PETER BAKER: The president faces a grilling.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Help is here and hope is on the way.
MR. BAKER: President Biden holds his first press conference days after the second mass shooting in as many weeks, as he faces a deluge of challenges from migrant children at the border –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) That we’re just going to let them starve to death, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.
MR. BAKER: – to protecting voting access –
GEORGIA GOVERNOR BRIAN KEMP (R): (From video.) I will not back down. It’s about protecting the very foundation of who we are.
TAMARA STEVENS: (From video.) Why are you arresting her?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) What I’m worried about is how un-American this is. It’s sick. It’s sick.
MR. BAKER: – to foreign policy tests –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.
MR. BAKER: – that could swamp his young administration.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I can’t guarantee you we’re going to solve everything, but I can guarantee we can make everything better.
MR. BAKER: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MR. BAKER: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Peter Baker.
President Biden fielded questions Thursday on everything from immigration to how far he will go to break the filibuster. Here’s some of what we heard in the East Room of the White House.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’ve been hired to solve problems – to solve problems, not create division. We should go back to a position on the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 (sic) years ago. It used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed.
MR. BAKER: Biden also announced a new goal to distribute 200 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine during his first hundred days in office, double his original target. Largely absent from the discussion was a topic that has dominated the national conversation this week, a mass shooting at a supermarket in Colorado.
Joining me to open their notebooks are four of Washington’s very best: Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th; Zolan Kanno-Youngs, my colleague from The New York Times and our White House correspondent; Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Ashley, you covered President Trump for four years. What’s the difference between a Trump press conference and a Biden press conference?
ASHLEY PARKER: There’s so many differences, Peter, but I’ll just focus on one or two. One is that Trump’s press conferences were – are theater and spectacle, and they could often be very combative with the reporters, with the president sort of using the reporters as foils and sometimes even the reporters kind of posturing in that role of questioner. And that’s not to say that President Biden is incapable of getting frustrated with the media – we saw some flashes of that, as well – but it was sort of a calmer, more deliberate news conference.
And one other thing which also changed the dynamic is coronavirus because this is an administration, the Biden administration, that takes precautions and mitigation measures very seriously. You saw social distancing in that room. You saw less reporters than you would traditionally have, which in a certain way gave the reporters in the room a chance to ask a question and a follow up and sometimes a follow up on the follow up and a – and a third question, so you could have sort of more substantive and lengthy exchanges in certain ways with President Biden we saw.
MR. BAKER: Zolan, you were in the East Room yesterday. What do you think we learned about Biden’s approach to governing, his doctrine for governing? He talked about the art of the possible.
ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: He talked about the art of the possible. He even described himself – he said, look, I’m pragmatic. I’m paraphrasing there, but that was really the takeaway from this. At one point, when he was asked one of the, I believe, only questions about the recent mass shootings that have occurred, there was a remark that I really thought was key – a key takeaway of the press conference, and that’s where he focused on timing. He really specified that when it comes to a successful presidency, it is about timing and prioritizing certain issues. And really, that’s the way Biden campaigned and that’s what you’re seeing him deal with when it comes to each of these issues and crises that are – that are occurring thus far early in his administration. You really did see that even though he’s going to face criticism on some areas, he's still going to have a similar approach that we’ve seen for the decades that he’s – that he’s been governing.
MR. BAKER: Well, yesterday at that press conference, of course, Biden was repeatedly questioned about voting rights.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The Republican voters I know find this despicable – Republican voters, folks out in the – outside this White House. I’m not talking about the elected officials; I’m talking about voters – voters. And so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this because it is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.
MR. BAKER: Just hours later Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed a sweeping election bill into law making absentee voting more difficult and even making it illegal to give food and water to voters waiting in line. Georgia Democratic State Representative Park Cannon, who opposed the law, was arrested after she knocked on Governor Kemp’s door to ask permission to watch him sign the bill. Biden – (audio break) – today, which read, quote, “This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end.”
