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Senate Votes On Border Bill As Blinken About To Speak From Israel; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) Discusses About The Bipartisan Border Package; Blinken Speaks After High-Level Meetings In Middle East. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 07, 2024 - 15:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN Breaking News.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: All right. We are watching the Senate floor right now on the left. On the right, out of Tel Aviv, we are expecting Secretary of State Tony Blinken to be speaking here any time. We're going to bring you that when it begins.

But as we watch on the Senate side here, there is a vote underway on a border security and aid package to Ukraine and Israel, a compromise that took five months to come together between Republicans, and Democrats and the White House. And ultimately, you are watching it die on the Senate floor there on the left.

Let's talk a little bit about this as we are - this vote is still underway. I want to talk now with Democratic Senator from Oregon Jeff Merkley. He's also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And, sir, as I understand it, you voted yes on this border package. I know that you had some pretty major reservations, some big concerns yesterday. What changed your mind?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): Well, it isn't just a border package. It is getting on to the bill. It's a motion to proceed to the bill that contains the aid for Ukraine and also international humanitarian aid. So in the - my argument here is we needed to get on to the bill in order to start the amendment process and try to get to a final bill that we're comfortable voting on.

I do have major reservations about the provisions of the border package. But as it turns out, the Republicans, after saying we have to have this package in order to do Ukraine, now they're saying we have to not have this package. They want to leave this as an open sore, an open problem at President Trump's direction through the November election.

KEILAR: Okay, but - and I understand what you're saying. This is cloture. It's a procedural bill. It's got a high threshold of 60 votes. But if you're opposed to the bill, generally speaking, people do not vote for cloture. Sometimes they do and traditionally maybe they do. But a lot of times, more recently, they don't.

Why did you think it was important to then move on to the bill, which, by the way, is not going to happen as we expect cloture to fail?

MERKLEY: Well, no, it's not going to happen, because the motion to proceed is a way to get the vehicle on the floor so you can start to have the debate. It is not passage of the bill. It's not even closing debate on passage of the bill. And there's components of this that are incredibly important.

The Ukraine aid is massively important. This is a Munich moment. This is like when Chamberlain in 1938 goes to Hitler and says in Munich, go ahead, take a piece of Czechoslovakia, and we'll just look the other way and say peace in our time.

Republicans opposing the aid to Ukraine are saying the same thing. They're saying to Putin, go ahead and take Ukraine. We'll just turn the other way and pretend everything's all good and peaceful. That is absolutely wrong. I think any historian would go back and advise Chamberlain he made a mistake in 1938. Future historians would say we're making a mistake today if we do not fund Ukraine.

KEILAR: That bill, by the way, just failing, 49 yeas, 15 nayes. So it is a official cloture, as it is called. That key procedural vote did not succeed, did not hit that 60-vote threshold. And so that means that this effort is now dead. Five months of work in really hard-gone efforts there and they are just washed away there.

The next step, Senator, of course, is going to be just an aid package for Israel, Ukraine, as well, obviously, as other priorities. But what do you want to see there and are you going to try to propose specific changes, as you've been very critical of Israel and how it's prosecuting its war?

MERKLEY: Yes, I am going to propose specific changes. One is for it to be American policy that no Palestinians in Gaza can be forcibly expelled from Gaza and that they all will have the ability to return to their homes. Second of all, that none of the pistols and rifles that the Israelis may purchase from the United States under foreign military sales can be transferred to settlers.

Settlers have been engaged in very hostile assaults on Palestinian villages in the West Bank and the U.S. must make very clear that it's unacceptable, and we certainly don't want to be complicit on that with our arms. There will be other amendments that my colleagues are proposing that I strongly support. One of them is to say that we must find a path to two states for two people in order to break this cycle of war and hate.


KEILAR: This bill that just failed, as is, would you have voted to pass it?

MERKLEY: If it was on its own, I would not have voted to pass it in its current form. I may have supported getting it on the floor in order to start the amendment process. We absolutely have a broken asylum process on the border. Right now what we have seen is people simply present themselves, say the word asylum, and hope that it will be many years, and most of the time it is many years, before they get an asylum hearing.

An asylum hearing should happen within a few months, not four to six years. So there's absolute changes that need to take place. President Biden proposed a $14 billion package that expanded to $20 billion, more security on the border, more Customs and Border Protection individuals, more asylum officers, so we can have those asylum hearings in a short period of time, more of family monitoring programs to make sure they show up for hearings.

