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President Biden To Visit MLK's Grave In Georgia; Ahead Of Voting Rights Speech; Some Georgia Voting Rights Groups To Skip Biden's Speech In Atlanta; Hospitals Struggling Under COVID Surge, Staffing Shortages. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 11, 2022 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello, it is good to be with you, I'm Victor Blackwell.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota. President Biden is in Atlanta with Vice President Kamala Harris to give what's being called his most urgent plea yet for voting rights.

First, in this hour, he will visit the final resting place of Martin Luther King Jr. Then he'll give a speech to push for two federal laws that would standardize elections. It's an effort to combat a slew of new laws put in place by Republican state legislatures to restrict voting and to install Trump loyalists who believe Donald Trump's lies that the 2020 election was stolen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are going to be judged. Where were they before and where were they after the vote? History is going to judge it. It's that consequential.


BLACKWELL: Nineteen states have passed 34 laws that limit voting hours, ballot drop boxes, or take some power from local elections officials. There are other constraints as well. The Brennan Center for Justice says it's tracking at least a dozen state laws being proposed this year. And some Georgia voting rights groups are skipping the president's speech. They're demanding action, not just more talk.

CAMEROTA: So CNN's Jeff Zelenskyy is at Atlanta with the president.

Jeff, Georgia's best known voting activist, Stacey Abrams, will not be there for President Biden's speech. So how is he reacting to that?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Now, Alisyn, that certainly has gotten a bit of attention. Of course, Stacey Abrams was the face of the need for voting reform. She registered so many voters here in Georgia, and her narrow loss in 2018, but it certainly led to President Biden carrying the state of Georgia in 2020, but she is actually thanking and welcoming President Biden in a tweet, but she's not going to be here, citing a scheduling conflict.

President Biden, as he left the White House, had this to say about Stacey Abrams.


BIDEN: I spoke with Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship. We got our scheduling mixed up. I talked with her at length this morning. We're all on the same page. And everything's fine.


ZELENY: So he said everything's fine there. Yes, there is certainly some dissent from some local Georgia Democratic groups. The dissent, of course, is very common in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but we should point out that President Biden flew here on Air Force One. Vice President Harris flew here separately in Air Force Two. Both planes were filled with members of the Georgia Democratic delegation, other senators as well.

There certainly are many civil rights leaders expected to be on hand when this speech begins, and we are getting a sense of what President Biden is going to say during this landmark speech with the White House is giving a major push on voting rights.

Let's look at just a bit of it. He'll say this. He'll say, "The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And so, the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?"

And that is the central question here as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he's going to be bringing up some of these bills for consideration this week. The question is the filibuster. We're told that President Biden is going to give his most forceful argument yet to have a carveout in this filibuster to allow this voting right legislation to go forward without the needed 60 votes.

Joe Manchin, though, said this morning that he simply is not in favor of that. So, we have a sense of how this is going to end, but the question is, will there be some type of compromise on some lesser legislation here to protect voting rights? And really to implement some national reform here to push back against all those actions of the state, including here in Georgia. That's why this speech here from the president and vice president is so important, at least to the White House -- Victor, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. We'll obviously be watching. Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much for previewing all of that.

Joining me now is Jerry Gonzalez, he's the CEO of GALEO, that's the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. His group is boycotting the president's speech. Jerry, great to see you. You say that there's no time for speeches.

This moment is too dire and you don't have time to go to the president's speech, but why not present a united front? The president thinks it's dire, too.

JERRY GONZALEZ, CEO, GALEO: Well, it is dire, but we need him to be spending time in Washington, D.C., to make sure that if anybody knows the U.S. Senate, it's Joe Biden. He knows how to get things done in the Senate. He needs to be working the senators to make sure that we do get a vote. We need -- we do need to eliminate the filibuster for voting rights, and we're urging the president to come out strongly in favor of that and to use his power as the president of persuasion and his relationships within the Senate to ensure that all senators, including Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema are on board with --


CAMEROTA: Yes. But, Jerry, don't you think President Biden has been doing that? He has been talking to Senator Manchin. Senator Manchin is dug in. He doesn't want to lose the filibuster. What more do you want President Biden to do?

