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State of the Union

Interview With U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens; Interview With Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT); Interview With Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX). Aired 9-10a ET

Aired December 11, 2022 - 09:00   ET




DANA BASH, CNN HOST (voice-over): Homecoming. WNBA star Brittney Griner is back after a prisoner swap for a notorious Russian arms dealer.


BASH: What does this mean for future negotiations?

I will speak to Roger Carstens, the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs who brought Griner home.

And vote count. Senate Democrats celebrate a big win and a potential setback.

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (D-AZ): I have registered as an Arizona independent.

BASH: How this will play out in the new Congress? Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is here exclusively.

Plus: power player. She's the woman helping President Biden strike congressional deals.

LOUISA TERRELL, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: I see my job and thinking of the job really as kind of a conductor.

BASH: How will she work with the Republican House majority? White House Director of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell coming up.


BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash in Washington, where the state of our union is thankful, thankful that an American detained in a Russian penal colony is finally home.

You're looking at new pictures of Brittney Griner, the WNBA superstar, who touched down on American soil early Friday morning. She reunited with her wife, Cherelle, and was taken immediately for a medical evaluation. President Biden celebrated her return and now faces questions about

his decision to trade convicted -- convicted Russian arms dealer Victor Bout in exchange for the WNBA star and the American left behind in Russia, Paul Whelan, who has been held prisoner there for nearly four years.

My guest now is working to free Whelan and dozens of Americans held hostage in other foreign nations, and he has a pretty good track record.

Special Envoy -- Special Presidential Envoy, I should say, for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens helped secure Griner's release and was there to greet her and bring her home.

Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

What an ordeal and what a saga. Let's start with the sort of the personal. You flew to UAE. You welcomed her on the tarmac. What was the moment like for both of you? And what was it like for her specifically?

ROGER CARSTENS, U.S. SPECIAL PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY FOR HOSTAGE AFFAIRS: It's always kind of an exciting moment when you jump on the other country's plane and walk up to a person, in this case, Brittney.

And I will tell you what I told her. I said: "Brittney, my name is Ambassador Roger Carstens. I'm with the U.S. Department of State. And on behalf of the president of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken,I'm here to take you home."

And, at that moment, I think every person finally starts to realize that it's going to happen, it's setting in. Certainly, Brittney felt that way. And, at that point, we have to go through a little more of the choreography to get her on the plane. Usually takes about three minutes.

But here's what I wouldn't mind telling you. When she finally got onto the U.S. plane, I said: "Brittney, you must have been through a lot over the last 10 months. Here's your seat. Please feel free to decompress. We will give you your space."

And she said: "Oh, no, I have been in prison for 10 months now listening to Russian. I want to talk. But, first of all, who are these guys?"

And she moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing.

And then, later on, on an 18-hour flight, she probably spent 12 hours just -- just talking. We talked about everything under the sun. And I was left with the impression that this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person, but, above all, authentic.

I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.

BASH: You said that she wanted to talk. Did she talk specifically about the experience in a Russian penal colony?

CARSTENS: She did. She did.

I'd hate to steal her thunder, because it's her story to tell. But she spoke at length about what it was like to go -- undergo that 10-month ordeal.

BASH: Just going back to the first thing you said, when you shook her hand and you said that you were there to take her home, did she know -- obviously, she was on a plane, so she knew something was happening.

Did she know for sure she was being freed before that moment?

CARSTENS: At that point, she did.


CARSTENS: The Russians, just like the United States, has to go through certain administrative procedures.

BASH: Yes.

CARSTENS: At a certain point, it kind of becomes evident that something -- something's happening.


And then, usually, when the Russians pick up someone from their prison cell, in this case, Brittney, they give her a sense that she's going home that day.

BASH: What's that like to be the person to shake someone's hand and welcome them back to America after they have been wrongly held.


It's humbling. It's -- I'm very grateful that President Biden allows me a chance to do this job. It's also a painful job. So, when you get the chance to shake someone's hands, it's one of those rare moments that you get to celebrate a victory.

