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Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) On Congressional Showdown As U.S. To Hit Debt Limit This Week; Op-Ed: U.S. "Overcounting" COVID Deaths And Hospitalizations; New Bars Serving The "Sober Curious" As Trend Grows In U.S. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired January 17, 2023 - 07:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: So-called extraordinary measures. They only last a few months. After that, Treasury Sec. Janet Yellen has a dire warning. Defaulting would cause irreparable harm to the United States economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability. She's talking about you -- your money, your mortgage, your job, in addition to Wall Street and the global markets.

And this warning comes ahead of what could potentially be the most bitter political fight we have seen yet on raising the debt ceiling. House Speaker McCarthy says he will not raise it without conditions. What does he want? Spending cuts, even though the debt limit is about money already spent -- not new spending.

So let's talk about this and a lot more with Democrat senator from Delaware, Chris Coons. He is in beautiful Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Of course, you're there to have these discussions, Senator, about the economy, but also to keep a light shining on the war in Ukraine. So thank you for your time this morning.

And let's begin with the debt ceiling. Here is the position of the White House on what McCarthy is saying. Let's play it.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We will not be doing any negotiation over the debt ceiling. It is one of the basic items that Congress has to deal with and it should be done without conditions. So there is going to be -- there is going to be no negotiating over it. This is something that must get done.


HARLOW: So where -- no -- McCarthy says no clean bill on the floor for the debt ceiling. The White House says no negotiation. So where does that leave our country -- about to default?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Poppy, this puts us at real risk. In the next six months, at some point, Treasury Sec. Yellen will run out of those extraordinary measures and our bill comes due. And for us to even come close to defaulting on paying America's national debt I think would be reckless and irresponsible.

I agree with the White House that we shouldn't be negotiating over paying bills that we have already incurred. So, raising the debt ceiling, as you know -- as you said in the opening there, is simply paying for things that have already been spent. So, federal investments in our defense, in housing, in education, in infrastructure.

We can and should have a robust debate about spending going forward if that's what the new House majority would like, but to threaten to not pay America's debts would put all of us at risk.

HARLOW: You have been a proponent -- at least you were in 2017 when you introduced a bill to eliminate the debt ceiling. You've been a proponent of doing that.

Treasury Sec. Yellen is actually sort of in your camp now. She testified before the House that she also believes that at this point, it just doesn't make sense to leave it in Congress' hand to take us to the brink like this.

But President Biden, just a few months ago, called eliminating the debt ceiling irresponsible. Do you think he's wrong?

COONS: Well, perhaps I misunderstand the context in which that quote's been taken. I do think that --

HARLOW: Well, let me play it -- let me play it for you.

COONS: -- that President Biden likely agrees.

HARLOW: I can play it --

COONS: Sure.

HARLOW: -- for you just so we all have the context.


REPORTER: Do you support the permanent repeal of the debt ceiling, sir?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The permanent repeal of the debt ceiling? What do you mean?


BIDEN: You mean just say we don't have a debt limit?

REPORTER: No debt limit.

BIDEN: No. That would be irresponsible.


HARLOW: Your thoughts? COONS: Well, what I've been speaking to over the past decade is when we've got a Congress that does not agree that we ought to pay for America's debts, we invite this sort of gamesmanship. So, that's what was behind my introduction of a piece of legislation five years ago now that would remove this. That would presume that we have automatically raised the debt ceiling every time we appropriate additional money.

There's a slight difference between what I'm saying and the president's saying. But I'm not saying that we shouldn't appropriate and be accountable to our constituents for what we appropriate, but I'm saying that we ought to be raising the debt limit as we appropriate. And so, there is an implicit agreement there that we should continue to have a debt limit -- just when and how it gets raised is the --


COONS: -- difference between what we're saying.

HARLOW: Understood. An important distinction. Thank you for that.

Let's move on to the classified documents founds at several different locations of the president's. And I want to ask you about any national security concerns you may have given what has been located, and about 20 documents, some of which have been marked top-secret.

Yesterday, we had former Defense Sec. Mark Esper on and he told us he is concerned. He was concerned about the Trump documents at Mar-a-Lago and he's concerned about these for national security. And I wonder if you share that national security concern.

COONS: Look, Poppy, I think Attorney General Merrick Garland is playing this straight down the middle, having appointed special counsel to oversee both the ongoing investigation of the former president's mishandling of classified documents and these classified documents that have just come to light. And I expect as we get to know the facts better in the months ahead we'll better understand what, if any, risk there was to national security.


Of course, I respect the importance of proper handling of classified documents and I think at this point, we're simply going to have to wait to hear what the special counsel concludes about the facts in this case.