GONZALEZ: We want President Biden to be in D.C. having those conversations with them instead of spending time here in Atlanta. Bottom line is he can be effective in Washington, D.C. In Georgia, we know how dire the situation is with voter suppression tactics or legislation being introduced in the Georgia general assembly just yesterday. So things are dire. We need the president to lead and act in Washington, D.C., and get the job done in the U.S. Senate.


GONZALEZ: We get the job done in Georgia, and he needs to get the job done in D.C.

CAMEROTA: Isn't it possible that what he is doing is taking the bully pulpit outside of Washington, D.C., because things are so intractable in the Senate, and he's taking the bully pulpit to the people to try to raise awareness about how dire this situation is? What's wrong with that?

GONZALEZ: I think it's important to draw attention to the dire situation. There's West Virginia. There's also Arizona. Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema are not on board with this proposal, so bottom line is, the president needs to work with Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema to get them on board and use everything that he can with the power of the presidency and make sure that his knowledge and influence in the Senate to make sure it happens. It is a dire situation, and we want the president to lead, not just talk about action.

CAMEROTA: Listen, just today, Senator Manchin just told us the filibuster is what makes the Senate hopefully work when it's supposed to work, and he does not -- filibuster does not make it work. He doesn't want to change it, filibuster -- the filibuster. He's said it time and again. And so, are you saying that unless President Biden gets Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board, that voting rights are doomed?

GONZALEZ: No, I think that the president can lead in Washington, D.C., and make sure that we can have the carveout. If they carved out the filibuster for the debt ceiling limit, they can carve out the filibuster for voting rights. Voting rights are what make this democracy happen. Our democracy is under attack, and we must make sure we do everything in our power to do that.


GONZALEZ: And that includes changing the filibuster to make it happen.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but again, Senator Manchin is the problem, not President Biden. He appears -- agrees with you. Has your group reached out to senator Manchin or tried to reach out to any of the Republicans who could get on board with this?

GONZALEZ: President Biden should go to West Virginia or should go to Arizona to make sure that Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema are on board with this. He needs to work in Washington, D.C., to lead in the Senate, the Senate that he knows very well, to make sure that we can get a positive vote and move voting rights protections forward.

CAMEROTA: I hear you. I hear you, and I hear that what you think would be more effective than going to Georgia, but, again, do you think that showing this chasm in the Democratic Party between you and the president and the vice president who are in your state today, do you think that's helpful?

GONZALEZ: Georgia showed up for President Biden. Georgia showed up for Senators Warnock and Ossoff. We did the work to make sure -- to make that happen in Georgia. Now it's time for the president and the vice president to work in D.C. to make it happen in the U.S. Senate. We elected them to get things done. They promised they would get this done. Now it's time for them to be held accountable to that, and actually get the work done in Washington, D.C. They need to go back to the Senate and make sure that it happens.

CAMEROTA: Jerry Gonzalez, thank you very much. We appreciate getting your perspective today. We'll see what happens with the president's visit.

GONZALEZ: Thank you so much.

BLACKWELL: All right, joining us now, CNN political commentator Allison Ashley, former national coalitions director for President Biden's campaign, Happy Kercheval, radio host for MetroNews Talkline in West Virginia, and Gloria Borger, CNN chief political analyst.

Gloria, let's start with you. We heard there what Jerry Gonzalez says, we don't need any more speeches, we need action in Washington. The president called this a defining moment. He had a defining moment speech six months ago at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Why is the president delivering this now, considering there's not been much progress on getting legislation passed in the six months since? GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, if all had gone

according to plan, from the White House point of view, they would have passed the American Rescue Plan, which they did. They would have passed their infrastructure bill, which they did, and then they would have passed Build Back Better, which they didn't, and then they would have gone to voting rights. So what they've clearly decided to do since Build Back Better is really on the back burner, they've said, OK, now is the time we have to do it.


And you understand this as well as I do or anybody who's looked at politics. They understand that the window is closing. There's a good shot that they're not going to have unified control of the Congress next time around after 2022. So the window is closing, and they got to -- they believe they have to do something. And even if -- even if they might lose this vote or not get everything they want, they still believe at the White House they have a shot of getting some of what they want, which won't be perfect.

