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At This Hour

Supreme Court Weighs Biden's Student Loan Forgiveness Plan; Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Biden's Student Loan Plan; Rare Snowfall In Southern California Leaves Residents Stranded; Study: High Levels Of Chemicals Could Pose Long-Term Risks; Vladimir Putin Addresses His Federal Security Service; Ukrainian Soldier: Situation In Bakhmut "Very Difficult Now". Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2023 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. AT THIS HOUR, President Biden's trillion-dollar problem now before the Supreme Court. The fate of his student loan forgiveness plan now in their hands.

Plus, people are waking up to winter storms from coast to coast. Parts of California seeing more than 6 feet of snow. And the final moments of the Alex Murdaugh trial as the jury is about to hear -- about to head to the scene of the crime. This is what we're watching at this hour.

Hello everyone, thanks so much for being here. I'm Kate Bolduan. Right now, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on two cases that will affect millions of Americans. At the heart of this fight is the Biden administration's $400 billion student loan forgiveness program. The challengers argue that the President overstepped his legal authority here when he authorized the plan that would forgive up to $20,000 in federal debt for 40 million Americans.

That's a lot of money for a lot of people, and it's all been hanging in legal limbo for months now. Signs of just how much interest there is in this court decision. Take a look at these crowds that were outside the court starting early this morning.

Jessica Schneider, she's also live outside the Supreme Court as this all plays out, and she joins us now. Jessica, you've been listening to this first hour-ish, if you will, of oral arguments. What have you heard so far?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, the conservative justices here are really zeroing in on the price tag of this program. And given the price tag whether the President, by way of his Education Secretary, actually has the power to implement this student loan debt forgiveness program, because here are the numbers.

40 million students are eligible for this program. 26 million have applied so far. 16 million have been approved, but that has all been on hold since the lower courts here put this program on hold and now they're waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court.

But the key number here in all of this is more than $400 billion. That's the price tag of this program. And given the price tag of this program, the conservatives are really asking here, shouldn't it be Congress who's actually deciding whether or not to forgive this debt and not the President? Here's the Chief Justice.


CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS, U.S. SUPREME COURT: Most casual observers would say, if you're going to give up that much amount of money, if you're going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that's of great controversy, they would think that's something for Congress to act on.

And if they haven't acted on it, then maybe that's a good lesson to say for the President or the administrative bureaucracy that maybe that's not something they should undertake on their own.


SCHNEIDER: And the Solicitor General here arguing for the Biden administration has repeatedly been pushing back on this point, saying that, in fact, the Education Secretary does have the power, under something known as the Heroes Act, to really waive some of this debt from these millions of students, saying that this Heroes program gives the Education Secretary the power to waive or modify some debt and loan provisions because of an emergency.

And the Biden administration is pointing to the COVID pandemic as that emergency. But, Kate, we've seen from these conservative justices, they have repeatedly brought blocked programs that the Biden administration has put into effect because of COVID We saw it with the eviction moratorium, the Supreme Court blocked that. Also with the vaccination or testing program for large employers, the Supreme Court blocked that.

So it is quite likely here that if they can overcome this hurdle of standing, which is another issue in this case, the Supreme Court might actually strike down this program, which is a distinct possibility. But a lot on the line for these millions of student borrowers who are wondering if, in fact, their debt will eventually be forgiven. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Jessica, thank you so much. Jessica is going to be listening to these oral arguments as they continue.

But as Jessica was saying, there's a lot on the line. No matter how the justices rule, the impact could be immediate. Christine Romans is looking at the numbers side of this whole thing. What's the financial impact of -- you know, when it comes to what happens here?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's for millions of people, this is going to matter too. We already know that 26 million have applied for this program. 16 million have been approved. We know that people under 30 are more likely to have student loan debt. But we also know, Kate, that a quarter of all student loan debt is held by people who are over 50.

BOLDUAN: I thought that was fascinating.

ROMANS: It is really fascinating. So this is something that cuts through all different parts of the economy. You've saw that $10,000 number there. For most people, it would be $10,000 in forgiveness. But if you are a Pell Grant recipient, it would be $20,000. And this is the White House trying to say, we really want to help people who are low-income earners who now have their college degree but are held back by all of this debt. And that's holding them out of the middle class.

