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Two of GOP's Most Prominent Lawmakers Under Fire in Own Party; Biden Hits Road to Sell $4 Trillion Agenda, Facing Test in Congress; More than 245 Million Vaccine Doses Administered in U.S.. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired May 3, 2021 - 10:00   ET

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


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[10:00:00]

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

A Republican loyalty test, this morning, two Republican lawmakers, Senator Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Liz Cheney feeling the heat for daring to cross former President Trump by stating the truth about the election.

Over the weekend, Romney barely escaped a censure by the Utah Republican Party for his votes to convict in Trump's impeachment trials. Listen.

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SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): What do you think of President Biden?

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SCIUTTO: This is notable. In his home state, the former Republican nominee for president shouted down as a traitor for that vote to impeach the former president.

HARLOW: Yes. And Congresswoman Liz Cheney, that name Cheney, a significant name for decades in the party, but now one of her own Republican colleagues say she may not even survive the month in her third ranked leadership position.

Also this morning, President Biden in Virginia as we get new reporting that there are ongoing behind the scenes bipartisan talks in Congress about trying to get an infrastructure deal actually done, more on that in a moment.

Let's begin though with our Manu Raju on Capitol Hill on Capitol Hill for more on these two Republicans who now have giant targeted on their back after defying Donald Trump or for Liz Cheney, just fist pumping in a respectful move to the president before his address to the joint session of Congress.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. What really angered Republican House members, they say, is her comments, her comments from last week during a Republican retreat, in which she questioned, criticized the former president when she asked at a press conference and also was talking to reporters and in subsequent interviews making it very clear her feelings about the president, former president's role on January 6th.

Of course, she is just one of ten Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump. That has caused her a lot of backlash internally among a Republican conference that overwhelmingly supports the former president, majority of them voted to overturn the electoral results in two states, including just hours after the insurrection.

She did survive a challenge to her election -- or at her number three spot in the Republican conference in February in the aftermath of the vote to impeach, but that happened behind closed doors. At that point, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, got behind her and made a speech behind closed doors and urged his colleagues to support her. Now, it's unclear what Kevin McCarthy will do.

He, last week, was asked if he would support her under his leadership team. He said that is up for the Republican conference to decide. And it is possible they couldn't come to a vote, decide to push for a vote as soon as next week. In talking to multiple Republicans, the belief overwhelmingly is that there will probably be another vote about whether she can stay as Republican leader.

This is what one senior House Republican told me. He said, members of all stripes were really upset. She trampled all over the messaging in unity we had otherwise had at that retreat. The only thing she has going for her are reasonable members like me who have lost confidence in her but fear the bad press and disruption will this will cause.

So that is ultimately a question for Republicans going forward, oust the number three, the highest ranking Republican woman in leadership, get her out of this just because of her opposition to the former president. Republicans say they want to be united. Will getting rid of her from the post do that?

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, guys, he's not up for re-election until 2024. So even though he got booed at his Republican convention from just this weekend, whether he actually will run for reelection again remains to be seen. And he's got a few years before he faces voters again. Guys?

SCIUTTO: Manu Raju, thanks very much.

Joining me now is Jeff Flake. He's a former Republican senator from Arizona. Senator, thank you so much for taking the time this morning.

FMR. SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): Thanks for having me on.

SCIUTTO: So, Mitt Romney survived his vote but only narrowly in a state where he remains popular. He's even outpolled the president in the state in national elections. What does that tell you right now about who has the upper hand in the Republican Party, the Trump wing or those who are willing to oppose the former president?

FLAKE: Well, it depends on which part of the Republican Party you're talking about. If you're talking about the subset of a subset that dominates Republican primary votes, then he's at a slight disadvantage. But if you're talking about Republicans generally, statewide, he's in much better shape.

The problem is Republicans all have to go through or Republican primaries, and that's difficult to do for people certainly like Liz Cheney this time, and that's a real shame for the party.

[10:05:03]

SCIUTTO: So you heard our reporter, Manu, Raju, there saying, moving toward another vote on Liz Cheney's leadership, tell me what your reaction will be if the Republican Party removes the most senior woman, we should note, in leadership over her willingness to say Trump is not the right way for the Republican Party. What would your reaction be to that?