Errin, Republicans say this is about election security; President Biden says it’s about Jim Crow. You’re from Atlanta. You covered the Georgia legislature. Help put this into context for us. What’s happening down there, and by extension, really, in many states across the country?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, Peter, I know that, you know, for a lot of Americans this does have to do with the big lie, and yes, this latest iteration of voter – restricting voter access in the Georgia legislature is in response to the 2020 election where you saw an expanded electorate that included a record, you know, turnout of Black voters. But in fact, you know, I covered the Georgia legislature 15 years ago when the state was pioneering voter ID laws that were mirrored by other states after Georgia was able to successfully pass that legislation. And so you’re seeing it happening again here. It’ll be interesting to see what other states pick up, you know, where Georgia has left off here now with the signing into law, you know, things that will now make illegal, you know, passing out food and water to voters standing in hours-long lines, which in itself is a form of voter suppression. You know, in that press conference yesterday you saw President Biden – I mean, that was – you know, one of the moments where he was particularly passionate was really expressing his outrage at what he was seeing happening in states like Georgia, calling it un-American, calling it sick, the legislation that was being proposed and then was later signed into law, you know, the same day that he made those remarks. You know, I think that as much as he was speaking to reporters in that moment, he was also speaking to the Black voters who helped him and (Vice) President Harris get into office and, you know, to signal to them that he understands that in many ways, you know, addressing the issue of voting rights was something that they, in fact, voted for in electing the two of them. And so HB1 and SB1 – H.R. 1 and SB1 have certainly taken on an added sense of urgency as SB202 in Georgia is now headed to the courts.
MR. BAKER: Right, that’s the legislation that Democrats are proposing in Congress that would set national rules for elections across the country. Republicans are very opposed to that.
Sahil, you know, conservatives point to some recent polling showing that many voters do support ID requirements, but this latest round of laws goes well beyond that. What’s the Republican argument here? You know, what is the argument for election security by barring people from handing out water in lines? How does that improve election security?
SAHIL KAPUR: Peter, this is going to be a whale of a fight. Democrats are gearing up – (clears throat) – excuse me, Democrats are gearing up for a very, very fierce battle over S. 1, which is the For the People Act that has passed the House. Democrats have some work to do to cobble together the 50 votes they need to get a Senate majority, let alone 60. They argue this is an inflection point as to whether American democracy remains a democracy. Some say this country could go on the road to plutocracy if that bill isn’t passed to protect voting rights.
Now, to your question, Republicans say that these measures are about ballot integrity. They believe that they are necessary, they believe they’re valid, voter ID requirements are necessary to protect ballot integrity. In states like Georgia, the contradiction here is that the Republican-led officials there have certified that there was no widespread fraud, so it’s not hard to look at this and see it kind of as a solution in search of a problem, these voter ID requirements. Of course, Democrats say that this is simply about shutting them out, trying to prevent their voters from voting. And the Republican argument against S. 1, at least one of them, is that there’s some unrelated measures to voting rights that figures like Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, have highlighted to attack it.
MR. BAKER: Zolan, you know, Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia who seems to be in the middle of everything these days, has said he has some qualms about the Democratic election legislation and he would like to see some bipartisan compromise. But do we think that’s even possible in this day and age? Or is it really just so inextricably partisan, so much about power, that there’s no way these two sides could ever come together on a single bill that resets election law so that everybody agrees we have a fair vantage point for everybody to compete?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: It certainly seems unlikely that there could be some bipartisanship in this area thus far, I would say, from what we’ve seen. I mean, many Republicans on the Hill have made clear that they believe that this is an issue that the states should decide. At least that’s what they’re saying at this time. And when you have Joe Manchin, he has made clear that he is a hard no when it comes to eliminating the filibuster.
So right now, it kind of puts the White House in a corner, in a way, where when it comes to, you know, legislation such as voting rights – or, you know, we were talking before about the mass shootings that have happened. Any gun measures, potentially immigration legislation, you know, can you really get that legislation passed in Congress right now with Joe Manchin’s position? Or is that going to put the White House in a position where they’re really limited to executive action that would likely face lawsuits? It seems like that’s likely.
MR. BAKER: Well, Errin, in fact, you know, the voting restrictions were not the only Jim Crow comparison we heard. The Democrats and Joe – and Joe Biden are talking about the filibuster as another relic from a bygone era. Talk a little bit about that. Why is that issue about race? Democrats have, of course, used the filibuster when they have been in the minority. Republicans have used the filibuster when they have been in the minority. How does this get us back into the issue of race at this point?
MS. HAINES: Well, because the filibuster, you know, while that may not – oh, I’m sorry – while that may not have been the original intent, we know that it has been used, you know, over the years to inhibit, you know, racial progress in particular. And so, you know, while that wasn’t the initial intent, that most certainly has been the impact and the intent, you know, in, you know, the late part of the last century. But, you know, what was interesting, Senator Raphael Warnock out of Georgia who, you know, came into office in that Senate runoff in Georgia that gave the Democrats a majority in the Senate, a majority – a governing majority in Congress, you know, was asked today about, you know, where he stood on filibuster reform.
And he really attempted to reframe that conversation, saying, you know, really this is – this shouldn’t be a question about, you know, whether Democrats are onboard with filibuster reform, but whether Republicans are on board with voting rights and expanding the electorate, that they should really be asked where they stand on voting rights and democracy as opposed to where Democrats stand on filibuster reform, and so I thought that that was really interesting, you know, as a way to frame this, knowing, you know, that many Americans are in favor of more people voting, not less.
