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State of the Union

Interview With National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci; Interview With Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA); Interview With Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE); Interview With Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA); Interview With White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired February 28, 2021 - 09:00   ET




DANA BASH, CNN HOST (voice-over): New dose of hope. The FDA clears the path for a third vaccine, a single shot, offering new promise for hard-hit, hard-to-reach communities. But what does being vaccinated mean for your daily life?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: The risk becomes extremely low when you have both parties vaccinated.

BASH: I will speak to Dr. Anthony Fauci next.

And one step closer. President Biden's relief plan heads to the Senate without any Republican support.


BASH: And it seems minimum wage workers won't see another penny. Is this the future of the Biden agenda? White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Democrats Senator Chris Coons and Congresswoman Karen Bass join me to discuss ahead.

Plus: the party of Trump? The former president returns to the political arena hell-bent on revenge and potentially setting the stage for 2024. How far will he go to keep his MAGA grip on the GOP? I will speak to Republican Senator Bill Cassidy in moments.


BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash in Washington, where the state of our union is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Today, there is new hope that normalcy will soon be within reach. Late Saturday, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson for its single dose vaccine, giving the U.S. three effective vaccines to fight COVID-19.

And the company says it could ship out nearly four million doses as early as next week and has promised 100 million doses by the end of June.

Today, advisers to the CDC will meet to give their go-ahead and discuss priority groups, this as the Biden administration prepares to make the push for its $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan in the Senate this week, after passing the bill with zero Republican votes in the House and suffering a blow from the Senate parliamentarian on minimum wage, a key Democratic priority that will now almost certainly be left out of the final package.

This morning, the country is also bracing for the full return of the big lie. Former President Trump will make his first speech since leaving the White House as this nation and a new administration continues to try to move forward from what he left behind, Capitol insurrection and a pandemic that has now sprinted past half-a-million dead Americans.

I want to begin with the breaking news on the vaccine and go straight to the nation's top infectious disease expert and President Biden's chief medical adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Dr. Fauci, thank you for joining me this morning.

Let's talk about Johnson & Johnson, the third vaccine, this one single-dose. How much of an impact will this have?

FAUCI: A significant amount, Dana. It's very good news.

Now we have three important tools in our armamentarium of capabilities against this virus. It's a very efficacious virus, I mean, if you look at the data and see what it can do, particularly when you're looking at advanced disease. It has, across multiple countries, essentially no hospitalizations or deaths in advanced disease. That's really important.

So, we have three big important tools now, and we're going to hopefully utilize them as efficaciously as possible.

BASH: So, according to Johnson & Johnson, their vaccine was 72 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe cases in the United States, lower than the 95 percent efficacy rate for Pfizer and Moderna.

So, what is your message to somebody who sees that and decides, you know what, I'm going to wait and get Moderna and Pfizer, and not get Johnson & Johnson?

FAUCI: Yes, you can understand that type of a concern, but, in order to really compare vaccines, you have to compare them head to head. And these were not compared head to head.

The message that needs to be -- prevail, Dana, is that these are three highly efficacious vaccines. I can tell you I have been fully vaccinated with one that was available. It was the Moderna. If I were not vaccinated now, and I had a choice of getting a J&J vaccine now or waiting for another vaccine, I would take whatever vaccine would be available to me as quickly as possible, for the simple reason of what I said a moment ago.

We want to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and expeditiously as possible. So, this is good news, because we have another very good vaccine in the mix.


BASH: Researchers in New York this week identified a new COVID variant that has a mutation which could potentially weaken the effectiveness of all of the vaccines. So, how dangerous is this?

FAUCI: We take them very seriously.

And the thing that we do know from in vitro or test tube studies, as well as indirectly from the vaccine, for example, the J&J study, in other areas such as in South Africa, where there's a different type of a variant, that, when you have a variant that diminishes the capability of the vaccine, if you get a good vaccine that has a high titer of antibody, you cannot get the best possible response, but it's still within the cushion of effectiveness, which tells us, don't despair about the fact that there are variants.

They're there and we need to take them seriously. But, again, two ways and two tools that you have to address them, A, continue with the types of mitigations, the public health measures that we do, that we talk about all the time, Dana. I don't even need to repeat them now, you know what they are. But also to vaccinate as many people as you possibly can, because even when you have variants, the vaccines will be important in spreading -- in preventing the spread.

