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Now: Senate Voting On Doomed Border And Foreign Aid Bill; CNN Granted Access To Hamas Tunnels In Gaza; Soon: Blinken Speaks After High-Level Meetings In Middle East. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 07, 2024 - 14:00   ET




JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Happening right now on Capitol Hill, you're looking live as Senate Republicans are on track to kill the most conservative border deal to come before them in decades. The $118 billion package would implement strict limits along the southern border like requiring it to be shut down if crossings reach high levels. It would also raise the standard for asylum seekers and expedite this asylum process.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Hanging in the balance here is also $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, another $14 billion in aid to Israel, both tied to this deal. We have CNN covering this story from all angles. So we have Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, Fred Pleitgen in Kyiv. First, though, live to Capitol Hill and our chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju. Manu, this border deal is doomed to fail. That has become very clear. How likely is a standalone aid bill at this point?

MANU RAJU, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, that is really the big question at the moment. There is no question about the fact that Senate Republicans are about to kill this package with a handful of Democrats are expected to vote no as well. But this is really a Republican story because of the fact that in the immediate aftermath of a deal that had been cut for more than five months, been working behind the scenes, a handful of Senators cutting a deal on border security new policies at the border, because Republicans had insisted that that must be dealt with first before aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, aid to Taiwan could be enacted.

The goal of Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as proponents of the larger package was to put this on the floor right now, get this to the Senate and then try to get it somehow through the House. But the House Republican leadership said this is dead on arrival. Former President Donald Trump said that he would not accept it. And a lot of Senate Republicans are simply saying there is no point in moving forward on this larger bill.

Now, given the resistance among the Republicans and the former president, so now what's next? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he will indeed try to advance a bill that does include billions of dollars of funding, nearly $100 billion of funding for Taiwan, for Israel, for Ukraine, for other matters as well. The question is will be, will he get the 60 votes he needs to advance that bill without the border provisions?

At the moment, it appears that he might. Republican leaders, including Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans have indicated support for moving along on that measure. There's also a big question here, though, Brianna, even if it gets out of the Senate, which is still an open question at this moment, even it seems possible that it could get there. We'll get through the Republican-led House. The speaker there this morning, who simply would not commit to moving on the Senate plan has pushed to delink these issues, moving then different aid packages separately, not to tie them all together.

Ukraine is a very divisive issue, particularly among the House Republican conference. So, so many questions here, as a Senate Republicans are planning to kill this big package. And now Plan B is starting to move, but can they get there that remains to be seen?

KEILAR: And Manu please stick around for us. I want to go now to Fred Pleitgen, of course, tied up in all of this as Ukraine as Manu was just spilling out there, Fred. How dire is the situation in Ukraine right now?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I would say, Brianna, that it's getting more dire for the Ukrainians by the day. I mean, one of the things that we've seen and we've been on basically all the front lines here in this country, certainly the ones that are the most active is that the biggest problems for the Ukrainians right now is a shortage of ammunition, especially of artillery ammunition. But also when you go to the front line, you do see just how many American weapons but also other American gear is being used by the Ukrainians and how key it is for the Ukrainians to stay in the fight.

We've seen M777 howitzers. We've seen other howitzers from the United States, like for instance, the Paladin howitzer as well, but then also just things like vehicles, trucks, guns, bullets, all the things that the Ukrainians need to stay in the fight. And obviously for them, the situation around that is getting more difficult by the day. Certainly the areas that we've been to, the Ukrainians are still hanging on. The Russians are pressing right now but the Ukrainians are hanging on but it's becoming more difficult for them by the day, especially as the shortage of ammunition gets worse.

There's another thing though that's -- an even bigger concern right now for the Ukrainians, you know, one of the things that we had this morning here in the Ukrainian capital, many other cities as well, was a massive barrage of Russian missiles that was fired at the Ukrainian capital. And pretty much all of them were taken down by Western air defense systems. Of course, the massive system from the United States extremely important for the Ukrainians, the patriot, probably even more important than that.