But know this. Even as we're welcoming someone home, we still have work to do. So, as I'm shaking Brittney's hands and we're taking to the aircraft and having this great conversation, my brain is already thinking about Paul Whelan. What can we do to get him back? What's our next move? What's the strategy? How can we adapt?

BASH: And I want to ask you that one second.

Just quickly, how's her physical health?

CARSTENS: She looks great. I mean, she was a full of energy, looked fantastic. She's in Fort Sam Houston right now undergoing some medical evaluations, but she seems to be just fine.

BASH: OK, so let's talk about Paul Whelan.

What options realistically do you have to bring him home?

CARSTENS: I would love to tell you about it, because, to me, they're very exciting and interesting.

But we have to -- in these negotiations, because they're ongoing, we usually have to keep our cards close to our chest.

BASH: But are there cards?

CARSTENS: There's always cards. The options are always being evaluated.

They -- we have to adapt at times. But here's the thing I'd like to leave you with. We have an ongoing,Well, open dialogue with the Russians. And we have the commitment of this president and my office, certainly, to bring Paul Whelan home.

To my mind -- and I talked to Paul, by the way. I may not have mentioned this, but I talked to him on Friday, the day after the swap. And here's what I told him.

I said: "Paul, you have the commitment of this president. The president's focused. The secretary of state's focused. I'm certainly focused, and we're going to bring you home."

And I reminded him. I said: "Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the Army, they always reminded you, keep the faith." And I said: "Keep the faith. We're coming to get you."

BASH: Because I want our viewers to listen to something. He actually called our colleague Jennifer Hansler from the Russian prison.

And here's what he said to her.


PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I'm greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release.

I'm happy that Brittney is going home today, and that Trevor went home when he did. But I don't understand why I'm still sitting here.


BASH: What's it's like to hear that? I'm guessing he said similar to you.

CARSTENS: He did. He shared his frustration.

And I explained him -- to him that: "Paul, this was a case where it was either one or not. We weren't able to get you out on this go- around. We could not get the deal with the Russians. But had we not made the deal then Brittney would not have come on. There was no opportunity to bring you home at this time. But, Paul, we're coming for you."

BASH: And what do you say to people like Senator Bob Menendez, who's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, one of the president's fellow Democrats, who said that making that swap with Victor Bout was deeply disturbing?

He said: "We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips."

Do you -- I guess, how do you respond to his argument that this sends a message to hostile countries that all they need to do is kidnap an American to get what they want?

CARSTENS: Well, I would say that it's important to note that people that are held overseas are important to us.

And that's kind of the -- where I'd say I start when I look at the question morally, was it bad to trade someone like Victor Bucha? I think the question is, it's horrific to leave an American wrongfully detained in a foreign jail cell.

BASH: Is it going to incentivize other bad actors?

CARSTENS: Let me say this.

There are bad actors. We used to say, the other side gets a vote. And in this case, it's hard to keep these dictators and these dictatorial governments, as Chairman Menendez said, from taking Americans and trying to use them as bargaining chips.

But this is precisely why, this summer, the president signed an executive order that provides us with new tools to add a deterrence effect. And, additionally, Secretary Blinken has been working with other countries to try to create a multilateral coalition that can put this -- I guess you could say this -- using Americans as wrongfully -- wrongfully as bargaining chips, rather, to put that on the dustbin of history.


BASH: Well, let me ask you about that, because he did sign, the president did sign an executive order.

And what it does is, it authorizes sanctions and visa bans against people responsible for wrongly -- wrongfully detaining Americans. As far as we can tell, it hasn't been used. Why not?

CARSTENS: It hasn't yet.

I will say this much. Sometimes, you might be working with a country, and you might have hostages that you have to keep working out. It may not be the right time and place to use a sanctioning authority.

But, believe me, we're working on target packages right now. It's something that we discuss all the time. And it's not going to be too long before you see something rolled out.

BASH: Well, for example, the -- there's an African leaders summit here in Washington coming up. The State Department says that the president of Rwanda is wrongly -- wrongfully detaining an American.

Will it be used then?

CARSTENS: These are -- these are decisions that we're constantly reevaluate and talking about.

I'd hate to get into future talks about that, because these are things that are constantly under negotiation. And I will just leave it at that, if I may.