You get variants when the virus has sort of like a complete field of going wherever it wants to go because the people are vulnerable. If you prevent that by public health measures and vaccination, you will dampen the effect of these variants.

And that's the reason why we keep saying, keep the public health measures up and get as many people vaccinated as you possibly can.

BASH: I want you to listen to something CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions. We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

I know people are tired, they want to get back to life, to normal, but we're not there yet.


BASH: As you know, Dr. Fauci, many governors across the country are beginning to ease some restrictions that you were just talking about. New York is opening movie theaters. Massachusetts and North Carolina are relaxing capacity restrictions on indoor dining. Is that premature?

FAUCI: Well, I mean, amen to what Dr. Walensky said, because, if you look at the curve, Dana, it's coming down sharply, but the last several days, it's kind of plateaued at around 70,000 new infections per day.

Let's look at what history has taught us. If you go back and look at the various surges, whenever we hit a peak and start coming down, understandably, totally understandably, you say, well, let's pull back.

We're going to ultimately be pulling back, but you want to get the level of baseline infections per day very low, because, if you look at that little plateau, particularly in the arena of having variants such as we have in California and such as we have in New York, it is really risky to say it's over, we're on the way out, let's pull back, because what we can see is that we turn up.

It isn't hypothetical, Dana, because just look historically at the late winter, early spring of 2020, at the summer of 2020. When we started to pull back prematurely, we saw the rebound. We definitely don't want that to happen.

BASH: So, is this premature? Are the easing of those restrictions too...

FAUCI: Yes, I would think it is. I think we -- yes, I think, obviously, each individual state and city needs to look at the situation in their own location, where they are.

But, in general, to think just because the cases are coming down on a daily basis, take a look at the pattern, and just watch over the next several days to a week. If we do this and start coming up, then we're going to go right back to the road of rebounding.

So, that's the reason why I agree completely with what Dr. Walensky has said.

BASH: So, let's talk about people who are vaccinated. Again, 23 million Americans are now fully vaccinated, but there is still so much uncertainty, as you know, about what they can and can't do.

You told me last week you don't want to get out ahead of the guidance, that more information is coming. But people are anxious, and they're confused. So, when are those -- the guidelines for how people who are vaccinated can act in their life going to come out?

FAUCI: We have been in intensive discussions as recently as yesterday evening about this.

The CDC will be coming out within the next few weeks, maybe even sooner, with some guidelines about what people who are vaccinated -- and I think -- and I know you're referring, Dana, to people who are doubly vaccinated 14 days out, they're protected, they have that 94 percent to 95 percent protection. What can they do?


I'm very certain, and we have discussed this -- and I -- and you're right. I don't want to get ahead of the guidelines, because the CDC wants to do things that are science-based. If you can't get the science, you have got to maybe use modeling.

And in addition to modeling, you use good, professional commonsense judgment. They will be coming out with that.

But one of the things that I think is going to become clear, that, if you have individuals, adults who are vaccinated, two people that are doubly vaccinated and are protected, then you can do things that we weren't talking about before. You can have dinner in a home without masks on.

You can have friends who you know are doubly vaccinated and are protected together with you. So, you can start doing things essentially in the home, in a setting where you're not out in the community, where there are 70,000 new infections per day.

BASH: Right.

FAUCI: And you can start doing some of the things that you weren't able to do before.

BASH: That's very good to know.

Real quick, I want to ask you about the school situation. I spoke this week to a superintendent, the superintendent of Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Schools. We will be showing that more of that later in the show. It's one of the bigger districts in the country.

I want you to hear what he told me about reopening his schools.


SCOTT BRABRAND, FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA, SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: It's not realistic if we're going to stay with six-foot social distancing.

BASH: What would you need in terms of guidance for shorter social distancing to get everybody back to school?

BRABRAND: We certainly know that, at three feet, that we could make that work in our elementary schools and probably in our middle schools.


BASH: So, right now, as you know, the CDC recommends keeping six feet of distance, to the greatest extent possible.

Can you clarify? If a school district like that says that, to bring everybody back, they would have to shrink it to three feet of social distancing, with other mitigation efforts as well, would that be safe?

FAUCI: You know, I'm not going to make a judgment about that, because I don't know that specific situation, Dana.