MR. BAKER: Sahil, the president talked about a talking filibuster – you know, sort the Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington version of Washington. But would that actually change things? Would that actually help President Biden get his agenda through if the voting threshold was still 60 in order to cut off debate?
MR. KAPUR: It’s an excellent question, Peter. And this is why the details matter so much. There are ways you can structure a talking filibuster that would really empower the majority and put the minority in a difficult place. For instance, if you change the standard to instead of three-fifths of the entire Senate to proceed to debate, three-fifths of those voting and present. If you forced 41 senators to be on the chamber or near the chamber ready for a vote at any point, that creates a situation where a very determined majority can outlast the minority by keeping enough members in the chamber. Maybe if someone – some of them decide to go home at 3:04 a.m. they can call the vote and push something through. So the details really matter here.
There are some senators I’ve spoken to who wonder if a talking filibuster is realistic. The truth is, the Senate has a lot of elderly members in their 70s and 80s who get accommodations for the evening. How many – and they’re in both parties – are they going to want to stick around and tough it out through nights and potentially weekends over things like this? So there are many questions that are being considered here. And a talking filibuster is the one idea that seems to have support from Senator Manchin, who kind of holds the keys to what Democrats do next. He is not in favor of abolishing it, but he has said it should be more painful for the minority to obstruct bills. And if anything does happen here, Democrats are going to use that as the gateway to a solution.
MR. BAKER: I want to play now some sound from PBS NewsHour White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor about the administration’s response to the uptick in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: (From video.) Is there a timeline for when we won’t be seeing these overcrowded facilities run by CBP when it comes to unaccompanied minors?
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back. We are providing for the space, again, to be able to get these kids out of the Border Patrol facilities, which no child, no one should be in any longer than 72 hours. We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time.
MR. BAKER: Zolan, you’ve covered immigration for years, including a lot of time down at the border. Help us factcheck what we heard yesterday. The president said there’s nothing new here. This is just the normal seasonal increase we see all the time. In fact, it was even larger as a percentage under President Trump. But his own secretary of homeland security says we may see the largest migrant surge in 20 years. And his own vice president said this is a, quote, “big problem.” So help us sort through this. What’s going on here?
MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: One thing we absolutely know is that the arrivals at the border are likely to continue and increase. We’re already seeing that through March. Now, let’s talk about what the president was just referring to there. As we discussed earlier, he has been getting criticized. And one of the things he’s been getting criticized for his administration’s handling and treatment of unaccompanied minors that he is welcoming into the U.S. And he has been criticized as – you know, by Republicans – as not being tough enough at the border.
And so his response has been to say, well, let’s remember I’m still – the administration is still expelling, using a pandemic emergency rule that, I may add, was implemented by President Trump in March. He is using that pandemic emergency rule to expel single adults. And the administration’s intention is to rapidly turn away – to expel families as well – mainly families from Central America. But here’s the thing, while that might be their intention, they need the cooperation of Mexico to do that.
And what has happened since about January, after Mexico passed a recent law that prohibits the detention of young immigrant children in their facilities – Mexico – and, I should add also, a lack of shelter capacity along the Mexico side of the border. Mexican authorities have stopped basically accepting some of those families that the United States is trying to rapidly turn away. So that means there are more families being released into the United States than there were months ago. He is – the president – that was a false statement when he says that a vast majority of families are being returned at this time.
And I do think it’s important to also tell the viewers here – I mean, this brings up a question for the president as well. I mean, he campaigned on restoring asylum at the border. And while he has broken away from the Trump administration in welcoming in children, he is still using that pandemic rule that was criticized by now Vice President Harris. He’s still using that rule, and intending to use it, for adults and families fleeing poverty and persecution in Central America.
So what will be interesting going forward is how long he relies on that rule and what potential backlash he gets from continuing to use that rule, as well as what the plan is when he can no longer use it.
MR. BAKER: Ashley, you know, all new presidents like to blame their troubles on their predecessor. It was just a few weeks ago, of course, we heard President Biden say he was tired of talking about Donald Trump, who was the former guy, as he called him at the time. But yesterday he didn’t seem tired of talking about him. You wrote in The Washington Post that he mentioned Trump by name 10 times yesterday. And of course, he said at one point: my predecessor, oh God, I miss him. Now we all thought that was a joke, but maybe it’s not a joke. Do you think there’s a possibility that he actually does miss President Trump, at least as a unifying force for his coalition, as a foil for any troubles that he might have?
