus and -- but you know it was interesting. There were just a couple of times today, where Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass bipartisan amendments to this legislation though unfortunately, not a single Republican voted for this package. And I think that that is a shame because this package is broadly bipartisan out in the country, even if it's not within the Senate chamber.

[12:40:20]

WHITFIELD: Is that an indicator to you of what the road ahead is going to be like that, you know, regardless of whether the, you know, proposal is popular among the American people or not, but it's party that the GOP just exhibited, it is showing its allegiance to.

SMITH: I think, I mean, that's what it looks like to me. And I think that puts even more responsibility on those of us in the majority in the Senate, the narrowest of narrow majorities amongst Democrats in the Senate, to really be able to deliver for people. And as you can see, we don't all agree on everything. And in fact, there were things in this package I would have done differently myself, but it is a significant accomplishment that people are going to be able to feel.

WHITFIELD: And I asked it that way, because polling has showed that that piece of legislation was more than 60 percent, you know, popularity among Americans, Democrat or Republican. And then let me ask you, you know, earlier this week, you posted on Facebook that you thought, you know, you wanted to end the filibuster, that in your view, you know, it has been an enemy of progress. Do voters, you know, select their lawmakers based on the demise of the filibuster? Does this matte, you know, hugely to your voting electorate?

SMITH: You know, I think most people don't have any idea what the rules of the Senate are and how they work. I mean, I think most senators don't really fully understand how the rules of the Senate work. What people care about is whether the Senate is able to accomplish things that make a difference in their lives.

And I think if you ask folks, do you know that a majority in the Senate actually doesn't real -- rule, that a minority gets to decide what we take up, what we vote on, what actually happens to improve your lives? I think they would say well, that's undemocratic.

And in fact, it is and this filibuster has been used for undemocratic purposes for way too long. So I am, you know, the path towards really accomplishing things I believe are going to go through, making the Senate rules work so that we can get things done.

WHITFIELD: All right. Senator Tina Smith, thank you so much. And you have a nice big nap now, right? No more coffee, just a big sleep.

SMITH: No more coffee. Yes, thanks. It's great to be with you.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

All right, still to come, the Governor of Florida accused of playing politics with the coronavirus vaccine, the controversial vaccine drive that is politicians outraged on both sides of the aisle.

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WHITFIELD: All right, moments ago, the U.S. Senate voted to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. In a 52 to 49 vote, we're expecting President Biden to speak this afternoon about the passing of this landmark legislation, his first legislative victory during his administration of just a month and a half or so. We'll bring that to you live as it happens.

[12:45:15]

All right, elected officials in Florida are raising alarms after multiple COVID-19 vaccination sites served mostly white and wealthy citizens while other, hard-hit communities, were left in the cold. The disparity has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, facing bipartisan backlash. Here now is CNN's Rosa Flores. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Beneath the calming landscapes of Manatee County, Florida is a community outraged.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was appalled.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't like it at all.

FLORES (voice over): After county commissioner Vanessa Baugh recently helped organize a COVID-19 vaccination site at the upscale Lakewood Ranch community, allowing people from two affluent, mostly white zip codes to get the shot ahead of 150,000 seniors on the county's waiting list.

VANESSA BAUGH, MANATEE COUNTY COMMISSIONER: I jumped in and I'd do it again.

FLORES (voice over): She even created a VIP list that included her own name. While fellow commissioners say --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I was really ticked off.

FLORES (voice over): They were kept in the dark. The move equally angered residents living in affluent and not so affluent neighborhoods.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're in the wrong zip code.

KEN SCHULTZ, MANATEE COUNTY RESIDENT: The whole thing to me just smacked of politics, favoritism, elitism and racism.

FLORES (voice over): The Manatee County Sherriff's Office is investigating Baugh after Michael Barfield, the self-proclaimed citizen watchdog, filed a complaint with the Sherriff's Office, claiming the Commissioner may have broken the law by misusing her public position to benefit herself and others.

(on-camera): And what does justice look like for you?

MICHAEL BARFIELD, CITIZEN WATCHDOG: Accountability. Accountability and consequences. That's the way our justice system is.

FLORES (voice over): CNN asked Baugh for comment on the investigation and did not hear back. While Baugh admitted to choosing the zip codes --

BAUGH: I want to apologize to all the residents who I have disappointed.

FLORES (voice over): She said it was Governor Ron DeSantis who called Rex Jensen, the CEO of the parent company of Lakewood Ranch, about setting up a vaccine drive there and that she got involved after he called her for help. Jensen's spokesperson told CNN their involvement in the vaccine drive was only to help identify a site that could accommodate 1,000 people per day. All this begs the question, why would DeSantis reach out to Rex Jensen to help distribute the vaccine? I tried asking DeSantis about it. But he didn't take my question.

In a statement to CNN, DeSantis' press office said the state has launched several initiatives to target underserved communities and the insinuation that politics play into vaccine distribution in Florida is baseless and ridiculous.