But they understand that this is their opportunity, and you can argue with them that they should have done this sooner, that they should have done it before they spent all that political capital on Build Back Better, but this is the situation they're in, and so they're giving the speech they've got to give.

CAMEROTA: I mean, Ashley, you could argue that infrastructure doesn't matter if we lose democracy. That's one argument that people are making and that President Biden should have had a different priority set to begin with, but here we are, and do you understand the argument that we just heard from Jerry Gonzalez, that time's over for speeches? Time's up for speeches and some other action now needs to be taken?

ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do understand the groups that are not attending the speech today. Historically, in movements, in particular the Civil Rights Movement, there are strategies and tactics that everyone has to play. I remember when I was in the White House and then at a civil rights organization, everyone has a role in this ecosystem of democracy, and so the groups that are not attending, they are shining a light and putting the urgency.

Yes, it is great that the speech is happening today, but it would have been great if it had happened not just six months ago but every single day as infrastructure and Build Back Better was a part of the messaging from the White House. These groups were hoping that voting rights was in that messaging as well, and it just wasn't. And so, today, their action is really shining a light on the urgency and that their demand that a speech is not going to be sufficient.

They want the bill to pass. And they want commitment from the president and the vice president. They want them to call on the elimination of the filibuster or that carveout, which they don't feel like it has happened yet.

BLACKWELL: Happy, you have been covering Senator Manchin since he was in the state legislature back in the '80s and '90s. The strategy that the Democrats are taking here with trying to get him on board to join in to at least a carveout or reform of the filibuster, does this work, this set of a deadline and then the pressure of the week or two before that to try to get him to change?

HAPPY KERCHEVAL, HOST, METRONEWS TALKLINE: I don't think it does. For a couple of reasons. One is, just -- you just have to listen to what Manchin says. Earlier today, I think he said, you all quoted on CNN, he said, I'm not going to break the rules to change the rules. Manchin's predecessor, Robert C. Bird, was the conscience of the Senate, a great defender of the Senate, and I think Manchin's kind of channeling his Robert C. Bird as a conscience of the Senate and believing that if you have a carveout for this, then you have a carveout for something else.

It just adds to the divide in this country and does not unify the country. It sounds corny, but it's true when Manchin says he wants bipartisanship. If you want to change the rules, then do it the way you're supposed to do it. Have two-thirds of those voting in present to change the rules and do it that way and get back to the regular order of business in the Senate. When Manchin says that, he's not just blowing smoke. I think that's what he really believes.

CAMEROTA: I mean, Gloria, of course, the flipside is that Republicans, when they regain control, won't necessarily respect Manchin's tradition on that and on the filibuster. But what about what we just heard, the suggestion that we just heard from Jerry Gonzalez there, which is, why isn't President Biden going to West Virginia and making this speech if this is about the bully pulpit, going to Arizona and making this speech and trying to drum up pressure on Manchin and Sinema?

BORGER: Well, I think he should have done that. I think he tried to do it on Build Back Better, and put all his eggs in that basket. And I think, looking back, they may have some regret about that. I think this is hugely important. I think the president is probably going to come out today and say he supports some kind of a carveout, so you can get this passed. But what he's facing is not only opposition from Republicans but don't forget there are some Democrats now who are raising their hands and saying, wait a minute, I'm not so sure I support a carveout for this.

Senator Kelly of Arizona, for example. Perhaps Senator Tester of Montana. We don't know. And then we have Sinema and then we have Manchin. So, if he loses that unified Democratic support, then what happens? And it only, I believe, you know, with people refusing to go to Biden's speech, I understand the purpose in that and the symbolism in that, but the Democrats need to be united if they're going to get anything done, and it makes it a little harder for the president, when Stacey Abrams, who is so important in this fight, when Stacey Abrams has a conflict and suddenly cannot appear.


BLACKWELL: Yes, Ashley, let me ask you about this. You mentioned some of the grassroots organizations, but people across the country, they don't know those leaders as well as they know a Stacey Abrams who has a national platform. The significance of her absence today -- they say that they were on the wrong page for scheduling -- what does that mean, that she is not there, specifically?