But I can tell you that the CDC continually looks at things and reevaluates. One of the things that I think is important is that we have got to get the resources to the schools to be able to perhaps have the capability of having more spacing, to have better ventilation, to make sure they have the masks and all the other PPE that would make it less likely that children would get infected or that the teachers and other educational personnel would get infected.

BASH: Dr. Fauci, we're out of time.

I just want to say, do you think, though, that it can be less than six feet, the social distancing in schools?

FAUCI: You know, Dana, I don't want to jump ahead of that...


FAUCI: ... because I need to see the specific situation. I don't want to be able to go ahead back and forth with the CDC.

Let's take a look. The CDC continually reevaluate things according to the data.

BASH: Understood.

Thank you, Dr. Fauci, for this and everything else. Appreciate it.

FAUCI: Thank you.

BASH: And I want to go now to -- thank you.

I want to go now to the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki.

Thank you for joining me this morning.


BASH: So, President Biden's sweeping -- his sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package is now in the Senate, as you know.

A cornerstone of this campaign that he ran, his presidential campaign, was bipartisan cooperation. He called it a mandate from the American people. He got zero Republican votes in the House. It looks like he may get zero in the Senate.

Can you point to one concession that President Biden is making to this package to try to win Republican support?

PSAKI: Well, first I can say, Dana, I think there have been more Republicans in the House and Senate sitting in the Oval Office over the last month, having a discussion, having a debate at times with the president about what they want to see in this package, what we can work together on, than perhaps over the last four years.

The president has been open to hearing good ideas, hearing good ideas from Republicans and Democrats on how to make it better. And at this point in time, though, what this proposal is going to address is how we're going to help people bridge through this period of time, get them direct checks, reopen schools, get more vaccines in the arms of Americans.

We have not seen a substantive, big proposal in response back from Republicans. This is the scope of the problem and the scope of the kind of package that needs -- we need to pass to address that.

BASH: So, he's definitely had discussions with Republicans, but -- and he's heard their concerns. So, is he open to actually acting on that and changing his proposal, changing the legislation to address those concerns?

PSAKI: He's been open from the beginning.

There's been more targeting of the direct checks. He has not been willing to negotiate on the size of the checks, but there has been a targeting to ensure that it hits the Americans who need that help the most. That's an idea that has come up in meetings with Democrats and Republicans.

And he's certainly open to hearing from their ideas.

What he will not do, though, is make this a Washington, political, partisan issue and prevent the American people from getting the relief they need.

BASH: So, this bill could change?


PSAKI: Seventy percent of the public wants this bill to pass.

Well, it's going through the Senate process. As you know, this is democracy in action. We know that the bill will look different on the way out, as it did when he presented it in his prime-time address.

But we -- there is an urgency here, Dana, as you know, because, by the middle of March, 11 million Americans will lose unemployment insurance. So, we need to move quickly and rapidly to get this relief out to the American public.

BASH: Well, it's definitely going to look different in the Senate with one way that we know, which is that the $15 minimum wage increase will not be in there. According to the Senate parliamentarian, it shouldn't fit into this package.

So, because of that, can you promise Americans that President Biden will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of his first term?

PSAKI: Well, he can't do it on his own, but he is absolutely committed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

He thinks it's long overdue. He believes that men and women who are working hard, trying to make ends meet, should have -- should not be living at the poverty level. And we're going to spend the next few days and weeks looking for the best path forward, working with Democrats and Republicans, hopefully, to do exactly that.

BASH: Let's turn to foreign policy.

a U.S. intelligence report declassified on Friday says that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for approving the operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I want you to listen to what then candidate Joe Biden said on the debate stage about this.


QUESTION: President Trump has not punished senior Saudi leaders. Would you?

BIDEN: Yes. I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. They have to be held accountable.


BASH: Candidate Biden, you heard there, said he would hold Saudi Arabia accountable.

Now that he's president, he's imposed no travel ban, no asset freeze, no criminal charges, and, most importantly, no sanctions directly on the crown prince himself. Why not?

PSAKI: Well, first, Dana, from the first day of the administration, we have been crystal clear at every level, from the president on down, we are going to recalibrate this relationship and turn the page from the last four years.

And that means ending our support for the war in Yemen, doing more to address the humanitarian crisis, and ensuring that we are holding to account the actions, the human rights abuses of this government, by word and by action.