All of that is really the type of fixes that we need. We need bipartisan partnership to implement those changes.

KEILAR: Sen. Merkley, thank you so much for your time this afternoon. We really appreciate you being with us.

MERKLEY: You're very welcome, thank you.

KEILAR: Let's go now to Lauren Fox. She's on Capitol Hill for us.

All right. This was the moment here just a couple minutes ago, Lauren. Give us the latest here and what the path ahead is for the Senate.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, right now there's a huge question, right? What is the future of aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, aid to Taiwan? One of the things that Republicans debated in a very lengthy lunch that was described to us by members coming out of it as robust, as vigorous, as frank discussion around what precisely should happen next is that Republicans are arguing they want to have clear commitments from Democrats to get some amendments on a supplemental package for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. And they do not want Schumer to just quickly move forward with that package without giving specific promises that they're going to get some votes to potentially change that bill.

So right now that is the discussion underway among Republicans. But we should note and take a step back that Republicans have been united in this conference about trying to find the best path forward and yet have been unable to figure out precisely what that is. And specifically when it comes to aid for Ukraine, the majority of the conference supports it, but there are differences among members about how they want to move forward and precisely whether or not they are going to ultimately support it.

So I think there's just a lot of question right now about how Republicans want to move forward, Brianna. And note that there's still a huge underlying question mark around how Mike Johnson, the Speaker of the House, would proceed even if senators could move forward with aid to Ukraine.

KEILAR: Yes, certainly there is, and we'll be watching that very carefully.

Lauren Fox, thank you so much. Jess?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: We're following a lot of developments out of the Middle East this afternoon. After a series of critical meetings in the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken may be leaving empty-handed. We're expecting to hear from him at any moment, and as soon as we do, we're going to bring that to you.

Earlier today, you see there he sat down with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure to get him to sign on to a deal that would pause fighting in Gaza and free the remaining hostages. After that meeting, though, Netanyahu bristled at Hamas' demands, calling them "delusional." But he didn't rule out further negotiations.

We're joined now by former hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin. He's the Middle East director of the International Communities Organisation.

Thanks so much for being here with us.

I'm curious, in light of Netanyahu's reaction that we just outlined there, what does that tell you about what it's going to take to get those remaining 100-plus hostages home?

GERSHON BASKIN, FORMER HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: It seems at this point almost impossible to get those hostages home and we already know that at least a fifth of them are no longer alive. They've either been killed by Israeli bombs or by executions by Hamas people. Netanyahu basically closed the door on negotiations, although there is a Hamas team going to Cairo tomorrow to meet with the head of intelligence there. Netanyahu is not willing to make any deal that will leave Hamas in place.

The Hamas proposal that was issued last night essentially leaves Hamas in control of Gaza. That's a nonstarter for Israel, but it's also the only way of getting the hostages home alive. So we're kind of at a dead end here.

DEAN: And so how much of Netanyahu's stance on this proposal is tied to his own political survival? It was interesting to learn today that Secretary Blinken was also meeting with the defense minister kind of - and he bristled at that as well, that he was going around him to talk to the defense minister to try to get some sort of deal.


BASKIN: Right. I think it's very clear that Netanyahu has an interest in prolonging the war. As soon as there is a long-term ceasefire or an end to the war, the National Commission of Inquiry, headed by a Supreme Court judge, will be formed, and the calls for new elections in Israel will be very, very loud. People will take to the streets again, as we did for 40 weeks prior to the war, in protest to the Netanyahu government.

And because of Netanyahu's failures on October 7th and everything that led to October 7th, all the polls indicate that he has no chance of winning these elections, and this will be the end of his political career.

DEAN: And The New York Times reported yesterday Israeli intelligence has concluded at least, you mentioned this, at least 30 of the 136, more than one-fifth of the remaining hostages have died. And you published a column on this today, and in that column you wrote that the war can wait, the hostages cannot. Their families have been so outspoken on this, telling the government, do whatever it takes to get them out. Do you think that they should continue to have hope? And what do you mean by that statement, the war can wait, the hostages cannot?