So the White House argument is this is incredibly important to get people back in the middle class and to get them out from under this debt. I think for most people watching this, no matter what happens, these payments will resume eventually.



ROMANS: If the Supreme Court says no and this debt forgiveness goes away, those payments will resume unless the Education Department decides to put another pause and there have been eight pauses so far. And if your debt is wiped away, then you are still -- whatever's left, there will be payments will resume as well, and interest will start to accrue. So it's time to start budgeting.

BOLDUAN: Time to start budgeting. But it's also been so confusing.


BOLDUAN: Because it's been caught up in this limbo for so long. But I also found fascinating, and I really love the headline that -- one of the CNN headlines on this today is, how student loan debt became a trillion-dollar problem for Americans? This just shines a spotlight on something. We've talked about student loan debt all the -- quite often.

ROMANS: Right.

BOLDUAN: How did we get here?

ROMANS: And one of the complaints of -- one of the arguments against student loan forgiveness is it doesn't fix the problem. It just wipes away some of this debt and you still have the structural problem. We got here by -- you know, the government made the decision to help people get loans to go to college, because going to college is how you get a degree and how you get in the middle class.

And over the decades and the decades and the decades, public support for higher education has been pulled back, and so tuition has risen. And also, a lot of people have gotten debt and then they don't get the degree. And that is the worst thing that can happen because now you don't have the college degree, which we know you earn more money on average if you have a degree than if you don't. So now you've got the debt and you don't have the degree and it's just awful. It's just -- it's hard to get out from under that. And that's a problem we have to figure out how to fix.

BOLDUAN: And we have talked about this before, because in the point you're just making is this is kind of a Band Aid on the core of the problem --

ROMANS: Right.

BOLDUAN: -- which is the cost of higher education.


BOLDUAN: Is just becomes exorbitant.

ROMANS: It has.

BOLDUAN: For so many people, this is part of kind of the mess that has happened, which is part of why (INAUDIBLE).

ROMANS: Can I say the White House has been working on income based repayment plans and trying to use the authorities it has at the Education Department to try to figure out how to have people pay less of their income, right?


ROMANS: For their student loan payments every month. And then at some point, after 10 years or 20 years, they're wiped out. So that's something that is a real relief that the White House is still working on that has nothing to do with what's happening on the Supreme Court right now. And that might end up, longer term, being the more appropriate long-term fix for this.

BOLDUAN: Interesting. All right, let's see what happens here and in the coming months on this. It's great to see you, Christine. Thank you so much.

ROMANS: Thanks. Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: A lot of questions on this. This is an important day. Joining me right now is CNN Chief Political Correspondent, Co-Anchor of State of the Union, Dana Bash and CNN Legal Analyst Steve Vladeck. He's a professor at the University of Texas Law School. He consulted informally with the White House on this case in the past. Thanks, guys, for being here.

Steve, what do you see as at stake here legally?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Kate, I think there are two different sets of stakes here. One is for the program itself, and I think we've already heard this morning in the arguments. There are a bunch of conservative justices who really have problems with the program, with its size, with its legality. But there's another part of this that's technical, but no less important, about who can challenge federal programs like the student loan program.

But like any other policy from this or any other administration, there's a real question about standing in these cases. And whether these six red states led by Missouri are the right parties, whether the two private plaintiffs in the second case, they are the proper parties.

Kate, that matters because if the justices say, yes, if on the way to reaching the legality of the program, they actually say, these guys, these states, these private parties can sue, that's going to open the doors toa lot more lawsuits, not just against this program, but against any future. Biden administration policy, against any future, even Republican policy in a future presidency. That's why this case is so important.

BOLDUAN: I want to ask you -- I want to push you a little bit more on that because I think that's an important and fascinating point in looking kind of the long-term trend on this. But first, Dana, it's you, same question I asked Steve, but different angle. What's at stake here politically?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot. And for the most part, the Biden administration believes that this is incredibly helpful politically. Obviously, it's why the President did it back before the midterm elections. And there is a belief in a lot of Democratic political circles that that was one of the issues that helped them in the midterm elections.

The biggest, of course, was what happened with Dobbs, the Roe v. Wade being overturned. But it's actually quite interesting in that despite the fact that, you know, you would think that younger people this is an animating issue and it is. We've seen that on the campaign trail for a very long time.