The release of this report, which was held back over the last four years, is part of that, making that clear to the public. But we have also taken a number of steps through the Treasury Department, through the State Department to sanction the deputy head of intelligence, to sanction their revolutionary forces in Saudi Arabia, and to make clear that we will never let this happen again.

And that's a message we have clearly sent over the last few days.

BASH: OK. So, but you're talking about the people who are under the crown prince, and they are being punished. So, isn't punishing them like punishing the hit man and not the mob boss who actually put out the hit? PSAKI: Well, first, Dana, historically, and even in recent history,

Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don't have diplomatic relations.

And we believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn't happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement, where there is interests, national interests, for the United States.

That is what diplomacy looks like. That is what the complicated global engagement looks like.

BASH: Jen...

PSAKI: And we have made no secret and been clear we're going to hold them accountable on the global stage and with direct actions.

BASH: Yes, I hear you, but I -- you say hold them accountable, and it just doesn't look like that when it comes to the notion of justice.

And the question is, do you feel like justice has really been done when it comes specifically to the crown prince and his role in the brutal murder of a journalist, because the journalist was working on stories that were challenging him?

PSAKI: Well, this is a horrific crime, and the president has said that himself. I will reiterate that here today.

One of the reasons the State Department put in place what we're calling the Khashoggi rule is because we believe that anyone who threatens journalists, who threatens dissidents should be held to account and shouldn't -- and should have their -- potentially have their travel visas revoked. That's a global issue and one we took action on, on Friday.

At the same time, Dana, it needs to be clear that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is one that is in the interest of the United States to maintain, while still being clear it will be recalibrated. We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses, and we're going to take actions, including the actions announced by the State Department and the Treasury Department on Friday.

BASH: I hear a lot of things that sound like the Biden administration is showing the Saudis in general some outrage and some consequences, but not specifically for the crown prince.


And there are a lot of questions we can continue to ask about that, including President Biden promising that America is back and the question of whether or not the world will see that America is back if somebody who directs the brutal murder of a journalist is not specifically held accountable.

But we have a lot of things to get to, Jen.

And one of the things is, "The New York Times" is reporting last night that a second allegation of sexual harassment against New York Governor Chris (sic) Cuomo. This is a report from a former aide, Charlotte Bennett, saying that Cuomo asked her alone in his office last spring about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men. She has other allegations as well.

Governor Cuomo says he never made advances toward Ms. Bennett. But does President Biden believe Governor Cuomo or Charlotte Bennett?

PSAKI: Well, first, President Biden has been consistent that he believes that every woman should be heard, should be treated with respect and with dignity.

Charlotte should be treated with respect and dignity. So should Lindsey. And there should be an independent review looking into these allegations. And that's certainly something he supports and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible.

BASH: Governor Andrew Cuomo, I should say, obviously.

President Biden told reporters in 2018 -- quote -- "For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus nationally, you have got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she is talking about is real."

So, does President Biden still believe what candidate Biden said, that the essence of these allegations are real?

PSAKI: Of course, Dana, he believes -- that's why I said he believes that every woman who comes forward should be treated with dignity and respect. They should be able to tell their story. There should be an independent review of these allegations.

They're serious. It was hard to read that story, as a woman. And that process should move forward as quickly as possible. And that's something we all support and the president supports.

BASH: Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, thank you so much for your time this morning. Appreciate it.

PSAKI: Thank you, Dana. Pleasure to be here.


President Trump set to headline the big weekend for conservatives, as many GOP faithful and some leaders make clear they just can't quit him.

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to convict Trump, is next to talk about the future of his party.

And we go to one of the largest school districts in the country preparing for some students to return for the first time in nearly a year. Is President Biden's hope to have most kids back in his first 100 days in line with reality?



BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash.

In just a few hours, Donald Trump will take the stage at what's basically become his own personal MAGA version of Burning Man, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, which has so far featured a golden icon of the former president and many masks protecting chins, as speakers try to keep the big lie alive.

Joining me is one of seven Republicans who voted to convict former President Trump and push back against the big lie, Senator and Dr. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Senator, thank you so much for joining me.

So, President Trump is speaking at CPAC this afternoon amid a debate in your party about its future. So, I'm sure you have heard Congresswoman Liz Cheney say President Trump should not have a role in the Republican Party moving forward.

What do you think?

SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R-LA): You had a lot in that question.