BASH: I want to ask about just the other families and the other hostages who are out there or people who are wrong -- wrongfully detained.


The James Foley Foundation says that there are at least 60 Americans wrongfully detained. One of them is Austin Tice, who is a former -- a journalist and a former Marine. He was kidnapped in Syria more than a year ago. I know you personally have traveled to Syria.

Any update on his situation? Is he possibly going to come home soon?

CARSTENS: We're still working on it, but, again, hate to get into negotiations and things that we're currently doing.

But as I have often told Debra Tice, his mother, I'm optimistic. I think there are always paths forward that allow us to get an opportunity to bring someone like Austin home.

BASH: Well, you have helped bring home 15 Americans who were wrongfully detained or held hostage in nine months. That's a pretty good track record.

And we thank you so much for your service and for coming on and telling the story.

CARSTENS: Thank you for having me on today.

BASH: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

CARSTENS: Appreciate it. Thank you.

BASH: And Senator Kyrsten Sinema told CNN this week she is no longer a Democrat.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders will respond next.

And she's President Biden's behind-the-scenes point person Capitol Hill, and now she's pulling back the curtain in her first television interview. That's coming up.



BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION.

Senate Democrats kicked off their week with a big victory when Senator Raphael Warnock won his reelection in Georgia.

But the week ended with a new wrinkle, when Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced that she's leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. Take a listen to the senator explaining more about her decision in a brand-new clip from her interview with my co-host, Jake Tapper.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: When you look at your voting record, and the issues that are important to you, as spelled out on your Web site, most of them are traditional Democratic issues, capital -- capital D, expanding health care access, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, path for dreamers, and on and on, environmentalism, green energy.

That sounds like a Democrat to me, no?

SINEMA: Well, I know this is really hard for lots of folks, especially in D.C., but what's important to me is to not be -- to not be tethered by the partisanship that dominates politics today.

And I think Americans are tired of it. I think Arizonans are tired of it. What I'm interested in is working on all those issues that you just mentioned that I care deeply about, and that I believe my constituents care deeply about.

But I want to work on them in a way that is productive, that is free from the trappings of the pole of the political system. The national political parties have pulled our politics farther to the edges than I have ever seen.

I want to remove some of that -- kind of that poison from our politics. I want to get back to actually just working on the issues, working together to try and solve these challenges.

TAPPER: One of the big complaints I hear from conservatives, from Republicans is, Democrats just don't take border security seriously. They just don't.

Do you agree with that sentiment? And do you think there is an actual path forward there? Democrats are still going to have the majority in the next Senate. You can still get this on the floor of the Senate, if you want.

SINEMA: Well, as a native Arizonan who was born and raised near the Southern border, I can tell you unequivocally that the federal government has failed its duty in the last 40 years.

TAPPER: Not just Democrats. SINEMA: Not -- it's just everyone. The federal government has failed here.

And places like Arizona, front lines of this crisis, have been paying the price every single day since then. So, for us, this isn't just a talking point of team A vs. team B. This is our life every day.

The reality is, is that, when folks say we have got to just provide a legal path to citizenship for dreamers, which I support wholeheartedly -- these kids are Americans in all but name. So, when folks say, we have got to do that, I agree. And when folks say we have got to secure the border, of course, I agree.

My state is suffering from the failure to do so for 40 years. So, this is a perfect example of why I'm so frustrated with partisanship that has gripped our nation, and the parties are pulling folks away. It's not either/or. It's and.

Both of those concerns are real and valid. And we, as a government, have a duty to solve both of those concerns.

TAPPER: You're up for reelection in 2024.

This move means, I suppose, that you're not going to be running in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat?

SINEMA: Well, I again, I know this probably disappointing to folks, but I'm actually not even thinking about electoral politics or talking about that at all right now.

TAPPER: But doesn't this increase the likelihood that your run for reelection will be tougher, because you will not only have a Republican opponent; you may even have a Democratic opponent?

SINEMA: You know, I don't make decisions based on what the easy road or the tough road is.

I have always tried to make decisions based on what I think is right. And, for me, it's very important that we have a discussion at home in Arizona and here in the nation's capital about reducing the partisanship and just focus on solving the challenges that we face in America.