HARLOW: You just spent several days at the border. A bipartisan delegation went there. And when you came back you described what you saw as this. You said, "We cannot continue with a system that empowers smugglers or puts migrants in danger."

I wonder if you describe what you witnessed as a crisis at the southern border.

COONS: Well, Poppy, I'd say that a bipartisan group of us -- eight senators, Republicans, Democrats, one Independent -- went to El Salvador -- excuse me, went to El Paso and went to Yuma to see the different circumstances at different places in the border.

At different points in time, we've had waves of folks who have overwhelmed the processing capability of the border patrol, and that has caused real challenges and real harm to those border communities.

President Biden, while we were in El Paso, was in Mexico City meeting with the heads of state of both Mexico and Canada to try and make progress on resolving this longstanding challenge for the region of having waves of migrants coming from destabilized or oppressive regimes throughout Central America and South America.

This is a longstanding problem decades in the making. And one of the more encouraging parts of the trip to Davos that I'm currently on, leading a bipartisan delegation, is some of the positive conversations we've had about how we might move forward in a bipartisan way to tackle the real challenge of migration.

HARLOW: That's good that you feel like you've had conversations that may indicate some progress because it has been decades since there has been real comprehensive --

COONS: Well --

HARLOW: -- immigration reform. But since --

COONS: -- Poppy, what I --


COONS: What I hear from folks in Delaware is that they are eager for us to find a solution and to quit --

HARLOW: Of course.

COONS: -- pointing fingers at each other, and to come with some path forward.

HARLOW: So, Senator, let me just wrap up with this because four of your fellow Democratic senators -- Democrats in the Senate are really disappointed that the Biden administration has essentially expanded Title 42. And they write they're deeply disappointed by this. And they think this latest move on the southern border, where you just were, will increase border crossings over time and further enrich human smuggling networks.

Do you share that same concern?

COONS: Well, what they're responding to is a temporary solution or an attempt at some solution by the Biden administration. President Biden called for congressional action so that we could find a more balanced sustainable long-term solution to the migration challenges we have at our border. That's the direction I think we need to go.

I understand the critiques of my colleagues about an expansion of Title 42. That's why I would hope that they would join with a bipartisan group to try and legislate a longer-term solution.

HARLOW: I think everyone hopes that is to come.

Senator Chris Coons, I wish you productive meetings there in the mountains of Switzerland. Thank you very much for your time.

COONS: Thank you, Poppy.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, jealous of that backdrop.

HARLOW: Me, too.

COLLINS: All right. A cruise ship this morning has rescued 17 migrants who were stranded on a boat adrift near the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean officials say that they launched the rescue operation when the vessel was spotted on Saturday. The crew provided those who were rescued with medical attention. They're working closely with the Coast Guard on this.

And the rescue comes amid a surge of Cuban and Haitian migrants trying to make it to the United States. So far, we're monitoring this but officials have not identified where these migrants are from. Of course, that's going to be one of the many questions they have.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Well, coronavirus deaths are once again on the rise all across the United States. Thirty-three states are showing increases of up to 50 percent or more deaths this week compared to last week.

In a Washington Post op-ed, CNN medical analyst and former Baltimore health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen asks are some of these "Americans dying from COVID or with COVID?" Dying from COVID or with COVID -- that's the distinction. She goes on to say, "Two infectious disease experts I spoke with believe that the number of deaths attributed to COVID is far greater than the actual number of people dying from COVID."

So, let's bring Dr. Leana Wen in to talk about her op-ed. Doctor, thank you so much.

Listen -- and I know that you don't want to and we don't want to underplay the risk of COVID after three years. It is still a leading cause of death in this country -- the story I just read about the number of deaths increasing.

Can you explain -- and infections. Can you explain why you believe COVID deaths are being overcounted?


DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST, AUTHOR, "LIFELINES: A DOCTOR'S JOURNEY IN THE FIGHT FOR PUBLIC HEALTH," FORMER BALTIMORE HEALTH COMMISSIONER, CONTRIBUTING COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST (via Skype): I think it's important for us to be intellectually honest in this case and that includes recognizing that circumstances have changed. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a situation where there were

many people dying from COVID pneumonia, including healthy, young people were dying because of severe shortness of breath, difficulty breathing. They were hospitalized because of it. Then, as a result of vaccines and as a result of a lot of people getting COVID and having some level of immunity to it, we're seeing far fewer cases of that kind of severe COVID and severe COVID pneumonia, specifically.

And yet, hospitals are still routinely testing everyone who is getting admitted for COVID. And so, we're seeing many people who are hospitalized with COVID. And I think it's important to separate out who is being hospitalized because of it because there are a lot of people who are still very concerned about their risk from COVID and we need to give them the most accurate data possible so that they could better gauge their risks.