FLAKE: That would not be a smart move. I think Republicans know that in their heart of hearts. When they had a private vote to remove Liz Cheney, overwhelmingly, she was kept in her leadership position. The problem is those same Republicans are afraid to go out publicly and defend her. And that kind of tells where you the party is now. But if they know what's good for them, electorally, if they want to take back the House, then they'll leave her in that position.

The Republican Party needs more diversity and not just diversity in terms of gender or whatnot, but also in terms of thought and whether or not they believe President Trump ought to be impeached. You know, right here in Arizona, it is difficult obviously to get through a Republican primary without being completely devoted to the former president, but you can't win statewide if you are seen that way.

So Republicans need to understand we've got to be far more diverse in that regard.

SCIUTTO: You tweeted this to Romney following that unsuccessful censure vote. You said you're doing the right thing for the right reason, Mitt. They'll come around. I just wonder, is that a hope or a reality given the bulk of party's preference to Trump? Because, remember, after Mitt Romney's lost in 2012, there was post-mortem that said you have to do this, expand the tent, you know, go more progressive or more moderate on immigration issues. They didn't do it but they won the presidency and they've done pretty well and they're confident now they're going to win back the House 2022. I just wonder how confident you are in what they said to Romney.

FLAKE: I think they will come around but it may take a while. It certainly hasn't happened yet. In the end, if we keep losing elections, remember, since President Trump was elected, we lost the White House, we lost the House, we lost the Senate, we lost about 400 legislative seats nationwide and state legislatures. So it hasn't been a winning formula. And, ultimately, a party realizes we can't go on this way.

But, boy, it's -- we're sure taking our sweet time. And right here in Arizona, we're going through, I think, the forth election audit to try to change the election results somehow. It's crazy. We need to move on. And we, you know, explain the differences between us and the Democrats. And with the Democratic Party moving more progressive, there is plenty of room there. And we could do well in the midterms but not if we continue this craziness of questioning the last election and going after those who aren't completely devoted to the former president.

SCIUTTO: I make the point frequently, sad to say, but disinformation works. CNN had a poll last week that the vast majority of Republicans still believe the big lie that President Biden was not elected legitimately. And the worst part is, right, is that the loyalty test is not just Trump. The loyalty test now is the lie. Because if you challenge that lie publicly, you know, you get burned. And --

FLAKE: Yes, you're right, Jim.

SCIUTTO: -- I just wonder how debilitating you think that is not just from the party but more importantly for the country when you have such a large portion that doesn't think the election is legitimate.

FLAKE: Completely. I had a hard time believing those statistics when I first heard them a few months ago. But I believe them now. And good polling has been done here in Arizona where I think it's about 78 percent of Republicans believe that Joe Biden did not win legitimately in Arizona, for example. And it is -- that's debilitating for a party moving ahead. You got to be based on truth or you really don't have a future. And so, yes, it's very, very troubling for all of us.

SCIUTTO: Finally, if I can, that mistruth, that lie is used now to not just affect policy but to drive policy. It is what you hear when state legislatures run by Republicans around the country have passed more restrictive voting laws. You've heard the debate. When you look at the broad swath of these laws, are they intended to make it harder to vote to favor Republicans?

FLAKE: Most definitely. There are legitimate concerns about voter integrity and measures are being taken and have been taken of the past several cycles to do better there. But what's going on now is a reaction to President Trump having lost and having to explain away that loss. And it's not just measures to, you know, the integrity ballot, per se, you have some states like Arizona where it's been -- legislation has been introduced to say that the state legislature, not the voters, ultimately would decide.

And, you know, I shudder to think if we had those kind of laws in place, those statutes in place, what would have happened in this last cycle? You know, when the legislature, Republican-controlled didn't like the verdict of the voters.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, in effect, it is codifying what former President Trump asked for. State legislators would return (ph) not just voters but Republican state election officials who said the votes went this way. It's real.