Let me put it this way. We have got to win in two years, we have got to win in four years. If we do that, we will do that by speaking to those issues that are important to the American people. And there's a lot of issues important to them right now, not by putting one person on a pedestal and making that one person our focal point.

If we do that, if we speak to those issues, to those families, to those individuals, we win. That's where our focus should be.

BASH: Well, it doesn't sound like the former president's influence is diminishing. You talked about putting him on a pedestal.

He was literally -- his face was in bronze at this CPAC event that's going on. Top Republicans are flying down to Mar-a-Lago to meet with him. My understanding is that the essence of his speech will be that he's not going anywhere.

So, can the GOP move forward in the direction you were just talking about with Trump still very much in the spotlight?

CASSIDY: First, CPAC is not the entirety of the Republican Party. That's number one.

Number two, political organizations and campaigns are about winning. Over the last four years, we lost the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency. No president -- that has not happened in a single four years under a president since Herbert Hoover. Now, if we plan to win in 2022 and 2024, we have to listen to the

voters, not just those who really like President Trump, but also those who perhaps are less sure. If we do, if we speak to the voters who are less sure who went from President Trump to President Biden, we win.

If we don't, we lose. That is a reality that we have to confront.

BASH: Can you just clarify that? Are you saying that the party should try to sideline or ignore the former president in order to achieve what you just described? Is he at fault for losing -- obviously, he's at fault for losing the White House, but Congress too?



CASSIDY: If you're going to win in 2022 and 2024, you have got to speak to voters who didn't vote for us last time.

Now, our policies are great. Before the COVID crisis hit, we had record employment for every group, Hispanics, African-Americans, women, the disabled, high school dropouts, veterans, you name it. We had economic policies that were working.

So, if that's the case, and we can speak to those policies, to those families, then we will win. But if we idolize one person, we will lose. And that's kind of clear from the last election.

BASH: OK. I want to get to COVID relief.

One more question on this. Your leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, said this week that he would support former President Trump if he wins the nomination in 2024.

You are one of those who voted to convict him. But looking ahead, do you think Donald Trump is fit to be president again?

CASSIDY: I don't think Donald Trump -- one, he will be 78 years old, but I don't think he will be our nominee, for the reasons I have said.

Over the last four years, we have lost the House, the Senate and the presidency. Political campaigns are about winning. Our agenda does not move forward unless we win. We need a candidate who cannot only win himself or herself, but we also have to have someone who lifts all boats.

And that's clearly not happened over the last four years.

BASH: Is he fit to be president?

CASSIDY: So, I -- that's a theoretical that I don't think will come to pass.

I'm sorry?

BASH: Is he fit to be president again? CASSIDY: You're asking me a question for four years from now, which,

again, I don't mean to duck...

BASH: Yes.

CASSIDY: ... but you could ask a lot of people if they're fit.

The point is, I don't think he is going to be our nominee, for the reasons I just described.

BASH: Let's turn to coronavirus relief.

The House just passed a $1.9 trillion package. I know you think it is too much money. There is a lot in here, though, that you do support, direct payments to Americans, money for vaccinations.

It appears it won't include a $15 minimum wage hike, which you opposed. Are you open to voting yes on that plan?

CASSIDY: I have no clue how it will come out of the Senate. Republicans have not been involved.

I listened to Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaking about how we have been listened to. I started laughing.


CASSIDY: That is such a joke. You can find one thing perhaps where, oh, gosh, we will get criticized on that, so we will adapt.

But the reality is, is that they put forward a package which reflects the interests of the Democratic constituencies that elected the president. Yes, it has things for broader Americans, but much of it is only for those.

I can give you the examples, $112 million for the San Francisco transit system. Where did that come from? And so reality is, is that we have something which addresses concerns that Republicans and all Americans have, but disproportionately benefits those of one party.

We started off in it together. It ends up being that, yes, but we're going to take some off the top for our folks. That's not a way to proceed. I'm sorry this is the direction they're going.

BASH: You said it's a joke that President Biden is listening to you, but you were one of 10 Republican senators who met with President Biden in the White House.

Has the president or anybody in the White House given you any indication at all that they're open to any negotiations?


And, as you may recall, it was reported afterwards that, as President Biden would be speaking to us, his staff would be in the background shaking their head no, as a signal to him as to, no, don't concede on this point.

So, that's too bad.