The thing that the Ukrainians are looking at now, what if those missiles start running out, and certainly at some point, that could be the case, judging by how many missiles the Russians fired here today, and that could have devastating effects on Ukrainian infrastructure, on Ukrainian cities, and with that, also, on Ukrainian civilians.

So obviously, for the Ukrainians, this is a big issue. There are some European countries that are already stepping in and trying to provide more. But there really is no country that can do what the United States does and what the United States has done as far as military support for the Ukrainians in terms of gear and in terms of ammunition.

DEAN: All right, Fred, thank you. And let's go now to CNN's Nic Robertson, who's in Tel Aviv. Nic, yesterday, House Republicans rejected their own standalone bill that would provide more than $17 billion in aid to Israel. We're also learning Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding critical talks with leaders there that could determine the fate of dozens of hostages in Gaza. So here domestically dealing with aid and then you are dealing with potentially trying to get the rest of those hostages out. What more can you tell us about that?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, the proposal that Hamas, the counterproposal that Hamas put on the table is a three phase release of those hostages of the women, children, elderly and sick. Forty-five days later, phase two would kick in. That would be the men, both the civilians and the military. Forty-five days later, if everything went well, phase three, that would be the release of all the bodies of the remaining hostages believed to be about 31 right now.

But what we've heard from Israel's Prime Minister this evening at a press conference really aimed at his domestic audience, his pushing back on the deal. He's not saying it's not happening, but he's pushing back really clearly. He's saying we must have a military victory that is close. It's not years away. It's months away. He said he told Secretary Blinken that it was close. And he also said, sort of putting down an element of what Hamas had called for which was a release of Palestinian prisoners, saying we haven't agreed to any of their crazy demands about the numbers or the types of prisoners or prisoners with blood on their hands. That was the reference.

So on the public face of it, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pushing off the terms of this deal as per this counterproposal, as put forward by Hamas. Behind the closed doors and he did say we don't do the deals in front of the cameras, the real work gets done behind the scenes. But behind those closed doors, it isn't clear if the big gaps that remain that Hamas wants a complete ceasefire phase to get there. And the Prime Minister is saying absolutely not only military victory, can that be closed.

And of course that's on Secretary Blinken's agenda while he's here. And interesting that he took time, Secretary Blinken, took time to meet with the army chief of staff and the head of Mossad to get their assessment of the last big potential battle for the IDF in Gaza, Rafah where there are more than almost 1.5 million Palestinians living. And this evening Secretary Blinken meeting with the defense minister, which Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, said was unusual. Diplomacy at work may be reaching around a Prime Minister who won't come to the position the U.S. would like him to take. DEAN: That is very interesting, Nic. And just reminding everyone we are going to hear from the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, we believe in the next hours and just in the next few minutes even. So we'll keep an eye on that. Thank you so much for that reporting.

And for more on all of this, CNN's Manu Raju still with us. And also joining the conversation now is CNN senior political commentator and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, Scott Jennings. Scott, great to have you here in studio with us. I'll start with you. We are watching the Senate floor right now. I see Kyrsten Sinema in the red, one of the lead negotiators. She was just on the floor, very frustrated about this.

And just to remind everybody, Republicans were the ones who demanded that there be this immigration bill or that there be legislation to deal with this in order to, with the border, in order to move forward on this aid. And yet, now, they are the ones that are rejecting it. She just said on the floor, the quote is, after all those trips to the desert, after all those press conferences, it turns out this crisis isn't much of a crisis after all. Sunday morning, it's a real crisis. Monday morning, it magically disappeared. What do you think about that?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what the Republicans would say is that, yes, we do need to do something on the border, but this bill doesn't meet the moment. So they would argue it on the policy merits. Of course the retort to that is you've got two different parties here and it's a negotiation and it's a compromise and, you know, you get what you get in divided government.


And it's unlikely, by the way that even if Republicans controlled all three legs of the stool next year, they would ever get Democrats to deal with them in the way they have. But she's not wrong. It was Republicans who said, if we're going to do all this stuff for Ukraine and overseas, we have to do something for the border. That's why this whole thing started in the first place.