The challenges we face are great. They're significant. We cannot solve them by using partisan attacks. We cannot solve them through a partisan lens.

And I want to be a part of having that discussion and showing that there is a different way.

TAPPER: Would you ever run for president?


TAPPER: Never?

SINEMA: I don't want to be president.

TAPPER: There are two independents who already caucus with the Democrats, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.

Lisa Murkowski, who is a Republican, but ran in a previous election as an independent, is also somebody who whose independence is noted.

Are those three models at all for what you're doing? Are there other independents, Teddy Roosevelt in the Bull Moose Party? Is there anyone you look to as a -- as a guide, as a mentor, as a role model when it comes to what you're doing?


SINEMA: You know, Jake, it probably won't surprise you when I tell you I'm not trying to be like anyone else.

What I'm trying to do is be true to my values and the values of my state. So, I think everyone should make their own decisions about where they fit or where they don't fit. I'm going to keep doing exactly what I do, which is just stay focused on the work and ignore all the noise.


BASH: Here with me now is somebody who knows a thing or two about going his own way, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Senator, first, you are an independent. She is now the third official independent of the U.S. Senate, joining you and Angus King of Maine. What do you think of her decision and also what you just heard in her interview with Jake?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on Senator Sinema. She has her reasons.

Dana, I happen to suspect that it's probably a lot to do with politics back in Arizona. I think the Democrats there are not all that enthusiastic about somebody who helped sabotage some of the most important legislation that protects the interests of working families and voting rights and so forth. So, I think it really has to do with her political aspirations for the future in Arizona.

But, for us, I think nothing much has changed in terms of the functioning of the U.S. Senate. The good news is that we now have 51 votes. We will have the majority on committees. It means that we can go forward and start protecting the interests of the working families and deal with the reality that we are increasingly living in an oligarchy, where the billionaire class and large corporations control almost every aspect of our country.

So, I would hope very much that, with this new majority, Democrats will sit down and start fighting for the needs of ordinary Americans.

BASH: So, I want to talk about some of those issues in a second. But, first, you were a very important figure on the campaign trail for

progressives ahead of the midterms, as you normally are. I'm sure you're going to be campaigning for candidates in 2024.

The outgoing Arizona Democratic Party official, one of them says that he expects Democrats will run their own candidate against her. Is that a good idea? Would you support a Democratic opponent against Senator Sinema?

SANDERS: I don't -- I support progressive candidates all over this country, people who have the guts to take on powerful special interests.

I don't know what's going to be happening in Arizona. We will see who they nominate. But, certainly, that's something I will take a hard look at.

BASH: Does she have the guts to take on powerful special interests?

SANDERS: No, she doesn't. She is a corporate Democrat who has, in fact, along with Senator Manchin, sabotaged enormously important legislation.

BASH: I want to talk about a major deadline to fund the government, and that is Friday. There's still no deal.

Would you support another short-term extension, instead of a larger bill to fund the government? And how worried are you about the government shutting down?

SANDERS: Well, short-term -- short-term extensions are just a temporary solution to the ongoing crisis we face.

Clearly, what I worry about is Republican efforts to hold hostage next year, if we don't get an omnibus bill passed, to hold -- hold hostage the government in order to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And that, I will vigorously oppose.

You got a lot of seniors out there who are not making it on Social Security today, a lot of working people have who are approaching retirement who have nothing in the bank. I don't want to see Social Security and Medicare cut. I will oppose that vigorously.

BASH: While I have you, you have been in Congress a long time, the House before the Senate.

There have certainly have been some notable bipartisan pieces of legislation that have passed and been signed into law, but, arguably, funding the government is up there, maybe even the top responsibility of you and your fellow members of Congress.

Why does this keep happening?

SANDERS: Well, I think it's happening right now because Republicans see it as an opportunity to hold us hostage and get demands that, under normal circumstances, they would not. Look, they have not been shy about making it clear they want to cut Social Security, they want to cut Medicare, they want to cut Medicaid. And what they're saying is, hey, we are prepared to allow the United States government to default on our payments, bring the entire world perhaps into an economic crisis, unless you give us what you want.