Turns out, a similar thing happened at a 55 and over gated community called King's Gate which allowed residents of another place called Grand Palm to get the vaccine.

HARVEY GOLDSTEIN, CHARLOTTE COUNTY RESIDENT: I'm an active Republican, so I'm a fan of the Governor, but I think that this could have been done better.

FLORES (voice over): What do Lakewood Ranch, King's Gate and Grand Palm have in common?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where you live matters.

FLORES (voice over): One of the prominent developers is a donor to the Governor, Patrick Neil. Campaign finance records show between 2018 and 2019, he donated $125,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC. Records show mega conservative donor Richard Uihlein, who has family ties to Lakewood Ranch, also donated $900,000 to the PAC during that period.

Neil Communities did not wish to comment on this story but said it was not involved in the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site.

CNN reached out to Uihlein and did not hear back.

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): It just doesn't seem fair. In fact it seems grossly unfair. That's why --

FLORES (voice over): U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist is asking the U.S. DOJ to investigate whether these vaccine drives benefit DeSantis' political allies and donors.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: I don't think it's an effective political attack, to attack me for vaccinating seniors. Yes, we are aggressively vaccinating seniors.

FLORES (voice over): Carlos Hernandez, the Mayor of Hialeah, a mostly Hispanic working class city doesn't buy the Governor's answer.

MAYOR CARLOS HERNANDEZ (R), HIALEAH, FLORIDA: I have not been invited. Again, I'm here as a citizen of Hialeah.

FLORES (voice over): Hernandez crashed the Governor's recent press conference in the city and says he's been trying to talk to DeSantis since the pandemic started.

HERNANDEZ: He talks about politics aren't involved. Come on. I mean, you know what, give me the vaccine. FLORES (voice-over): Rosa Flores, CNN, Manatee County, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: All right, let's talk more about all of this now. With me is Dr. Bernard Ashby, he is a cardiologist and the Florida State Director of the Committee to Protect Medicare. So good to see you, Dr. Ashby.

[12:50:00]

So, you know, talk to me about your reaction to these accusations that the Governor is prioritizing, you know, wealthy white communities to make sure that they have access to these vaccinations.

DR. BERNARD ASHBY, CARDIOLOGIST: Well, Fredricka, numbers don't lie. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic has fallen on the shoulders of the poor Americans, poor Floridians, in addition to people of color, particularly black folks in America. And as it stands right now, we account black votes account for less than 6 percent of the current amount of Floridian that are vaccinated. That's a real problem.

And we've seen this Governor make decision after decision that aligned itself with industry and corporate interests and those of the elite class rather than the community. So from the fact that we don't have math mandates to the fact that he prevented us from enforcing anything to decrease the spread of the virus, it all has translated into unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations. And once I heard the story about him, potentially having wealthy folks in Key Largo jumped the line, I hit the roof. I mean, I want to be diplomatic about this, but I can't be diplomatic when it comes to life and death.

And you know, I have patients currently in a hospital, I have patients who I know have passed away. And this is near and dear to my heart. And so, I had a visceral reaction once I heard that.

WHITFIELD: And what about -- oh, actually, let me ask you to take a pause real quick. Let me go to go to Capitol Hill after the U.S. Senate has just passed this COVID relief plan, here is Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: OK, thank you for all coming. And, look, it's a great day. They need it and now we have fulfilled that promise. Now, nobody said passing one of the largest, perhaps, the most significant bill to help the poor and working people in decades was going to be easy, particularly with 50 votes, but it is done. And I said from the beginning, we were going to power through, we're not going to let anything stop us until we got the job done. And by God, we did. And here we are.

So I want to say one thing, I am so proud of my caucus. I love each one of them. They are just so great. And what -- you know what unites our caucus? Everyone knows, especially with 50 votes, we all have to pull together. Everyone knows. You know, I have a leadership team that meets on Monday night, and it has Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin and Mark Warner and people in between. And that's because we all have to -- we have to talk to each other and realize we need each other and be united as a team. And that is the secret to the success here. The caucus unifying every person realizing that we needed every other person to have this victory.

Sure, it would be nice if the Republicans would join us but they didn't. I thought it was a little bit hypocritical of Mitch McConnell to say, oh, we did it by partisan. Yes, when Trump was president, Democrats in the minority didn't block things. We worked to get something done. Now that we're in the majority, they don't seem to want to work with us. But we're going to get it done anyway. We prefer them to work with us, we want them to work with us, maybe they'll change their minds after this. But we're going to get it done regardless, because the America needs it and that's what we did.

So we didn't stop. We didn't let anything get in our way. And I was confident from the get go. I just told that to the President, he called me. And I said, I knew we'd get this done. And I so appreciate being under Joe Biden's leadership. He put together a great plan was just right, strong and deep but also very popular. So we have the strength to get it done, even if we had to do it with just our own 50 votes.