There are people who are still not resuming indoor dining or going to the gym, or socializing. And I think we have to give them the most accurate reporting possible.

LEMON: Just a quick follow-up. You're not suggesting that hospitals stop checking people -- testing people for COVID if they come in?

WEN: That's right. I think that there is a better way to do this.

And actually, one of the people that I interviewed was Shira Doron, who is an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

She and her colleagues came up with a different measure, which is using dexamethasone. So, dexamethasone is a steroid that's used to treat cases of severe COVID. And she and her colleagues found that in cases of hospitalizations that do not involve dexamethasone, it's very unlikely that the primary cause is COVID.

And so, the state of Massachusetts actually turned to use this measure. So they're reporting both the total hospitalizations with COVID as well as the total hospitalizations with dexamethasone, which are the hospitalizations for which COVID is the primary cause. And they found that about 30 percent of the current hospitalizations are actually for COVID as opposed to 70 percent with COVID.

So I think that's the kind of distinction that we need to be making that helps hospitals better gauge what's going on in their own system and it allows people to understand their own risks a lot better, too.

COLLINS: And also, Doctor, these are two separate things here -- overcounting deaths and overcounting hospitalizations.

As you know, I covered this closely being in the Trump White House when this happened. I talked to a lot of health officials about this who were actually kind of skeptical of this claim that you're making and I think one big thing has been what is the evidence that these COVID deaths are actually being overcounted?

WEN: Well, this is the reason why this kind of transparent reporting is going to be so important. There is a way for us to look at death certificates and also to look at the medical records of individuals prior to their death. And I think this needs to be separated into three categories.

One is the COVID as a direct contributor -- the primary cause of death.

The second is could it be a secondary contributing cause. So, for example, somebody with kidney disease. COVID then pushes them over the edge to have kidney failure. That's COVID as a contributing cause.

And then, the third is COVID as an incidental finding. So, somebody coming in with a gunshot wound or a heart attack and they happen to test positive.

I think that we need to separate out and look at the percentages of each. That percentage would have shifted over time as well. In the beginning, probably a lot more people were dying with a primary cause of COVID. That probably has shifted. And I think, again, we need to understand this.

Another reason to understand this, too, is a lot of people are wondering when they should get a booster next. When do we need a second booster or another booster? And the only way we can know for sure is to understand who is getting severely ill and when.

COLLINS: But doesn't that change who should get boosters? Doesn't it depend on your age and your conditions that you have -- preconditions -- anything like that?

WEN: That's exactly right, and I think that's why we need to have this accurate accounting of who exactly is getting severely ill. If we find that the people who are getting severely ill are all individuals with certain underlying medical conditions but not others, that allows us to better advise those individuals to take special precautions.

By the way, none of this is to minimize the risk of COVID. There are still so many millions of Americans who are severely immunocompromised, who have chronic underlying medical conditions who really desperately need better vaccines and better treatments.

I'm saying that we need to have better data so as to -- so as to focus our attention on these people who are truly vulnerable and allow others who have put their lives on hold to maybe resume a lot of things that they might be too scared to do at the moment.

HARLOW: There is a new study, Doctor, just emphasizing how at risk pregnant women and their babies are from COVID-19. I'm sure you saw it. I mean, they tracked 13,000 pregnant women.


And I just wonder if you're concerned for people at risk like that or other vulnerable groups that this gives -- can give fodder to conspiracy theorists and those who downplay COVID to anti-vaxxers. I'm sure you thought about that, right, as you were -- as you were writing this. Are you worried about that?

WEN: It's interesting that I have had criticism on both sides. There are people who have said well, why are you saying that we're overcounting COVID deaths now? You should have said this 2 1/2 years ago. There are others who have said well, we're not overcounting them and they give various reasons as to why.

I think at the end of the day, we just need the truth. And part of that truth is what you mentioned, Poppy, which is that vaccines are highly protective. That vaccines are very effective, they're very safe, and vulnerable groups, including pregnant women -- pregnant individuals should be getting vaccinated.

At the same time, we should also be honest about who was dying from COVID during the early parts of the pandemic versus who is dying from COVID now. I think that type of honest, transparent reporting is really important, including for fostering trust in public health.

LEMON: Yes. Listen, to be clear, though -- and it says in your -- in your op-ed the COVID death count turns out -- if it turns out to be 30 percent of what is currently reported, that is still unacceptably high.


WEN: That's exactly right. And there are still so many other people who are dying because of the pandemic.

When you look at the excess deaths -- the predicted number of deaths versus the actual number of deaths now, we're still having a lot of people who are dying. They are dying from overdoses. They are dying from suicide. They're dying because of their health care was disrupted, and cancer screenings, and diabetes management was delayed.