BASH: But, Senator, I -- yes, I hear what you're saying about the differences right now, but, over the past many years, Democrats and Republicans in charge...


BASH: ... funding the government has just not happened. And we have been at this crisis point at the end of -- at the end of the year so many times.

But I want to move on to some other -- a couple more issues that I know that you care about. One is the record-breaking $858 billion defense fund the bill. The House passed that this week. The Senate is going to vote on it.


You voted against the NDAA, the defense bill, last time around. Will you do so again?

SANDERS: Yes, I think I will.

Look, we have -- we have 85 million Americans who have no health insurance. We have 600,000 people who are homeless. We have a dysfunctional health care system, dysfunctional childcare system, where working parents are paying $15,000 a year, on average, for childcare.

We have got to start protecting the needs of working families. The Pentagon is the one major agency of government which has never been independently audited. There is massive waste and fraud and cost overruns within that agency.

So, I think we can have the strong defense that we need without spending the huge amount of money that we're currently spending on the military.

BASH: I want to ask...

SANDERS: But I would tell you, Dana, I look forward -- I look forward very much to becoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor Committee.

And I want to tell you that, in that job, I intend to do everything I can to lower the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs in this cost -- in this country. And we're going to take on the pharmaceutical industry. We're going to take on the insurance industry and try to end the situation where we are the only major country on Earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people. I remain very concerned, as I said, about childcare. I believe that

childcare in this country should not only be affordable. It should be universal. We have got to deal with student debt. There are enormous crises facing working families.

And I hope that the United States Congress, perhaps, in some instances, in a bipartisan way, will have the courage to deal with the -- take on the billionaire class, who are doing phenomenally well, corporations enjoying record-breaking profits, while working people fall further and further behind.

BASH: Senator...

SANDERS: So, to my mind, the issue is, will we stand with working families, take on big money? And that's what I hope to do in the next session.

BASH: Before I let you go, I want to ask about Iowa and New Hampshire. You're familiar with those states. You have been there many, many times in your presidential runs.

They have always, at least in recent history, gone first in the primary calendar. But now Democrats are trying to move South Carolina first in the nominating calendar, a state, I should note, that you were beaten in twice.

Would South Carolina first in the process be the right thing to do for Democrats?

SANDERS: Well, this is a very much, Dana, an inside-the-Beltway Democratic Party issue. And a committee has made a recommendation.

I'm sure it's going to be debated a whole lot. I'm sure there are 50 states that want to go first. We will see what's happening.

But my focus right now is trying to do what I can to make sure that Congress deals with many of the major issues facing working families. And that's what I will be focusing on.

BASH: We are out of time, but I just have to ask you.

You wrote a letter to the president asking about getting paid sick leave to U.S. rail workers. Have you heard back?

SANDERS: Not yet.

But that is -- look, here's another -- when you talk about corporate greed, the rail industry is a perfect manifestation of that, making huge profits, not giving their workers one day of guaranteed paid sick time. That is an outrage. That is an issue we're going to deal with.

BASH: Thank you. And we will keep tabs on whether you hear back from the White House.

Senator, thank you so much. Appreciate your time this morning.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BASH: And Kyrsten Sinema, as you have been hearing, ditches the Democratic Party. Will Democrats punish her if she runs for reelection in two years?

That's next.




SINEMA: I have registered as an Arizona independent.

And I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this, but, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense. A growing number of Arizonans and people like me just don't feel like we fit neatly into one party's box or the other.


BASH: Welcome back to State of the Union.

That was Kyrsten Sinema explaining her decision to change her party from Democrat to independent.

Let's talk about it with our panel.

Good morning, everybody.

Congressman Allred, you are a member of Congress, a sitting member of Congress, was in her party. One of your colleagues, Congressman Jamaal Bowman, tweeted the following, "Bye, Felicia," after news broke about Sinema.

He's obviously -- he's a progressive. He's not upset to see her leave.

Should Democrats get behind an alternative that's officially on the D column, like your colleague Ruben Gallego?

REP. COLIN ALLRED (D-TX): We will have a Democrat running.