We have had five different COVID relief packages which passed overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis, all five when President Trump was president and Republicans controlled the Senate. We have demonstrated that we can come together in a way in which the interests of all Americans are represented, and you come up with a better package than if you only have one party's interests represented.

My fear, this becomes a Trojan horse for things which actually injure our country. Left-of-center economists, Democratic economists like Larry Summers have pointed to the danger that this will ignite inflation. Igniting inflation, which hurts middle -income families, working-class families, chewing up their savings, this can be the Trojan horse that destroys the future for families.

But it sneaks in because it gives these initial benefits. That's my concern. It would have been better had they actually listened to us in fact, as opposed to merely in rhetoric.

BASH: So, as the president was talking to you in that White House meeting, and you saw the staff, as you report, shaking their heads no, is your -- was your sense that he was interested in making a deal, but he's being pushed not to?

CASSIDY: You know, I can't speak of their internal dynamics.

Of course, the president presented himself as he did in his inaugural address. Yes, he was open to unity and bipartisanship. That has not been this legislation. There has not been any significant input from Republicans, beyond, hey, do you really want to give stimulus checks to people making $290,000 a year?


Now they have cut it to $200,000 a year. Is that the sort of focus American people would want? I think they would like a little bit more focus.

So, the president so far has been about rhetoric. And, by the way, we can work together. I have -- another big issue facing our country is privacy. I just introduced a bipartisan bill with Jacky Rosen from Nevada, Democrat, to address privacy issues related to smartwatches.

Republicans remain willing and are working on issues that require bipartisan cooperation. We have done five on a COVID relief package in the past. It could have happened here. They made a conscious decision not to include us.

BASH: Senator Bill Cassidy, thank you.

And I look forward to talking to you more about those bipartisan issues that you clearly want to talk about and you want to get done across the aisle, separate and apart from this bill.

Appreciate you coming on this morning.

CASSIDY: Thank you, Dana.

BASH: And I want to now turn to one of President Biden's closest supporters in the Senate, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

You just heard your colleague across the aisle talking about the fact that he doesn't feel like Joe Biden and the White House is really negotiating in earnest with them. I want to talk about that in a second, but start by asking you specifically about the push to increase the minimum wage inside that package.

The $15 minimum wage was included in the House bill. The Senate parliamentarian says it doesn't work as part of the COVID bill. So, as an alternative, Senators Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden are pushing proposals that would penalize companies that pay their employees less than $15 an hour.

Is that something that you support?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Well, Dana, I haven't seen the details of that proposal yet.

And if I'm someone who is always willing to negotiate with Republicans, I'm willing to negotiate with Democrats as well. Let's start with what we all agree on, that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is too low. It has to be raised. Every Democrat and many Republicans agree with that.

President Biden has called us to raise it to $15 an hour. Senator Sanders' bill would have done that over four years to 2025. We haven't seen this new proposal. This isn't the last bill we will adopt this year. There may be several other chances for us to move a minimum wage bill. But I look forward to hearing from Senators Sanders and Wyden this week.

BASH: Let's talk about what you just heard from Senator Bill Cassidy, that it's a joke that the White House has actually reached out in earnest to Republicans to negotiate on this COVID relief bill.

What's your response to that?

COONS: Well, as you know, there were 10 Republican senators who were the first senators to sit down in the Oval Office with President Biden.

This bill has the support not just of 76 percent of all Americans, but 60 percent of all Republicans in recent polling. So, as Senator Cassidy said, we should listen to our voters.

And the majority of the American people, the overwhelming majority of the American people and of both parties, are urging us to act. President Biden is someone who will work across the aisle. I was encouraged to hear Senator Cassidy say, regardless of the outcome of this stimulus bill, this COVID response bill, he is going to work across the aisle.

I have been a good friend and partner with him working on national service issues, for example. So, I think President Biden challenged us to do two things, to deliver relief to the American people to this ongoing pandemic and the recession caused by it, and to find ways to work across the aisle.

The urgency of this issue means that he's moving ahead and we're moving ahead with this $1.9 trillion bill that has broad support amongst voters of all backgrounds and parties.

BASH: I hear you on that. And talking is big, because there hasn't been enough of that in this town. But talking is one thing and actually making concessions and doing deals on something like this is a different thing.

And he's saying there was no real effort on that. That's fair, don't you think?

COONS: What is fair is that President Biden and the Democrats in Congress gave several weeks for there to be a serious negotiation that came close to the scope and range of this challenge.