MS. PARKER: Well, you know, it is Democrats and Republicans, as you said. They always blame their predecessor. That’s sort of a political rule, time immemoriam (sp). And Biden is – does legitimately seem eager to move past, as he called him, the former guy. This was their campaign strategy that helped get him elected, which was to largely ignore then-President Trump, and not really elevate or engage him. And that is something Biden has done largely until that press conference, where not only did he mention him 10 times by name, but in seven different sort of instances – on immigration three times, on Afghanistan, on human rights, on taxes, so it was a range of issues. To be fair to President Biden, he mentioned him unprompted sometimes; about half of those exchanges the media did bring up former President Trump, asking Biden to respond to something he had said. But you did get the sense – and it’s quite understandable – that for Biden, with Trump it is personal. This is someone who went after his son Hunter repeatedly during the campaign. Biden always likes to boast that he is the rare Irishman who does not hold grudges, but it seems as if former President Trump may be the exception that proves that rule.
MR. BAKER: A gunman opened fire in a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado on Monday, killing 10 people including a police officer. It’s the second week in a row that a mass shooting has rattled America. President Biden, a longtime supporter of gun control, urged Congress to pass tougher laws.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act. We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.
MR. BAKER: But Congress has shown no sign of being willing to act. Republicans are dead set against the restrictions the House Democrats passed earlier this month. Sahil, it feels like we’ve seen this movie before: we have a terrible massacre, Democrats talk about gun control, Republicans oppose it, and then nothing happens. President Biden, in fact, of course, was in charge of the Obama administration’s attempt to get gun control through after the Newtown shooting of schoolchildren back in 2012 and it went nowhere. So if Congress wasn’t willing to do something when schoolchildren were killed, what is there – what reason is there to think that anything might happen now, or is this just a – you now, a quixotic quest on the part of Democrats?
MR. KAPUR: Peter, the single biggest difference is that now Democrats control the trifecta: they have the White House, they have the Senate, and they have the House. That was not the case in 2013, when Republicans controlled the House and the understanding was anything that could get through the Senate was dead on arrival there. This is the first time since the early 1990s – when, you know, President Biden was involved in this effort – that Democrats have the trifecta and pursued gun control, so that’s a key difference. Theoretically, there is a path to get a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, and something to President Biden’s desk. The House has passed a couple of bills to expand background checks and close some loopholes in the system, but this is proving to be a very heavy lift in the Senate to just get 50 votes, let alone 60 votes, and the reason is those two background-check bills don’t have the support of Senator Manchin in the Senate. I think we’re noticing a trend here. But there is a bill that he wrote with the Republican Senator Pat Toomey that’s a watered-down version of that. It expands background checks to commercial gun sales online and at gun shows, where they can go forward in some states without a background check, but it creates broader exemptions for person-to-person transfers and private sales and families and that sort of thing. Right now even that bill doesn’t have the 60 votes needed, but it has between 50 and 60 votes. If there is anything to be done, Peter, on gun control, it’s going to center on that, but of course the problem with this debate is always that once you start going down this road there is a powerful community in the – in the gun rights world that will portray any gun control as the first step in repealing the Second Amendment and taking your guns away, and that’s a – that’s a powerful motivating force that gets a lot of single-issue gun voters to flood offices with calls, and it scares members of Congress out of doing anything. That’s what we saw in 2013 and that certainly could be where this is headed if Democrats don’t find a way to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
MR. BAKER: Errin, we’ve just got about a minute or so left, but the president when he was asked about gun control at that press conference really dealt with it in passing and quickly pivoted to talk about infrastructure. Was that concession that he doesn’t really think that gun control can – will be his priority given the legislative obstacles that Sahil just talked about?
MS. HAINES: Well, you know, I don’t know. I certainly don’t want to speak to what could possibly be in President Biden’s mind, but I do think that what it does reflect is something that we saw happening in that, you know, inaugural press conference with President Biden, which was as much a test for him as it was reporters, right? I mean, he would like to be focused on, you know, the pillars that he and (Vice) President Harris said that they inherited when they came into office, namely the economy, the pandemic, climate change, and racial equity, yet that was not, you know, the agenda that was on the table in yesterday’s press conference. You heard everything from voting rights to immigration, as we discussed, to filibuster reform to asking, you know, about those things instead. And so, you know, while there are things that certainly he would like to stick to, you know, the events of the day certainly overtake that agenda, or at least in this case. But that just goes to show that there need to be more of these briefings, and so hopefully there will be more, early and often.
MR. BAKER: OK, Errin, thank you very much. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Many thanks to Errin, Zolan, Sahil, and Ashley for their insights, and thank you for joining us. We’ll continue the conversation on our Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, on Facebook, or on YouTube. I’m Peter Baker. Good night from Washington.