I think what a lot of us who represent districts who got elected by Republicans and independents, and proudly did so as Democrats, take issue with is the idea that this is about principles, when it's really about politics.

She was likely going to lose her next primary. And that's why she's doing this. It's not a principled change. She's voted with us, I think, 96 percent of the time. So it's not about that. It's about that she saw the writing on the wall politically.

And so I think we will have a Democratic nominee, and I hope that she doesn't try to play spoiler.

BASH: And, Kristen Soltis Anderson, on that note, you are a pollster. And you know kind of where the electorate is in Arizona.

Could she play spoiler, if there's Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat and a Republican on the ballot?


KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, if you look at the exit polls from 2022 in Arizona, 40 percent of Arizonans who voted identified themselves as independents, 33 percent Republican, 27 percent Democrat.

So, if there was any state where you could kind of pull this off and be successful, Arizona might be it. This is the state that gave us folks like John McCain, Jeff Flake, this mavericky streak.

The challenge she's going to face is, when she says there are a lot of Americans who don't identify with either party, they pick some from column A, some from column B, she's right, but many of those Americans don't necessarily, say, want to see policies that support the rich and powerful, et cetera.

And that's what the allegations from her Democratic opponents have often been. So there are lots of different ways you can be an independent. It's not clear to me that her particular recipe will resonate a lot with Arizona voters.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN (D-CA): I totally agree with that. She doesn't fit the Angus King mold or the Bernie Sanders mold.

And I think she's going to be out in the cold. This would have been a smarter move for Joe Manchin, where no Democrat can be elected in West Virginia, than it is for her.

BASH: Let's talk a bit about Brittney Griner and the remarkable release. She had a 25 -- excuse me -- she was in prison and she was released in an exchange with Viktor Bout -- 25-year sentence is what he was serving. And then he was set free.

David Urban, I know that you were trying to help another person who is still held captive in -- or in prison in Russia, Paul Whelan, get freed in the final years of the Trump administration. What's your sense, knowing a bit about how all this works, not just Brittney Griner, but the potential for Paul Whelan?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, first of all, I will just say congratulations to Roger Carstens, who was just on here, and the Biden administration for the good work they did.

None of this is very easy. The American people think it's -- it's an either/or, they had a choice. They don't have a choice. You have to negotiate with the Russians.

So think about Putin sitting across the table. And Vladimir Putin doesn't give you a choice. He said, you can have this or you can have nothing. So it wasn't you could have Paul Whelan. Listen, we'd love to have Paul Whelan home. I know his family would. I know Roger Carstens would. I know the Biden administration would like to have Paul Whelan home.

And they're going to get him home. But, at this point in time, they just couldn't get it done. And it's very difficult to do. It's not -- it's not simply, we don't want Vicky -- we don't want to Brittney right now, we want Paul. That's not -- that wasn't even on the table.


I applaud what you just said. And it's also good that Carstens is a holdover from the last administration. This is not a political, partisan job.

I just want to amend my last comment. I meant that no Democrat other than Joe Manchin could be elected in West Virginia.


HARMAN: Sorry, Joe. Sorry.

URBAN: And just give a quick plug. Roger is a West Point -- my West Point classmate...

BASH: Yes.

URBAN: ... and has done an incredible job and was -- served in the Trump administration.

BASH: But what about the argument that Bob Menendez and others are making that, by doing this swap with someone like Victor Bout, that you are encouraging and incentivizing other bad actors from taking Americans?

HARMAN: Well, there's a risk of that. I don't think he's totally wrong. But I think he's mostly wrong, because I think we want to get Americans back.

And what really bothers me is to see some people in whatever party teeing off on this, when they should be welcoming Americans back. And I do agree with David totally that, first of all, the negotiator is highly skilled and not a political actor. And, second of all, what he got done was heroic.

BASH: Let me bring you in, Congressman Allred, because you are a fellow Baylor athlete.

ALLRED: That's right.

BASH: And I know you have been working on this release.

What are your thoughts?

ALLRED: Well, we're thrilled to have her home.