The proposals that came forward weren't anything like the scale of the challenge.

BASH: So...

COONS: And so, frankly, we're moving ahead with a bill that probably will get no Republican votes in the Senate, but will have broad Republican support in the country.

My hope is that, after we pass this bill, we will then move towards bipartisan legislating on a whole range of other issues, whether it's immigration or criminal justice reform or national service or other topics that you know well, Dana, I have worked hard across the aisle on in the last Congress and intend to in this Congress.


BASH: Last summer, you told Politico -- quote -- "I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration's initiatives blocked at every turn."

Progressives say that's exactly what's happening with the minimum wage increase. How do you respond to that?

COONS: Well, this is the first major bill to come through Congress during the Biden administration.

I am certain that President Biden is committed to raising the minimum wage, to raising it to $15 an hour. We will see what proposal Senator Sanders has this week. But I don't think we should throw up the white flag and say, well, there's no way that we can work with Republicans, when this is literally the first major piece of legislation to come through. We will have other chances to pass bold legislation in this Congress,

in this year, but we have to give bipartisanship a chance.

BASH: I want to turn to foreign policy and the White House report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Despite that conclusion, President Biden is not directly punishing him. In 2018, Senator, you introduced a resolution to hold the crown prince personally accountable and said at the time that failure to do so would -- quote -- "profoundly weaken our country."

So, does Biden's failure to hold the crown prince accountable weaken America?

COONS: From his first day as president, President Biden and his foreign policy team have been working to recalibrate our relationship with the Saudi kingdom.

I was one of a group of senators who pressed for the release of the director of national intelligence office report on Khashoggi's responsibility, on the responsibility of MBS for the murder of Khashoggi to be released.

President Trump refused to do that. Republicans in the Senate refused to press him successfully to do that.

BASH: Right.

COONS: President Biden has now done that. And he's imposed a new rule, a new visa sanction against 76 Saudis, some senior Saudis, because of their role...

BASH: But...

COONS: ... and set a new standard for those who would go after dissidents and journalists around the world.

BASH: But the Coons standard in 2018 was that the crown prince specifically needs to be held to justice. Is he getting away with murder now?

COONS: We are not yet done with recalibrating the relationship between the United States and the Saudi kingdom. And I respect the way that President Biden has elevated human rights.

President Trump was someone who, frankly, put arms deals and their willingness to work with us to confront a dangerous regime in Iran far ahead of any human rights concerns. And I am optimistic that our role in terms of the war in Yemen, the accountability here for Khashoggi's murder and other ways in which the U.S./Saudi relationship may change will in fact deliver the accountability that I called for.

But I also recognize the reality that the crown prince is largely in control of the Saudi kingdom and may well be so for decades. This is a critical relationship. Balancing human rights and our regional interests and security is part of the hard work of diplomacy.

But I think President Biden and his senior team have already taken bolder steps than ever were seen in the last four years.

BASH: So, you're comfortable with where they are now? You don't think that the crown prince should be punished specifically and directly?

COONS: I look forward to having ongoing conversations with the administration about this issue, as the U.S./Saudi relationship is recalibrated.

BASH: Senator Chris Coons, thank you so much for joining me this morning. I appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, Dana.

BASH: And it is near the top of the priority list for Democrats, reforming the nation's policing systems, but even with total control in Washington, Democrats have an uphill climb to get it done.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, a leader on this issue, joins me next.

And even one of the wealthiest school systems isn't ready for full return to classrooms. Their message to President Biden and what lunchtime and recess looks like for students who will come back.

That's next.



BASH: This week, the House could vote on a police reform bill named in honor of George Floyd.

His death and the video of a white officer kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes led to protests around the country and around the world, demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

But despite Democratic majorities in Congress, this is hardly a slam dunk.

Joining me now, Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass of California.

Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

You have reintroduced your police reform bill named after George Floyd, as I said. And it could be voted on this week. There are some moderate Democrats, though, who want change in this bill. And the big change that they're talking about is the part that ends legal immunity for police officers accused of misconduct.

Is that something you are willing to compromise on in order to get the votes you need to pass this?

REP. KAREN BASS (D-CA): Well, what we plan on doing this week is passing it out of the House. And, certainly, when it goes over to the Senate, it is going to take 60 votes.