Now, there's an old saying, time kills all deals, and it did take four months. And in that period of time, Donald Trump became the de facto nominee of the Republican Party. He doesn't want this to pass. He's the most influential person in the party. And that's where we stand today.

KEILAR: It is an election year, and it's -- you don't normally see much get done in election years. However, there are exceptions, in crises, right? We've seen them during the financial crisis. We saw things get done. And Americans look at this, and they say, this is a crisis. I wonder how you think Americans, Republicans, Independent voters are going to look at this, if they even truly understand what's in this bill, sort of, it's kind of common sense stuff, you know. It's almost like a circuit breaker if the border gets overloaded. Things are really slow when it comes to asylum, speed them up, and then people who are rejected get sent away more quickly if they are rejected. How do you think people will perceive it, voters? JENNINGS: I wouldn't overestimate the amount of in the weeds knowledge that voters end up --

KEILAR: Well, that's fair.

JENNINGS: -- having on this. I do think just at a top line, political situations, looking at all the polling, Joe Biden is in a real hole on this. People have agreed with Republicans that it's a crisis. They have agreed that something needs to be done. They agree that Biden has failed whether they have come to believe this bill is a catch all for it. I'm dubious. Actually, I think most Americans just wonder why we can't just close the border until we can get a handle on how many people, you know, why is it so many people were able to come across every single day.

I also think an uncovered part of this or an undercover part of it is just the impact of the drug crisis. People are desperate for something especially on fentanyl. That's why I thought it's notable that Schumer when he puts up the Plan B today, I guess he's going to leave the fentanyl piece of it. And so the border stuff is going to come out. But he's going to leave the fentanyl piece in, you know, even in states that are far away from the border. Apart from the humanitarian crisis and the national security threat, the drug epidemic is really fueling a lot of people's anxiety about the crisis.

DEAN: It's touching so many people. Let's go to Manu for a second. Manu, we're talking about the Senate, but also the House has just seen kind of an unprecedented 24 hours of dysfunction and chaos. Speaker Johnson said there are steady hands at the wheel, his colleagues shouldn't be concerned. I know you asked him earlier today about Thomas Massey's quote, that he tweeted saying that it's been an unmitigated disaster, I think were his words. What are you hearing more about the GOP's confidence in the Speaker's ability to govern?

RAJU: Yes, you know, actually, this has been quite commonplace in this Republican-led house. They've seen something that we've never seen before in the history of the country, ousting the sitting speaker. They've had a very difficult time even doing the basic essence of governing, trying to keep the lights on for the federal government passing short term spending bill after a short term spending bill facing revolts within the far right in particular, scuttling the leadership plans.

And that last night, seeing the failure to move forward in the impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas, despite months of trove laying the groundwork for this effort, there were three Republicans who voted against this. But there was a miscalculation by the Speaker himself, who had thought that one Democrat was not going to show up, that Democrat Al Green did show up. He is recovering from surgery that changed the math completely. Ultimately, that failed.

And I spent the day talking to Republicans not just about that, but just everything that has gone on, the inability to get anything done so far to get an act on the border. They stole Israel and Ukraine and Taiwan aid all being dealt with right now. And many of them are making clear, they're not happy. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE WOMACK (R-AR): When you are handed the keys to the, you know, to the kingdom as it were when you have the majority, there is an expectation that you will be able to govern. And we've just struggled with that over and over again.

REP. LANCE GOODEN (R-TX): I was embarrassed for our conference, for our party, because we can do better than we did last night.

REP. RALPH NORMAN (R-SC): He didn't count votes. I think he will next time.

RAJU: Shouldn't he count the votes before coming to the floor?

NORMAN: I think he relied in his defense on other people to sway some people. He needs to count votes and come to the floor. This message of not impeaching Mayorkas sent a message to a wrong message, I think. It needs to make sure and as bad as bad as Pelosi was she knew her votes before it took place.