In every meeting and briefing that we had with Roger and his team, we also talked about Mr. Whelan and how we have to bring him home. And the White House has been very clear. And I can say, from my own information, it's very clear that there was no choice here. It was either bring Brittney home or not.

They were putting Paul Whelan in a different bucket. They're treating him as a spy, basically. And I think there's no reason for that. There's no evidence behind that. That's why it's more difficult to get them home. But we're going to keep working on it.

And I think you did a great job in that interview with him. It seems to me that we have some hope that we can bring him home soon too.

BASH: Yes, more hope than I thought. Yes, he said there are always cards, which I thought was really interesting.

I just want to quickly turn to what's going on in the House of Representatives and in your party in the GOP, the whole question of Kevin McCarthy, whether or not the never-Kevin group of Republicans are going to win the day and refuse to support him.

I want you to listen to what he said this week about getting the votes.


MARTHA MACCALLUM, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: So, you're having discussions with these five members personally?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I'm having discussions with a lot of members. You have members on all sides.

MACCALLUM: With these five people? Are they open to coming over to your side?

MCCARTHY: I think a number of them are requesting certain things, and we're discussing.


MCCARTHY: But the one thing most people have to understand, if one person wants something, you have -- you have to have 218 within a conference come together.


SOLTIS ANDERSON: He's in a very tough position, but he benefits from the fact that there is not a real viable alternative.


This is not a job that everyone in the House Republican Conference is clamoring for. It's going to be a very, very challenging two years for whoever is elected speaker of the House.

And so to the extent that those who are this sort of never-Kevin group have not yet been able to field an alternative who could get even a teeny, tiny fraction of the Republican Conference, I think it puts them in a very tough -- the math is very challenging, but he benefits greatly from the fact that there is not a great viable alternative.

BASH: You're the one at the table who has a vote in January.


I won't be voting for Kevin.

URBAN: Oh, come on!

BASH: You will not be voting for Kevin. You heard it here first.


BASH: But if Republicans can't come to a consensus, can you see yourself voting for a bipartisan consensus candidate? Is that even in the realm?

URBAN: Would you vote for a Republican? Come on. Any Republican?

ALLRED: Listen, I'm a moderate.

BASH: That's what I mean.

ALLRED: I'd love to have somebody as the speaker who could bring the whole House tog.

BASH: Is there any Republican you could think of?

ALLRED: I agree with Kristen.

I don't think that there's a -- you can't beat something with nothing. I will also say this. I think this is not a "West Wing" episode. It's likely that he's going to get the votes, OK?

But he's going to be the weakest speaker in modern history.

BASH: Real quick.

HARMAN: I think we're going to sorely miss Nancy Pelosi.

URBAN: Not me.

HARMAN: And I think the Kevin show -- well, I'm going to sorely miss Nancy Pelosi.

She kept the place going and made it much less of a circus than it could become. And I'm just saying, I wrote an op-ed last week, that Joe Biden personally could make a big difference if he had office hours on the Hill and tried to work with everybody to resolve...

BASH: Just -- and just remember, every single one of you, you don't have to be a member of the House to be speaker. Anyone...



URBAN: Kevin McCarthy is winning. He's going to be speaker.

BASH: Yes. All right, we got to go.

Thank you so much. Great discussion.

And she grew up alongside the Biden family. Now she's the president's point woman behind his bipartisan deals in Congress.

Her first TV interview is next.



BASH: You probably don't know her name, but she's a driving force behind the bipartisan Biden agenda. It's our latest installment of our series "Badass Women of Washington."


BASH: You work in the White House.


BASH: But you spend most of your time here?

TERRELL: Yes, I do. I do.

BASH (voice-over): As President Biden's director of legislative affairs, Louisa Terrell shuttles up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, pushing the president's agenda in Congress.

So nice to see you.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): Good to see you.

TERRELL: Thanks for making time.

KLOBUCHAR: Of course.

TERRELL: You're sort of doing -- hearing in from what's happening on Capitol Hill, making sure we're responding, make sure we're being proactive, and really just being helpful to the president.

BASH: While the president often touts his record of legislative compromise, it's Terrell who walks the halls of Congress to help make that happen.

And though she's well-known on the Hill...

TERRELL: Hi, my dear friend.