But I think that if we attribute all of those deaths to COVID we're actually missing many of these structural issues in our health care system that have to be addressed. So that's why that honest, transparent reporting and a systematic standardized approach across the country is going to be really important.

HARLOW: Leana Wen, thank you. It certainly got all of us talking this morning.

LEMON: Yes. Thank you, Doctor. Appreciate that.

WEN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Next, what is driving a young crowd to booze-free bars? We'll speak to a bar owner in New York who is ditching the alcohol.

LEMON: I can relate to that.


LEMON: I can relate to that.



COLLINS: All right, picture this. Some of us may not want to.

LEMON: Picture this.

COLLINS: It's a bar without alcohol. It might sound unusual but the idea is actually gaining steam as sales of non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits, and other usually alcoholic drinks have jumped actually 20 percent between August 2021 and August 2022.

Now, in New York City, you can go to non-alcoholic bars, including one called Hekate. We are joined by the owner, Abby Ehmann.

Abby, this is fascinating. I know a lot of people are doing sober January right now, so this is actually incredibly relevant. But you say that you never actually had the idea for this to be a bar that sold alcohol, but you wanted it to be this gathering space for people who don't drink.

ABBY EHMANN, OWNER, HEKATE NYC: Right. I own a regular bar right across the street, so opening this bar I never had any intention of having a liquor license because I would have been competing with myself. So the idea was to do something completely different.

COLLINS: So you are doing something totally different. But do people come in there thinking it's a bar?

EHMANN: Completely different.

COLLINS: What does -- what does that look like?

EHMANN: When we first opened, people were coming in and asking give me a gin and tonic, and then I'd have to -- there was a long learning curve. But as soon as I started to get press and people knew what the deal was and they become a more educated consumer over these past few months, people come in now and they know more what to expect.

HARLOW: You did this. Don did 14 months?

LEMON: I started with Dry January and I felt so great that I went for 14 months during the pandemic, which was a perfect time because people were drinking a lot. I'm like, you know, I'm going to do the exact opposite and didn't drink or anything.

But my question is why did you do it? Because I noticed when I was sober it was hard to get -- basically, it was just fruit juice. And I started gaining weight from all the sugar that I was drinking.

So what -- why did -- why did you do it?

EHMANN: Well, I'm not sober myself. It's just this place is sober. And the initial concept was magical elixirs and I -- even with a business plan, I had no idea that there were all these products out there.

And even just in the past year, there have been more products and -- that are all geared toward sobriety -- some which mimic actually alcohol and some which are just oddly fermented or weirdly distilled herbal concoctions that will make you feel like you're having an adult beverage. They aren't juices and they're not fattening, and most of them are almost free of calories.

HARLOW: You want to make us one? I heard there was like a special one you've got for us this morning.

LEMON: Is this a Lemon Poppy Collins?

EHMANN: Well, I -- it --

HARLOW: A Lemon Poppy Collins is what we want.

EHMANN: There -- well, there are a little time-consuming so I won't make one on camera, but I will show you our biggest seller, which is --


EHMANN: -- called The Healer.


EHMANN: And this is sort of a cheat because we are -- I'm not kidding you. I'm out of almost all of the ingredients because this past weekend was crazy and I haven't had time to replenish all the supplies. Even some of the products that I have, we've run out of everything because the demand has been so high, and trying to reorder has been impossible because they haven't been able to keep up with the demand.

This Dry January has snowballed into the driest January on record.


LEMON: Yes. They look good.

HARLOW: So cool. I will come. I think your tagline could be like 'You will feel better in the morning, I promise.'


HARLOW: Abby, thank you.


LEMON: Thank you, Abby.

HARLOW: Thanks very much.

EHMANN: Thank you.

LEMON: I think it's good to examine our relationship --

EHMANN: Cheers.

LEMON: -- with alcohol.

Cheers to you. Thank you, Abby -- appreciate it.

So, moving on now, he knew him as Anthony Devolder. Now, a former friend and roommate of George Santos is calling out the congressman's lies. He's going to join us next.


LEMON: Good morning.

He ranted about a rigged election. Now, a losing Republican candidate behind bars accused of orchestrating the shootings at homes of Democratic officials.

HARLOW: An Indiana University student stabbed on a bus because she is Asian. That is according to the suspect who told investigators, quote, "It would be one less person to blow up the country."

COLLINS: New CNN reporting this morning. Other locations connected to President Biden may be searched as more classified documents have been found at his home and office.

LEMON: The terrifying near-miss. Two planes nearly colliding at JFK Airport after a wrong turn. In moments, we're taking you live inside a flight simulator to show how this happened.

HARLOW: And did 45-year-old Tom Brady just play his last game?