So I think this is a very fine day. And one of the things that I feel proudest of, is we told the American people in the election campaign, and even in the Georgia campaign, that Democrats would actually get government to help them whether it's with checks or vaccines or opening the schools. And now we're showing we're keeping our promise. And I think that's going to change America to a decent extent. I think people will have much more faith in government doing things and much more faith that we can get them done.

And so I feel very, very good about that. I feel good about the long range here. I feel good about moving on to new victories. So I think that's all I'm going to say. And I'll answer your questions.

[12:55:03]

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. So you said that you spoke to President Biden. Have you spoken to Speaker Pelosi in the last 24 hours or so about the amendments that you all pass --

SCHUMER: Our staffs have been in touch and she knows all about them and she wants to pass this bill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened yesterday morning, and why were you -- why did you not sort out your differences with Joe Manchin ahead of time, and then instead, you left open one vote for almost 12 hours?

SCHUMER: People have new differences all the time. But you notice the overwhelming points here, that everyone in our caucus realizes we have to pull together and get it done, and we're a team. And sometimes it takes some discussion. And sometimes it takes some work. But we don't let our differences stop us from achieving success.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But why shouldn't -- shouldn't that have been resolved in the front end?

SCHUMER: People make different -- people come up with different ideas at different times. And we still have to take everyone into account and pull together as a team. And that's what we did. And no one's going to pay attention to the fact -- I mean, well, I don't know no one -- that eight hours is meaningless compared to the relief the American people are going to get. And if it helped us get to that, great. Unity, unity, unity. That's how we got this done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you expect the House to pass what the Senate just passed as it is including amendments that may not be as palatable to progressive members?

SCHUMER: Look, the speaker -- I spoke to a number of people in the House over the last few days, including the Speaker, and they know that -- they feel like we do, we have to get this done. It's not going to be everything everyone wants. No bill is especially a massive, comprehensive bill like this. But the beauty here within our caucus, and I think between Democrats in the House and Senate, is that we all realize we got to pull together to accomplish something. That's far more important than our differences. That's true of my caucus and that's true of the House and Senate Democrats.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you think the President will be signing it before the March 14th expiration?

SCHUMER: Yes, I definitely do. Right. I have no doubt about that. None. And that's what we said. Everything we said we do. We said we put together a strong, bold bill, we said we put together things that do the things the American people wanted. We said no matter what happened, we would not stop and power through and get it done. And by God we did. What could be red, what could -- what is bad? Nothing.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Leader Schumer, where you said a couple times that this would push Americans over the finish line (INAUDIBLE).

SCHUMER: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you expect that this is going to be the last COVID relief bill --

SCHUMER: Let's hope -- look, it's a very strong bill. Part of it will depend on COVID. How long will it last? Will there be a new strain? Part of it will depend on the economy has some underlying weaknesses that need bolstering, how deep and weaker those. Our number one lodestar is going to be helping the American people. And if they need more help, we'll do another bill. If this bill is sufficient, and I think it's going to help in a big way, then we won't do another.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It get me concerned that this could be a parallel to the -- to 2010, when Democrats push forward to stimulus, mostly on democratic votes in the Senate, straight party line in the House, and then the U.S. (INAUDIBLE) House --

SCHUMER: Not even close. This is so -- 75 percent of the American people want this, 55 percent of the Republicans want it. That's the bottom line. And, you know, we'll have a job in the next few weeks. Joe Biden, our caucus, the House, letting the American people know all the important parts of this bill. But this is what they asked for. Plain and simple. Last one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But do you believe that perhaps this could make bipartisanship more difficult for Republican?

SCHUMER: I hope it will be more and I hope it will make bipartisanship more likely. When Republicans see -- when we say we want to do it with you, but if we can't do it with you, we'll do it without you. Now they know -- now they know we mean it and they know we're capable of doing it. So now maybe they'll say they'll come together.

Look, again, the bottom line. When Trump was president, Democrats didn't sit there fold their hands and say no. Now Biden is President, we hope they won't continue to do the same thing. OK? Anything else? I'm leaving out.

OK. Thanks, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are your priorities starting that --

SCHUMER: Well, look, you know, I said at the beginning, we could do all three things at once, and impeachment trial, that's done. But next week, as I just put on the calendar, Merrick Garland, Marcia Fudge, and the EPA nominee, and then later in the week, we'll do Haaland and another nominee. So next week, we're focusing on nominees.

And at the very beginning, we've only been around, you know, we've only had the new Congress and the new President for a little more than a month. We passed one of the most important pieces of legislation in decades. We've done an impeachment trial, which I think showed the American people what Trump was really like. And we're putting -- we're filling up his Cabinet. We're getting a lot done.

I'm proud of my caucus. I love, I truly love my caucus, everyone of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Including Joe Manchin?

SCHUMER: Yes, absolutely. Everyone, everyone. I love Bernie.