Within the Democratic Party and the Democrats electorate, it's not entirely clear cut because there are some traditional Democratic groups, unions, for example, who are not that thrilled with this, or even small business owners, not that thrilled with this. Why? Because they say, why are the students getting loan forgiveness?


What about people who borrow money for their businesses or borrow money for a house? I mean, it goes on and on and on. And that was very much on the minds of people inside the administration before they made this decision, but they just decided to go for it because they believed that the political benefit outweighed the political risks, even inside the Democratic electorate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Really put it well. Steve, let's push on this standing issue, because it's obviously it's an issue in this case. And you take it -- you say that it's not just key to this, it's key to much more when you're looking more broadly at states and the Supreme Court. What do you see? What is this trend that you're tracking and why is it so troubling you? VLADECK: Yes, I mean, so the trend is pretty undeniable at this point. Just take Texas as an example. The state of Texas has filed almost three dozen lawsuits challenging by the administration policies in just the first 25 months that President Biden has been in office.

You know, Kate, that's one state. Multiply that by 50, and all of a sudden, what you see is the possibility that this case might open the door to the Supreme Court saying anytime, any president of any party takes any step that produces even indirect effects in states which, of course, any federal policy will, those states can march into court and can challenge those policies.

Kate, that would be a pretty big shift in how we have historically thought about the role of the courts, that the courts are there for disputes, usually between private parties and the government where someone has suffered a concrete direct injury. And I think part of the issue that the justices are going to have to grapple with here is, does their hostility to this program lead them to really weaken the historical limits on standing, limits that the court has justified as preserving the court's limited role, used to be the political branches?

Or, right, is this really a political dispute where if there's really such broad opposition in the policy, the right place for that opposition to be ventilated is at the ballot box. That's part of why this is about so much more than just this enormous economically significant student loan program.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And let's -- quick, Dana, I want to get your take on the ballot box, if you will, because people often argue that this is an issue for young people, people in college and just out, and there's no doubt that it is. But nearly a quarter of the outstanding student loan debt in the country, as Christine Romance was pointing out, is owed by Americans who are 50 or older.

So this is an issue for many more voting groups --

BASH: Yes.

BOLDUAN: -- than just young people. I mean, how important -- we know it was an important campaign issue in the last cycle. We knew it was a campaign promise that President Biden made. How important do you think student loan forgiveness is in the coming election cycle?

BASH: Very. It's -- I totally agree with you. That figure is really remarkable and eye-opening that it is about older people. And it's also a reminder that student loan debt is not something that you have to -- because it tends to be so large, just take on even in your 20s, it lasts until you're middle age, according to those figures. And so this is a lifelong issue.

And it is true that what Christine was saying to you before we came on is really important, that this is about dealing with what has happened in the past. And the question is where and whether there is a desire to deal with the structural issues that get people into the place where they have so much debt in order to get a basic, you know, college education or even graduate education.

That is something that we've heard from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and they tried to push it into the forefront of the conversation. It was for a while, during the Democratic primary process back in 2020. But if you heard the Chief Justice there talking about the fact that this is something that Congress needs to deal with --


BASH: -- we've heard that so many times before, he's not wrong, but will Congress, in its divided state, really deal with these issues?

BOLDUAN: Yes. It's great you guys are here. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

BASH: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

All right, so I want you to take a look at this. Snow trucks, snow plows. No mac (ph) for the winter storm in parts of California right now. I mean, it's gone on for so long that people are starting to run out of true-life necessities, from baby formula to prescription meds. We have a live report from California next.



BOLDUAN: Winter storms back-to-back and coast to coast. Take a look at this. Snow trucks, snow plows, they cannot keep up with the snow fall in parts of California at this point. This is near Los Angeles in the mountains of San Bernardino County. A state of emergency has been declared.

And in the northeast, nearly 50 million Americans are under winter weather alerts. For many, it's the first real snow all winter long. Let's get back to California where Stephanie Elam is standing by because she's a rock star and standing by for us. Stephanie, what are you seeing and hearing there?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not seeing a lot because all of a sudden it's gotten really icy and cold and foggy right now, Kate. It is cold, it is super snowy. And just to give you an idea of what it looks like, we got some cars going by. But I want to step out of it here because I want you to see how bad it's been up here.