BASKIN: The families have to be hopeful, and they have to put more pressure on the government and bring people out to the streets. The government of Israel failed the people of Israel on October 7th when it failed to protect them. They were dragged from their homes, they were dragged from a music festival, they were dragged from army bases and taken hostage into Israel, while - into Gaza, while Hamas murdered 1,200 other Israelis. The government has a moral responsibility to bring them home.

When I said the war can wait, the hostages cannot. The hostages are dying, they're being killed. Israel can renew the war after it gets the hostages home. There's nothing to prevent them from doing it. And I'm sure that Hamas will provide ample reason for Israel to continue the war even after it's declared over.

Hamas cannot rule Gaza, cannot threaten Israel. It is bad for the Palestinians, it is bad for the region, it's bad for Jordan and Egypt, and it's certainly bad for Israel. So we have a responsibility to ensure that Hamas will not continue to rule. But what we need in order for that to happen is for there to be a political, after the war, a political solution where there is a two-state solution that's viable.

That's going to require the Biden administration to recognize the state of Palestine, along with the other OECD nations, so that Palestine becomes real for the Palestinian people. No longer a 30-year open-ended peace process where people talk about the two-state solution, but only recognize one of those states.

DEAN: All right. Gershon Baskin for us. Thanks so much. We appreciate your expertise on that.

BASKIN: Thank you.

KEILAR: And, of course, so much of these negotiations also have to do with humanitarian aid, which is just so critical right now in Gaza. So let's get some insight now from one aid group about the challenges of operating there in the enclave.

We're joined by World Central Kitchen CEO Erin Gore and Director of Emergency Response Sam Bloch, who has been in Gaza.

And so I was actually hoping you may also see this is a stove and we're going to talk about that in just a moment. But first, Sam, because you have been in Gaza, you've been there firsthand. If you could just tell us a little bit about what you've seen and what people are experiencing.

SAM BLOCH, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY RESPONSE, WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN: Sure. Thanks for having us on today. I've been doing this work for 19 years in some of the worst situations around the world, the last six years with World Central Kitchen. And just the logistical challenges of getting aid to the people in Gaza is unlike anything we've seen before. It's constant challenges. It's, to be honest, just not enough. There's very few international aid efforts that are having successful impact on the ground in Gaza, ceasefire or while the war is undergoing.

We have been one of the ones that have been rather successful. We've done 34 million meals served in Gaza since the start of the war. And we've had almost a thousand 18-wheeler big trucks of food arrive into Gaza, but it's still not enough.

KEILAR: So let's talk a little bit about this stove, if we can.

DEAN: Yes.

KEILAR: Tell us what this is.

DEAN: It is large and it is - this is - you guys invented this, essentially, right? It's - am I understanding that right?

BLOCH: Our team in Cairo designed this specifically for the needs in Gaza. It's a technology that's been around for a while. As some people may or may not know, there's an extremely limited amount of propane in Gaza, almost none. And so our team had to very quickly design something - I mean, how do you cook millions of meals for people with no electricity and no propane?

So we were fortunate enough to find a factory in Cairo that produces these. Some people might know them from wood stoves is what they're typical is.


KEILAR: What is this?

DEAN: What is that?

KEILAR: It's like a --

DEAN: What is that?

KEILAR: It's like a wood pellet?

GORE: Yes.

BLOCH: It's a wooden pellet. And so what this factory does is they bring in scrap wood from around the world, process it into these pellets, and then they sell it to Europe for wood stoves.


We converted this and designed this stove to do industrial cooking without propane.

KEILAR: Here, and I'll hold some so people can see what this is.

BLOCH: Yeah.

KEILAR: So you can get this in, basically.

GORE: Yes.

BLOCH: Exactly.

GORE: Yes. So this is clean cooking. What Sam and the team has seen on the ground is that people are scavenging, they're burning any kind of wood that they can to either keep themselves warm, to cook. You can imagine cooking with chemical-soaked wood. It's not okay.

And so this stove is really important. We have more than 700 of these stoves throughout Gaza right now. And really key to the World Central Kitchen and what we do and how we show up is to try to do hot meals as much as we can. Like Sam said, we've done 34 million meals in Gaza.

But there's so much dignity and all the meals are culturally relevant and so this is an amazing adaptation. Our team is small. It's nimble. We're constantly having to adapt and innovate in real time in the disasters that we're facing around the world. And, yes, with propane, with fuel not being allowed in Gaza, we've just had to figure it out and do whatever it takes.