And we will absolutely be sitting down and talking, both Democrats and Republicans, in the House and in the Senate. I have had conversations with Senator Tim Scott and, of course, Senator Cory Booker. And I think the stage is set for real reform to hit the president's desk.


BASH: You're confident, though, that you will get enough votes in the House, as is?

BASS: I am confident that we will get enough votes in the House.

Been having many discussions with people. And, of course, my colleagues are concerned, because they were all hit very hard in the elections in November.

But since George Floyd's murder, over 100 people have been murdered or brutalized by police. And the person that -- the officer that killed George Floyd is going to go on trial soon. There was just a decision the other day out of Rochester, New York, where charges won't be filed against the officers that killed the individual up there.

And, clearly, we have to do something that holds police officers accountable. Qualified immunity and lowering the standard for prosecution are two of the most effective ways to do this.

And other states have taken the lead. I spoke yesterday to Governor Polis from Colorado. And they have already taken the lead on reforming qualified immunity. So, it can be done. There won't be the dramatic departure of police officers around the country if we hold police officers accountable.

BASH: Congresswoman, after the Capitol attack, you criticized the police response and said -- quote -- "If that had been a protest over police brutality..."

BASS: Yes.

BASH: ... "with a large number of African-Americans," you said that you believe blood would have been flowing down the halls of the Capitol.

I want you to listen to what acting Capitol Police chief said this week about that very issue.

BASS: Sure.


YOGANANDA PITTMAN, ACTING U.S. CAPITOL POLICE CHIEF: I have no evidence whatsoever that suggests that there was any discrepancy based on our security posture and as it relates to making enhancements or not based upon race.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BASH: Are you satisfied with that answer?


And, I mean, personally I still believe, as I said in that quote before, if there were 10,000 protesters with Black Lives Matter, African-Americans, Latinos, et cetera, who were marching on the Capitol, I have no doubt that the response would have been completely different.

BASH: I want to talk about the COVID relief, and specifically the question about vaccines.


BASH: Until January, you were the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

There is new data from Kaiser that came out last week showing that white Americans are getting vaccinated at double the pace of black Americans, triple the pace of Hispanic Americans. Do you think systemic racism is playing a role in vaccine distribution?

BASS: Yes, well, I do.

But, when we say that, it doesn't mean that people are deliberately withholding vaccines. The greatest problem is access. Now, there is vaccine hesitancy. But the access, I believe, is the number one problem. And we just finished a survey with the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic caucus, Native Americans, and Asians.

We reached out to researchers, ethnic researchers. They just completed a survey. And amongst African-Americans, the majority said that their hesitancy was because they think the vaccine has been rushed. But many, many, many other people said they would be willing to get the vaccine.

So, if you focus on access, and people are vaccinated, you're talking about friends and family members who will see others vaccinated and see that everything is fine. And so we have access as a serious problem, even in Los Angeles, because people are having difficulties getting online.

And then individuals from other parts of the community who are white are coming into inner-city areas they probably have never been in before seeking vaccines.

BASH: So, real quick, Dr. Fauci has said that he doesn't think the vaccine rollout is failing African-Americans. Is he wrong?

BASS: He doesn't feel it's what?

BASH: It's -- he doesn't think that the vaccine rollout is failing African-Americans.

BASS: Well, I mean, there are problems. And there are problems because of access, because the way you access the vaccine is online. And so it is failing African-Americans. And what I believe we need to do is, we need to move and expand beyond online registration.

There needs to be community registration. There needs to be mobile sites. There is a city councilman in Los Angeles, Marqueece Harris- Dawson. He does phone banking in a specific neighborhood, so only those people in the neighborhood know when and where to show up for the vaccine, and he is having no problem vaccinating African- Americans.

BASH: Before I let you go, real quick, in your home state, the governor, Gavin Newsom, is facing a well-financed recall effort over his handling of the coronavirus there.

How real of a threat do you think this recall is?


BASS: Well, I do think that it's a threat.

I think it's very sad. I think it's inappropriate. He does not deserve to be recalled. I believe that he has done the best he could. He's having very -- he's having difficult in the state because you have places in our state where people are COVID deniers.

And so the -- I am hoping that the recall does not qualify. And if it does, we will do everything we can to defeat it.

BASH: Congresswoman Karen Bass, thank you so much. Appreciate your time this morning.

BASS: Thank you.