There's been 68 inches of snow that has fallen just over the weekend. And you see, some people had to abandon cars. They just had to get out and leave their cars where they were.


Right now, looking at where we are in San Bernardino County, this part of the San Bernardino National Forest, it's about three times the annual snowfall in three days before this next round of snow, because guess what? We're expecting to get more of it starting tonight like 2 feet to 3 feet more snow here.

It was so bad over the weekend that there were some kids, some 600 children who were at a camp who were supposed to make their way home on Friday, but that was not possible. So they got escorted out yesterday and finally were reunited with their families because Caltrans Highway Patrol had to work to help get them out of here.

This is such a remarkable storm that we have seen here in Southern California that there was a first ever blizzard warning that was given early at the end of last week. So it just shows you how insane, really, this weather is for Southern California and how we do go in these cycles of where we'll go through these really dry periods. And then we can get a whole lot of precipitation and snow, and we're not even to march yet.

So this shows you that we still could get more. But when you look out here right now, it is bitterly cold. It is very snowy, so much so that you have to get chains on to get up to this part of the mountain. They don't want people coming up here unless you need to. And they've had to make sure that they've got emergency services up to people here who needed them. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes. Remarkable and insane. Two perfect words for the weather these days. Thank you, Stephanie. Really, thank you so much.

Let's turn now to Ohio, to that toxic train derailment in Ohio. A new study just came out looking at EPA data on pollutants released in the disaster and finds that high levels of chemicals could pose long term risks for people in the area, which could go against what residents there have been hearing from state and local officials

Let's get some more detail on this. Elizabeth Cohen joins us now. Elizabeth, walk us through this new data.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, Kate. So what scholars, the researchers did at Carnegie Mellon and at Texas A&M University is to look at the chemicals that the EPA is measuring in the air. They said that for nine of them, the levels were higher than they should be, and they were concerned that there could possibly be risks to people living in the area.

They focused on a chemical called Acrolein, it's used to control rodents. It's used to control plants and other things. It is toxic. And they were concerned that there might be issues there with this chemical. There can be respiratory issues, there can be irritation of mucosal membranes and other issues. And so these professors were, you know, concerned about this.

The EPA is saying, look, we're not -- well, let's -- we'll let them say it in their own words. The EPA put out a statement saying, the long-term risks referenced by this analysis, meaning that one at the universities, assume a lifetime of exposure, which is constant exposure over approximately 70 years. EPA does not anticipate levels of these chemicals, that levels of these chemicals will stay high for anywhere near that.

So Kate, this is really something, and this happens a lot with these environmental issues, that people -- smart people are going to disagree. No one's necessarily ill intended, but you can look at these numbers and legitimately see different things. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes. All right, Elizabeth, thank you so much.

Coming up for us, they're in pretty much everything we use, every electronic. And they now could be the new battleground between the U.S. and China. That's next.




VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translation): Unfortunately, there are losses in our ranks. The leadership of the FSB must do everything to provide additional support to the families of our fallen comrades.


BOLDUAN: That was Russian President Vladimir Putin, acknowledging losses in the ranks of his forces and also thanking them for what he calls their service in Ukraine. He delivered opening remarks to a meeting of his FSB domestic security service, where he also laid out his vision for the agency.

That vision now includes stepping up to counter what he says is increased espionage and sabotage efforts on Russia from the west. Putin warning that the information critical to Russia's defenses need to be protected.

Let's go there right now -- sorry, we're getting some new information getting in. Let's turn to Ukraine. Let's go from Russia to Ukraine now. Of course, Ukrainian troops are calling the situation in the east much worse than officially reported. One soldier denying Russian claims that Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut had been cut off. But tell CNN the situation is, quote, very difficult now.

At the same time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made an unannounced trip to Kyiv, where she met with President Zelenskyy. She spoke with CNN's Melissa Bell during her visit. And Melissa joins us now. Melissa, what's the very latest?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well from Bakhmut (INAUDIBLE) is what soldiers are describing to us, Ukrainian soldiers of a town, of course, remember that's been under siege now for several weeks, Kate. And what they're saying is happening now is that it isn't just the most battled hardened and battle ready, regular troops that have been piling in, but the most elite of the Wagner mercenary forces.

And they're coming in in huge numbers. That's what the soldiers have been (INAUDIBLE) reports that the town has been entirely encircled.