Former Senator Jeff Flake, thank you so much for coming on.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

HARLOW: Well, President Biden and the first lady arrived in Virginia just a few moments ago. They are out speaking to the American people trying to pitch $4 trillion worth of new spending in their plans to the American people.

SCIUTTO: Exactly, trying to get those people to move votes on the Hill. REPUBLICANS not onboard though with the broader, more ambitious scope of the president's proposal. Several Republicans insist they would be open to a narrower one, infrastructure plan, much lower price tag.

CNN White House Correspondent John Harwood joins us now. And, John, it seems that not just Republicans expressing interest in this, and, by the way, some Democratic lawmakers, but the Biden White House.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. What you hear in common from the Biden White House and from Republicans is the desire to be reasonable, the desire to negotiate and talk. Nobody want to look like they're imposing a my way or the highway situation with this new president. But what we're not hearing is a genuine basis for common ground on this ambitious proposal. Listen to this.

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SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I think now that the Republicans have put forth a reasonable offer, it's up to the president to do a counteroffer to us.

I would point out that if you look at all of the president's recent proposals, they total more than $4.1 trillion. That's the amount that we spent to win World War II.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): It's the trillions and trillions of dollars of reckless spending. When I look at this, this is staggering amount of spending like someone with a new credit card.

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HARWOOD: Of course, the reason Republicans can't tolerate that level of spending is because they oppose the idea of raising taxes on business and the wealthy, which is what President Biden has proposed. Now, there are some things you could do without new revenue, small pieces of infrastructure plan, other small pieces of the president's plan could be broken up. But in terms of the scope of what Biden intends to do and will press for, they're not there.

HARLOW: John, before you go, you did a really interesting interview in the last few days with Janet Yellen, and you wrote about it this weekend. But it just made me think about this debate over, you know, what is it worth to spend a little differently. What should people know about what she said to you? HARWOOD: Well, what Janet Yellen is saying is that if you ask the question does it hurt economic activity to raise taxes, that's the wrong question. There is some drag on business investment that could occur from higher taxes, some drag on labor supply from higher income taxes at the top end. But what Janet Yellen says is the important thing is to weigh that in tandem with the benefits of the spending, on education, on infrastructure, on tax breaks and assistance to needy families.

And what she says is that when you net all that out, it produces a substantial gain to the economy. That's the case that the Biden administration has got to sell. But it's a challenge because many voters, when they hear big expensive programs, they think, am I going to get stuck with the bill? Biden says no but they have got to persuade people.

HARLOW: Right. All right, John Harwood, in Washington for us.

Still to come, the race to get all Americans vaccinated is facing a problem. Not everyone wants it. And that makes reaching herd immunity unlikely.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that's a big.

Plus, could Congress be making progress on police reform? Is bipartisan agreement on the horizon? Why the lead Republican negotiator says it is time to hold police departments accountable not though individual officers.

And later, two Republicans are battling it out for a congressional district in Texas in Trump's big election lie taking center stage there. We'll speak with a key lawmaker in that state on how this could be a huge problem for Democrats in 2022.

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[10:15:00]

SCIUTTO: We may be getting closer to having an approved coronavirus vaccine for young children. This morning, Novavax says it is expanding its COVID phase three trials to include children from 17 to -- rather, 12 to 17 years old.

HARLOW: Moderna starting clinical pediatric trials for its COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 up to as young as six months old. This week, Pfizer has asked the FDA to authorize its vaccine for 12 to 15- year-olds. It's moving along.

Dr. Jay Varkey is here, Associate Professor of Medicine at Emory University. Good morning.

I wonder, is herd immunity across the United States achievable without a majority of kids being vaccinated?

DR. JAY VARKEY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, EMORY UNIVERSITY: No. I mean, Poppy, to be frank with you, herd immunity is going to be challenging any way you cut or slice it.

[10:20:00]

But it will be impossible unless you make a commitment to vaccinating our children.

One of the things we've learned time and time again throughout this pandemic is that children are not immune to COVID. Thankfully, they're less likely to get particularly sick with it but they can certainly get infected and they can certainly transmit infections to others.