DEAN: And so what is the current status now? You said you have seven of these ...

GORE: Seven hundred ...

DEAN: ... 700 of these across Gaza and team members, I would assume, spread out as well and how long do you anticipate being there?

BLOCH: It's going to be a while. I mean, the way things are and just looking - to be honest - since the beginning of the war, the starvation gap, the need for food has only grown. It's - most of our crisis that we work in, there's an event that happens and then it's de-escalating. And this, since the beginning, has just been getting worse and worse every day.

I was, a lot of my time in southern Rafah, I would go up north up to Shifa Hospital. But in southern Rafah, in the south, it was originally 200,000 people and one of the most densely populated. It's a small piece of land. It's not like 1.5 million.

So I was there as everybody was migrating down. First thing to go was all the trees. If people were fortunate enough to have food to cook for their family, they need a fuel source. So they cut down all the trees. Now, when I left not too long ago, people were resorting to digging up the roots of those trees that had been cut down in order to make a cup of tea for their family or to cook - to make some bread. So the situation has just been getting progressively worse. KEILAR: Can you tell us how the pause on UNRWA, the U.N. organization that provides so much of the aid, the reality of so many nonprofits that are operating there is that they do this in partnership with UNRWA, which I think you can speak to. We've talked to Doctors Without Borders about this as well. They've said that this is really detrimental to the work that they are seeing done. Have you seen the impacts of that pause in funding for UNRWA? How might that impact you? What are you expecting?

BLOCH: I think there's actually very few partners on the grounds. We - that have boots on the ground in Gaza and are doing that direct work. We're collaborating with almost all of them. Partnerships, our real partners are the local community. They're the ones that are cooking and serving themselves. But we collaborate with everybody. We've been feeding all of the Doctors Without Borders shelters.

And I will just say that all of the agencies or organizations that are on the ground need to be doing more. This is not a time to be doing less, including ourselves. We're currently spending up to a million dollars a day. We need to double or triple that to just everybody needs to be doing more.

GORE: And to your question about do we know how long we're going to be there, we don't in a lot of ways. We're just getting started. We very feverishly want to serve more meals. Just this weekend we did our very first ever airdrop of food in northern Gaza. We hope to do more.

So we're really looking at all ways that we can by land, by air, now by water. So we'll see if the port opens and we can get more food in that way. But in a lot of ways we're just starting. It's not ending soon.

DEAN: Yes.

KEILAR: And what do you need from people?

GORE: Right now for us, because this situation is --

KEILAR: Outside of Gaza, what do you need from people who want to support you?

GORE: Yes, because the situation is so complex. World Central Kitchen, we're a very inviting organization. Usually there's lots of ways to volunteer. Right now we need financial support. So anybody and everybody can donate to World Central Kitchen by going to For us, donations directly translate to meals on the ground, yes.

KEILAR: It's very innovative what you're doing. Erin and Sam, thank you so much for being with us.

We want to go right now to Tel Aviv where Secretary of State Antony Blinken is beginning his remarks.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: ... Israel since October 7th. I'm back first and foremost to consult directly with our partners on the joint efforts to bring all of the remaining hostages home. I've met with families of the hostages multiple times during prior visits, as well as in Washington, and I expect to see them again tomorrow.


The sheer agony - not knowing the fate of your loved one - it's almost unimaginable. And I know that that pain is almost unbearable. So we have been intensely focused from day one on getting the hostages - all the hostages - back with their families where they belong. And we will keep that focus until we get them back.

We had an opportunity today to discuss with the Israeli Government the response that Hamas sent last night to the proposal that the United States, Qatar and Egypt had put together to bring the remaining hostages home, and extend the humanitarian pause. What I can tell you about these discussions is that while there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas' response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached. And we will work at that relentlessly until we get there.

We had extensive discussions with the prime minister and national security leaders on the status of the military campaign to defeat Hamas, and on the progress toward achieving the fundamental objective of ensuring that October 7th never happens again. At the same time, we're continuing to work closely with Israel and Lebanon on diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions on Israel's northern border so that families can return to their homes - both in northern Israel and in southern Lebanon - and live in peace and security.