ALLISON: Well, I think if soon-to-be governor Abrams says she has a scheduling conflict, I believe her. I do think, though, it is -- it sends a symbol that we have to act and that she does not feel like this speech is going to be the deciding factor, though, that will get the legislation over the finish line.

I think the speech that the president gave six months ago was phenomenal, and the speech that he gave at remembering January 6th and the violence that took place there was phenomenal. I think what Stacey Abrams and the groups all want is action. We know in Washington, D.C., speeches don't get legislation to move. It's conversations behind the scenes, and I will say that, yes, I agree with Gloria, that Democrats need to be unified. But often, when a conversation about unity comes, it's the grassroots.

It's the activists. It's the people of color who are pushed to be the unifier. Joe Manchin is not unified with the Democrats right now. Kyrsten Sinema is not unified with the Democrats right now. They are the ones that the pressure needs to be on and other Democrats who don't want to support a carveout for the filibuster, they're not unified with the Democrats. They are the problem, not the activists not going to the speech today.

BLACKWELL: All right, Ashley Allison, Gloria Borger, Happy Kercheval, thank you all.


KERCHEVAL: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Coronavirus hospitalizations hit a new record today. The acting FDA commissioner says most people are going to get COVID. And the focus needs to be on how to keep the country functioning while that happens.

CAMEROTA: And Dr. Fauci vividly describes the danger that Senator Rand Paul's attacks are posing to Fauci's family. That's ahead.



CAMEROTA: Moments ago, the FDA administrator just said something we have not heard quite so clearly before. That most people will get COVID.


DR. JANET WOODCOCK, FDA ACTING COMMISSIONER: I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get COVID. All right? What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens. (END OF VIDEO CLIP)

BLACKWELL: And as coronavirus hospitalizations have reached a record high with more than 145,000 people now hospitalized with the virus, Lucy Kafanov has more.


LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): More Americans are now in hospitals sick with COVID than ever before, about twice as many as two weeks ago, surpassing last winter's peak, underscoring the threat posed by the highly contagious Omicron variant, especially for the unvaccinated.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Despite a potential decrease in severity, the substantial number of absolute cases is resulting in hospitalization increases across all age groups, including children age 0 to 4.

KAFANOV: Hospital staff struggling to cope.

DR. MARK JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, COLORADO MEDICAL SOCIETY: We have so many physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, other practicing health individuals and healthcare who are getting to the end of their rope as far as being able to care for patients. The high mental health risk of being almost like in a war zone.

KAFANOV: Deaths are also spiking, up 33 percent from last week. The U.S. now averaging more than 1,600 new deaths each day. New cases averaging over about three quarters of a million a day. This as the CDC reportedly weighs updating its mask guidance to encourage people to wear N95 or KN95 masks which provide better filtration to help curb Omicron's spread, according to "The Washington Post."

WALENSKY: Omicron is likely not to be the last curveball this virus throws at us, but we have the tools to prevent further spread of this virus. This means for everyone 5 and older, please get vaccinated. For those 12 and older, get your booster shot.

KAFANOV: Despite logging some 66,000 positive COVID cases, Los Angeles students and staff are back in classrooms today. Chicago also following suit.

WALENSKY: Schools should be the first places to open and the last places to close. We had a Delta surge in the fall and 99 percent of our schools were safely opened. We have vaccines that are available for every child over the age of 5.


KAFANOV: Meanwhile, one sliver of good news. The U.S. officials or some U.S. officials told Senate lawmakers today that the first of 500 million COVID-19 tests the Biden administration plans to send directly to Americans will go out later this month. The rest will be shipped over the next 60 days. The White House, though, still working on a Web site where Americans can sign up. This as experts warn the latest Omicron surge could peak later this month but that the next few weeks are critical. Vaccinations, boosters, still key to turning the corner on this pandemic.

Victor, Alisyn, back to you.

BLACKWELL: Lucy Kafanov, thank you so much.