RAJU: And that comment of course referring to the former House Speaker, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who did often go to the floor even with narrow majorities get legislation through. But the Democratic Caucus and the House GOP conference are just two different places right now. Many of those Republicans simply don't listen to their leadership despite their efforts here. Johnson sort of dismissing and downplaying all of these divides saying that they'll figure out a way forward here, but a messy, messy period. No doubt about it, guys.


DEAN: Yes. All right, Manu Raju, Scott Jennings, our thanks to both of you.

KEILAR: Next, could a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas now be within reach. Any minute this is what we are keeping an eye on here, the embassy in Jerusalem. We're going to be hearing from Secretary of State Tony Blinken following his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


KEILAR: Secretary of State Tony Blinken is about to speak from Israel from Tel Aviv after a series of high level meetings in the region to try to forge a peace deal that would see the remaining hostages in Gaza freed.

DEAN: And as we keep an eye on that and await those remarks, we have brand new CNN reporting inside the tunnel system that Israel says Hamas used to hold hostages. And Israeli military escort accompany of small group of journalists and as a condition to join that embed, the IDF did review CNN's footage of the tunnels. CNN's Ivana Kottasova was in that group and she joins us now. Ivana, walk us through what you saw.


IVANA KOTTASOVA, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: So first of all, yes, we were taken to Gaza by the Israeli military, which means that everything we saw was only what they allowed us to see. And even so, I can tell you that the destruction that I witnessed inside the Gaza Strip was just unbelievable. We drove from the Gaza border fence to Khan Yunis, and I had limited view. But I can tell you that I did not see a single building that was not damaged in some way and most of one where completely destroyed beyond any recognition.

So there is just piles and piles of rubble, everywhere you look. And the Israeli military says that this destruction is down to the fact that they are trying to destroy this underground tunnel system that Hamas built underneath much of the Gaza Strip. And that's what they wanted us to see. So we went inside two separate tunnel compounds under a residential neighborhood in very heart of Khan Yunis. And I can tell you that the experience of being inside these tunnels was just horrendous.

It is really narrow, dark space. It's very warm and very humid. And once they took us into the different rooms, it was just very strange experience because all of the walls are tiled. And you can see that some thought was actually put into the decorating of these rooms, where Israel says some of the Hamas leaders were hiding even during this war. And crucially, some of the hostages that were taken during the October 7th attack were kidnapped to and were held in these rooms.

And you know, these rooms, the room where they were held is just this cave like space that is very warm, very humid, you feel like you can't breathe, that the oxygen might just run out on you. You feel like the walls are coming in on you and going to collapse anytime. And it's just a horrible experience. Brianna, Jessica?

DEAN: Ivana, as you're talking, we're seeing what you're describing in the video next to you. Thank you so much for that reporting. We sure do appreciate it.

And every sticking point in the negotiations between Hamas and Israel puts more lives at risk. For the latest on these negotiations, we have CNN's chief national security correspondent Alex Marquardt here in Washington. Alex, take us through Hamas's demands and why Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, is calling them crazy.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we have now gotten a response by the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and not one that we thought might be coming because the momentum had been relatively positive. The thinking being that we were getting closer to a deal. And here you have Netanyahu coming out and saying that we have not committed to any of the crazy demands of Hamas. He says there has to be a negotiation. And from what I see from Hamas, it's not happening.

And that's what makes what we're about to hear from Secretary Blinken, all the more important because he's going to get asked to respond to where this actually stands. Now, Blinken was briefed on Hamas's demands yesterday by the Qataris, who had gotten the counter proposal from Hamas from what I'm told, he responded positively and other person involved in the discussion said that this was a reasonable counter offer from Hamas, clearly Netanyahu doesn't see it that way.

Now, we're talking about a multiphase deal that would put in place a pause in the fighting over the course potentially of several months and potentially get the more than 100 hostages home. Now, Jessica and Brianna, the major sticking points that I'm seeing right at this point, in order to just get the initial phase off the ground really is the Palestinian prisoners, because in exchange for Israeli hostages, Hamas wants Palestinian prisoners, they want all of the prisoners who have been arrested, detained since October 7th, that would include the terrorists who carried out October 7th.