So I do look forward to actually having safe and effective vaccines for children. It will not only protect them but also protect their families.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you, Dr. Varkey, about what we do until kids are vaccinated. I'm just going to quote from The New York Times here looking at the data on children and COVID-19. Consider that COVID-19 has killed fewer than 450 Americans under the age of 18, which is fewer than a flu season often does, for children, COVID-19 looks much more like the kind of risk that society long tolerated without upending daily life. And I wonder if you agree with that assessment.

And, by the way, we've learned over time, right, a lot of decisions made early on were based on best available data. Now, we have new and consistent data. But is one of the lessons here that we were too restrictive with kids to some degree, including opening schools?

VARKEY: I would reframe it, Jim, and say I think what we learned is that we probably had misplaced priorities because instead of having a national pandemic plan, we essentially had 50 state doing things differently. And as such, I think we've lost a window to resume school safely when they probably could have at various points of last year.

But I think to your point in terms of what he can do, I think the key thing we have learned is that herd immunity is not an on/off switch. So, you know, setting some mystical goal where you achieve 70 to 85 percent and then, boom, everything goes back to normal, and if you don't achieve it, that you're stuck with restrictions, doesn't really reflect reality.

One of the things we've learned is that as we vaccinate people, infections plummet, hospitalizations plummet, deaths plummet. And if you look at the top five states and vaccinations, so New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, all five of those states have seen their rates of new infections decrease 35 percent to 45 percent in just the last two weeks.

So we can make tremendous headway and decrease preventable death if we continue to vaccinate. And then when we have safe and effective vaccines that available for children, that will even add to that effect. And this is something that where we can sort of learn how to live with the infection even if we can't fully eradicate it.

HARLOW: Sort of building on Jim's important point there about the numbers, what should we do as parents once we become fully vaccinated and protected with our kids, especially littler kids who won't be, like, do they wear masks outside and we don't? Do you resume going to restaurants with them? Can they go to birthday parties outside? What do you do?

VARKEY: Yes. Poppy, this is so important. And I think each family has found different ways of what risks they will tolerate. What I would say, and, again, my kids are a little bit older and they're both vaccinated now, but I do remember when they were younger, is keeping those basic principles that have kept us safe. So if parents are vaccinated and kids aren't, recognize the fact that for kids, indoor spaces are not as safe as outdoor.

I love the idea of actually reopening and hopefully more cities are getting there, outdoor playgrounds, outdoor sports can be done safely. What we've realized is that kids are tremendously resilient. And, again, I've gone to outdoor soccer games where kids are masked. And at that stage, you're really talking about taking something that's generally safe and making it even more so.

But I think it's not carte blanche to then start taking kids out to some of the places that are still higher risk, especially in high transmission communities, like indoor restaurants.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Dr. Varkey, just back to this question of herd immunity, because we've been talking for more than a year, right, about not just the importance but the necessity, right, as a country for getting there to truly put this thing to bed, right, the pandemic. But now, it's questioned, a lot of that driven by folks just don't want to get the vaccine, often based on a lot of disinformation. Can we really get by if we don't reach herd immunity?

VARKEY: I think we can get by to where we can live a near normal live, Jim. And I think you nailed it in your opening comment, is that this is us coping with new data. And what's going on in India right now where you've got exponential growth of infections, chose the challenge worldwide. It is really difficult to get 70 to 85 percent of the world's nearly 8 billion people vaccinated at the same time.

So what we can do and, again, this is one of the advantages we have at the resource of United States, is that we have abundant vaccines that are available for all people over the age of 16 right now. So, again, if we step up, we roll up our sleeves, and we act like the states that have done it well, we can get back to a near normal.

SCIUTTO: Yes, roll up your sleeves, literally. Dr. Varkey, thanks very much.

VARKEY: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still ahead this hour, a grieving family has said goodbye to Andrew Brown Jr. today, as calls for justice and transparency among policing grow louder.

[10:25:07]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARLOW: A little bit later today, Andrew Brown Jr. will be laid to rest in North Carolina, as his family continues to demand the public release of police body camera footage showing the moment of his death.

[10:30:01]

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's still not out. Late last month, sheriff's deputies in Elizabeth City shot the 42-year-old while they were attempting to serve.