Now during the Senate committee hearing this morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci called out Republican Senator Rand Paul again over the dangers of COVID misinformation.



SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): So your desire to take down people --

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: You're absolutely incorrect as usual, Senator. You are incorrect, almost everything you say.

PAUL: Well, no, you deny, you deny, but the e-mails tell the truth of this.

FAUCI: No. You keep coming back to personal attacks on me that have absolutely no relevance to reality.

PAUL: Do you think anybody has had more influence and overall response to this than you have?

FAUCI: Let me finish.

PAUL: Do you think --


PAUL: Do you think it's a great success what's happened so far?

FAUCI: What happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have life -- threats upon my life, harassments of my family, and my children, with obscene phone calls because people are lying about me.

Now, I guess you could say, well, that's the way it goes, I can take the hit. Well, it makes a difference because as some of you may know, just about three or four weeks ago, on December 21st, a person was arrested who was on their way from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., at a speed stop in Iowa, and they asked the police -- the police asked him where he was going, and he was going to Washington, D.C., to kill Dr. Fauci.

And they found, in his car, an AR-15 and multiple magazines of ammunition because he thinks that maybe I'm killing people. So, I ask myself, why would senator want to do this? So, go to Rand Paul's Web site, and you see "Fire Dr. Fauci" with a little box that says, contribute here. You can do $5, $10, $20, $100, so you are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain.


CAMEROTA: Epidemiologist Dr. Abdul El-Sayed joins us now. He's also the former Detroit health commissioner.

Dr. El-Sayed, thanks so much for being here. I don't think most people did know the kinds of threats that Dr. Fauci and his family are facing on a daily or weekly basis, and of course, we have seen before all too tragically that heated and hateful political speech does lead to real- world violence or at least can.

Is Senator Rand Paul just trying to raise money? Or are his complaints about Dr. Fauci, though they're quite personal, are they legitimate? Is he trying to make some point about COVID's origins that haven't been addressed?

DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED, EPIDEMIOLOGIST AND FORMER DETROIT HEALTH COMMISSIONER: I think what Rand Paul is trying to do here is, in effect, the medical equivalent of McCarthyism. He takes an obscure e- mail, he quotes it out of context to sow some conspiracy theory, also that he can try and gain power and-or raise money. It is so cynical. And the thing that makes your blood boil about it all is the fact that Rand Paul is actually a trained physician. He understands the science.

And so you have to imagine the kind of cynicism that he has going on in his mind when he tries to blame someone who's on the right side of trying to save lives in this pandemic. For the pandemic itself. It is really, truly disgusting, and it epitomizes this moment of our political polarization where everything is fair game. Nothing is off limits. And you see the consequences in Dr. Fauci's voice.

I mean, this is a man saying, please stop bothering my family over the work that I'm trying to do to save our lives.

BLACKWELL: Let's turn to what we heard, I think, for a lot of people the first time from the acting FDA commissioner, Dr. Woodcock, that says that most people are going to get COVID. Yes, continue to wear the mask and social distance and quarantine when necessary, but most people are going to get it. So how do we receive that now that it's impacting society in such a large way but it's unavoidable for, as she says, most Americans?

EL-SAYED: Well, I didn't think Dr. Woodcock's comments were particularly helpful. A, I haven't seen the evidence that she seems to be citing here. I haven't seen evidence that most people are going to get it. That's an empirical statement which has to have evidence behind it. And second, the thing that she said about it is that we have to keep our systems functioning in that context, but the way to keep systems functioning is to make sure that even if you believe that everyone is going to get COVID, that that doesn't happen all at the same time, which means that people have to do things to protect themselves and one another, whether that is making sure that they are wearing their masks, getting vaccinated, using rapid tests.

But if you tell people that they're just going to get it anyway, then you've killed the incentive that people have to protect themselves, to slow the spread, and to make sure that they don't get it. I mean, it implies a certain lack of agency that the existence of our federal bureaucracy should suggest we have. And so it's really frustrating to hear off the cuff like that.

CAMEROTA: The way I heard it was that, OK, maybe most of us will get infected, but our goal is, and I think has always been, to stay out of the hospital.