On top of that, they want at least 500 more who Israel would consider to have blood on their hands. These are prisoners who are in prison, some of them with life sentences. And then once you move beyond that, that's just assuming the first phase gets off the ground. There are two other major complicating factors. Hamas wants to see all of the Israeli soldiers out of the Gaza Strip, that is something that Israel says right now is impossible. And more broadly, Hamas wants a deal this pause to lead to the end of the war.

That is not something that Israel is ready to agree to. We heard Netanyahu in that press conference earlier today saying they are still working on complete victory over Hamas, which he says will take several more months.

KEILAR: Alex, thank you so much for that. We're joined now by Leon Panetta, of course, former Defense Secretary, former CIA director during the Obama administration. Mr. Secretary, thanks for being with us. And first let's talk about what we've heard today from Benjamin Netanyahu. He says that he told Blinken, we are nearly there with complete victory and surrendering to Hamas's unbelievable demands will only ask for another disaster. They really doesn't sound like someone who's looking to sign a hostage deal anytime soon. How are you evaluating what you're hearing from him?


LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think Netanyahu is basically trying to establish a bargaining position. He knows ultimately, this has to happen in order to be able to get the hostages released, in order to be able to take a breath with the ceasefire, and be able to kind of evaluate where they're at. And thirdly, I think it's, it's critical to provide humanitarian aid to those that are in Gaza.

So for a number of reasons, I think this is in Netanyahu's interest, politically, to be able to get this done. But he's going to push. He's going to try to continue to try to squeeze the negotiations here. But I really do believe that ultimately, he will agree to some kind of deal.

KEILAR: Is that is what you're witnessing, in your opinion, just him trying to delay an end to the IDF operation, because we heard him say today that the IDF is preparing to fight in Rafah next, which is obviously something that would come with enormous complications. But certainly he is signaling that they are really zeroing in on Hamas leadership.

PANETTA: Yes, you know, look, I -- I think he is intent on trying to continue to go after Hamas's leadership as he should. And, frankly, make sure that he's gone after all of those that were responsible for October 7th, that's going to take time, I suspect that it's going to require more targeted operations than the kind of operations we've seen in Gaza. And the military is going to have to convince him that those kinds of targeted operations can work and can work effectively.

So, you know, my view right now is that he's trying to put pressure on the negotiations. He's trying to put pressure on Hamas, trying to put pressure on Secretary Blinken, I'm sure. But in the end, I don't think he's got much room here to walk away from this deal. I think he's got to come up with an approach that gets the hostages back.

There's tremendous political pressure in Israel now to get those hostages released. And I think ultimately, he's going to be willing to come to some agreement as Hamas will, in order to be able to develop a ceasefire, to be able to develop an approach that allows humanitarian aid to go in. And that provides for the release of the hostages.

KEILAR: When you say targeted operations, are you saying a shift away from these larger bombings toward special operations on the ground raid like operations?

PANETTA: Absolutely, look, we did it. After 9/11, we developed counterterrorism operations to basically go after the leadership of al-Qaeda that was involved in the attack on 9/11. And we were successful at going after their leadership. It took some time. But we ultimately got all of the key people that were involved in that attack. I think it's an effective way to be able to target individuals who are now going to be basically not just in the tunnels, they're going to be all over the place trying to hide from the Israelis.

So I think it's going to be a prolonged effort to try to ultimately get the leadership that was involved in October 7th. And I think they can do it through a more targeted operation.

KEILAR: If he's not into that idea as much as obviously you think and many others think that he should be and he's indicating that the IDF is preparing to fight next in Rafah, which is where so many Palestinians have evacuated to, it's not safe there, but it's safer and so much of Gaza has been destroyed. What would that look like with the IDF targeting Rafah?


PANETTA: Well, you know, he could walk into a situation that'll just create even more political problems for him, if he just charges in with military force to try to go after the remaining leadership. Look, a principal point here, and I agree with it, is that Israel has to target the leadership that would have Hamas that was involved on October 7th. I agree with that I think most people agree with that. But you're talking about a leadership that isn't just going to be in one place, they're going to be moving around.