We also discussed the imperative of maximizing civilian protection and humanitarian aid to address the ongoing suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands are experiencing acute hunger. Most have lost someone that they love. And day after day, more people are killed.

On all of my previous visits here and pretty much every day in between, we have pressed Israel in concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection, to get more assistance to those who need it. And over the past four months, Israel has taken important steps to do just that: starting the flow of aid; doubling it during the first pause for hostage releases; opening the north and south corridors in Gaza so that people could move out of immediate harm's way, through these corridors with four hours' pause every day, three hours' notice; opening Kerem Shalom; starting the flow of assistance from Jordan; establishing de-confliction mechanisms for humanitarian sites. As a result, today, more assistance than ever is moving into Gaza from more places than at any time since October 7th.

As the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, the United States has helped provide much of that assistance, including funding 90,000 metric tons of flour delivered from Ashdod Port. That's enough to provide bread for 1.4 million people for the next five months. A U.N. team began its mission to the north to assess conditions for the civilians who are still there, as well as what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return back home to the north.

And yet, as I said to the prime minister and to other Israeli officials today, the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high. In our discussions today, I highlighted some key steps that Israel should take to ensure that more aid reaches more people in Gaza. Israel should open Erez so that assistance can flow to northern Gaza where, as I said, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to survive under dire conditions. It should expedite the flow of humanitarian assistance from Jordan. It should strengthen de-confliction and improve coordination with the humanitarian providers. And Israel must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone.

We urge Israel to do more to help civilians, knowing full well that it faces an enemy that would never hold itself to those standards - an enemy that cynically embeds itself among men, women, and children, and fires rockets from hospitals, from schools, from mosques, from residential buildings; an enemy whose leaders surround themselves with hostages; an enemy that has declared publicly its goal: to kill as many innocent civilians as it can, simply because they're Jews, and to wipe Israel off the map.


That's why we've made clear that Israel is fully justified in confronting Hamas and other terrorist organizations. And that's why the United States has done more than any other country to support Israel's right to ensure that October 7th never happens again.

Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7th. The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others. The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7th, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families. They're mothers and fathers, sons and daughters - want to earn a decent living, send their kids to school, have a normal life. That's who they are; that's what they want. And we cannot, we must not lose sight of that. We cannot, we must not lose sight of our common humanity.

We remain determined as well to pursue a diplomatic path to a just and lasting peace, and security for all in the region, and notably for Israel. And that diplomatic path continues to come into ever sharper focus as I travel throughout the region and talk to all of our friends and partners. An Israel that's fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries, including Saudi Arabia, with firm guarantees for its security, alongside a concrete, time-bound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel, with the necessary security assurances.

Over the course of this trip, we discussed both the substance and sequence of steps that all would need to take to make this path real. That includes steps by the Palestinian Authority to reform and revitalize itself. And I reaffirmed the imperative of those steps in my meeting today with President Abbas, chief among them improving governance, increasing accountability to the Palestinian people, reforms that the Palestinian Authority is committed to make in a recently announced reform package and that we urge it to implement swiftly.

Now, we can see so many of the actors in the region lining up to move down the path that I just described. But some are not. Some are trying to sabotage that path. Iran and its proxies continue to escalate and expand the cycle of violence that we all want to break. We'll continue to defend our people, we'll continue to defend our interests in the face of such attacks - not to fuel escalation, but to prevent it.

Finally, in my discussions today with the prime minister and senior officials, I also raised our profound concerns about actions and rhetoric, including from government officials, that inflame tensions, that undercut international support, and place greater strains on Israel's security. The people of Israel have sacrificed enormously to forge this nation and to defend it. They'll ultimately decide the right path to take, and whether they're ready to make difficult choices necessary to realize the vision of the long-elusive prospect of true peace and true security. As a true friend of Israel, as the country that has always been first to its side - whether that was May 14th, 1948 or October 7th, 2023 - we will always offer our best advice on the choices before this country, especially the ones that matter the most.

Thank you. Happy to take some questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first question goes to Zolan Kanno-Youngs with The New York Times.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the question. Just have a couple for you here. I know that you said there's still room for agreement in terms of the negotiations over the release of hostages, but the prime minister after you spoke with him pretty bluntly dismissed Hamas' response, describing it even as ludicrous. I just want to clarify, is this response, are these negotiations DOA at this point?


And what specifically did the prime minister object to in that response?