BASH: ... she's always kept a low public profile. This is her first television interview ever.

(on camera): People from the outside in might look at your job and say, wow, to try to break through on Capitol Hill, which is so divided, how do you do that without losing your mind?


TERRELL: Well, there's moments of losing your mind, definitely, at all jobs. I totally concede that.

You have to bring in folks that work with you that have relationships with Republicans and Democrats. And the president, I think, has put out an agenda that has a lot of entry points.

BASH (voice-over): That's produced some notable bipartisan wins, like a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, legislation to protect same-sex and interracial marriage, and the first major gun safety bill in decades.

But she says every bill that became law is a victory.

TERRELL: There's about 200 bipartisan bills that we have moved through over the past two years. They may not be the things that capture a headline, but they're solving a problem.

And to some set of members on the House and the Senate side, that is years of work.

BASH: Terrell relies on her own years of work and experience on Capitol Hill, beginning more than 20 years ago, working for then- Senator Biden when he was a member of the Judiciary Committee.

TERRELL: I was definitely the new gal, right, like super smart lawyers clerking for court of appeals and Supreme Court and inside sort of jokes and world that they all came from. And I really felt like the gal from Delaware.

BASH: Not just any gal from Delaware.

(on camera): The person here at the White House you have known the longest is the president himself.

TERRELL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

It's true. I met Beau Biden in kindergarten, and we were both 5. It is like a very quick bike ride from my house to where Beau grew up. So we were childhood friends, stayed friends for years, all through our adulthood.

BASH: So, you grew up going to your friend's dad's house, who now happens to be your boss, who happens to be the president.


Being connected that way, I think kind of you know where the person came from. And I think that helps. I don't know. It brings a warmth to the work. And that's -- I feel very, very lucky about that.

BASH (voice-over): She says being a lifelong friend of Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor in 2015, brings something even more special to her job.

TERRELL: There's always this other question of, what would Beau do?

And I think of those things as kind of intertwined. And they're part of the background driver of how we do the work.

If we get them in early, then, hopefully, that will kind of help us.

BASH: She also thinks a lot about her role as a senior woman in the administration.

TERRELL: I had the job in the Obama administration when my kids were, say, like around 6 and 8 -- or 4 and 6. It's a little bit of a blur.

But I really remember so much of what that job was like when I was having that, had to take a deep breath and have a whole second shift when I came home about what I called bed, bath and beyond that had to happen.


And I look at the women on my team and know that that's part of their lived experience every day,. You really have to remember about how long their days and their nights are, and then to think about the kind of performance and the kind of 100 percent they're giving at the office every day.

I really have just a lot of admiration.

BASH: For all of Biden's legislative successes, there are some big losses.

His sweeping Build Back Better package was scuttled by members of his own party, and now they're preparing for the Republican takeover of the House, bracing for congressional investigations of Biden officials.

TERRELL: The perspective of the president and the team here is, you can't let that kind of swamp the boat, and to not be distracted.

BASH: But she insists her team is ready for divided government.

TERRELL: The kind of relationships you have with Republicans, we have been working on them the whole time, so it won't feel like we're parachuting in.

It'll just feel like -- feel like a chapter two.


BASH: And up next: It is a CNN tradition we look forward to all year. Stay with us.



BASH: Tonight, join CNN on one of our favorite nights of the year, celebrating CNN's Heroes.


NARRATOR: Tonight, it's the time of year to be inspired and honor some of humanity's best.

CARIE BROECKER, PEACE OF MIND DOG RESCUE: We have found homes for almost 3,000 dogs.

TYRIQUE GLASGOW, YOUNG CHANCES FOUNDATION: Our community engagement center used to be the community drug house.

BOBBY WILSON, METRO ATLANTA URBAN FARM: I want my grandchildren to have it better than what I had today.

RICHARD CASPER, CREATIVETS: I just always wanted to serve other people.

TERESA GRAY, MOBILE MEDICS INTERNATIONAL: Human suffering has no borders. People are people, and love is love.

NARRATOR: Join Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa live, as they present the 2022 Hero of the Year.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... in honoring...


NARRATOR: "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" tonight at 8:00.