Full Episode: Biden sets deadlines for the COVID response as the GOP debates its future

Feb. 19, 2021 AT 9:19 p.m. EST

President Joe Biden held his first town hall this week, answering about the vaccine rollout and his plans to get the country through the pandemic. The panel discussed where the Biden administration stands on the push to reopen classrooms, the government's response to Texas’s debilitating winter storm, and the cold war between Sen. Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump. CBS Senior White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang guest moderates.

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WEIJIA JIANG: President Biden accelerates his ambitious agenda as Republicans endure a very, very bad week.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) America’s back.

MS. JIANG: President Biden tries to turn the page on the Trump presidency as he grapples with how to overcome the COVID challenges he inherited: vaccinating Americans –

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) By the end of July we’ll have enough to vaccinate every single American.

MS. JIANG: – reopening schools –

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) At the end of the first hundred days we’d have a significant percentage of them being able to be opened.

MS. JIANG: – and stimulating a stunted economy.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Now is the time to go big.

MS. JIANG: Plus, a deep freeze in the heart of Texas brings power politics to the forefront with one senator embroiled in controversy.

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) So I understand why people are upset.

MS. JIANG: Next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MS. JIANG: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Weijia Jiang.

Tonight we take an in-depth look at what President Biden is doing to help the economy, help the country through the pandemic. With one month into the Biden administration, questions remain about the nation’s fragmented vaccine rollout and the push to reopen classrooms. Many educators and officials are concerned students are struggling with online learning and falling behind, but the Biden administration’s guidance on how to reopen schools safely has been contradictory and confusing. This is what Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week.

JEN PSAKI: (From video.) His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools – so more than 50 percent – open by day 100 of his presidency, and that means some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week – hopefully it’s more.

MS. JIANG: Then President Joe Biden said that wasn’t true at a CNN town hall on Tuesday.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) There was a mistake in the communication. I said opening the majority of schools in K through eighth grade because they’re the easiest to open. The goal will be five days a week.

MS. JIANG: We also have the latest news on the crisis in Texas. Millions of Texans do not have drinkable water tonight. The state is still recovering from a winter storm that knocked out their power grid. President Biden declared the state a disaster area. And Senator Ted Cruz is feeling the heat after fleeing the cold for Cancun; many Texans are livid. We will have more on that and the crisis of leadership in the GOP.

Tonight we have four top reporters closely covering it all: Yasmeen Abutaleb, national reporter focusing on health policy for The Washington Post; my colleague Ed O’Keefe, senior White House and political correspondent for CBS News; Anna Palmer, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter, and the host of the Daily Punch Podcast; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for National Public Radio.

President Biden laid down markers for his administration this week. He estimated that students in grades K through eight will return to the classroom in April, promised there will be enough vaccine for every American by the end of July, and that normal life may resume by Christmas 2021. Yasmeen, public health officials have been hesitant to attach any dates to COVID milestones because of all the variables. In fact, just this week we saw Dr. Anthony Fauci have to walk back his prediction for when open season would be; he initially said April and then now saying May or June. Do these experts stand by the president’s goal marks?

YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think a lot of experts actually think some of these goal marks could be a little bit more ambitious, like the number of vaccinations that the administration tries to ensure are done a day. I think these are fairly realistic. You see the Biden administration taking, you know, kind of the opposite tack of the Trump administration and sort of underpromising and hoping to overdeliver, so the goals they set out may not seem, you know, incredibly ambitious on their face. But I think, you know, they’re reluctant to attach too many dates to when these things might happen because so much is dependent on how quickly they can actually get vaccines into arms, not just have doses manufactured, and then of course these changes in individual behavior and whether he’s going to be able to pass his relief package.

MS. JIANG: Right, and so much actually depends on when those shots actually get into arms, and the debate over when teachers should get the shots is ongoing with the CDC saying that, you know, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite to open schools. Ayesha, I want to ask you about what we just saw, which is really a muddled message from the administration about reopening schools. What do you think happened there?

AYESHA RASCOE: It seemed like they were trying to please everybody. They didn’t want to risk upsetting parents who are, you know, desperate to get their kids back in schools. I have a first grader, you know, who I would, you know, love to see back in school. And it also seemed like they definitely did not want to upset teachers and teachers’ unions, who have pushed for more stringent, you know, guidelines for when teachers go back into the schools. They want to be safe. And you know, truly it seems like most parents, they want their children to be safe, they want teachers to be safe. It’s a very nuanced issue, and they were trying to – it seemed like the White House was trying to please everybody or spin it in a way that no one would get upset, and when you do that, though, you end up with this muddled message and you end up with this message that just is not clear. What exactly does the White House expect? Do teachers need to get vaccinated? That’s a simple yes-or-no question, but they didn’t have the yes-or-no answer.

MS. JIANG: Right, they had different variations of that answer. But one thing is clear, they are ramping up distribution of the vaccine, and just this week the Biden administration announced that they’d be sending 13.5 million doses to states every week. That is an increase from 11 million last week, but they continue to criticize the Trump administration for its rollout. So when does team Biden take ownership of the pandemic response, including victories and setbacks?

ED O’KEEFE: I think it’s when he hits these deadlines that he has imposed on himself; so essentially, the first 100 days. Remember, the goal was 100 million vaccine shots into the arms of Americans by late April when he hits the 100-day mark, and then this ever-moving school goal which is one that he really has no real need to engage on because there’s virtually no federal control or oversight of schools. It’s one of the most decentralized aspects of American society. Your school board has more say over who goes back to school and when than a president ever will. But once those marks are either hit or missed – and he’s been so explicit about it it would be impossible to not hold them to account either way – I think at that point you really can begin to lay more blame on the – or credit – on the Biden administration if they’ve met those marks. But what he’s doing by putting it on the backs of the last guy is nothing new. George Bush did it to Bill Clinton. Barack Obama certainly did it to George W. Bush, especially on foreign policy. Donald Trump spent most of his four years blaming his predecessor. And certainly through the first month of this administration they’re doing the same.

MS. JIANG: Right, and you’re correct that he’s all in on the schools aspect because I think he really thinks that’s the key to reopening the economy, so caretakers at home can get back to their normal lives as well, and that’s why we’re seeing such a push for this COVID rescue package. And Anna, I know you wrote this week in Punchbowl that Democrats are on track to pass this massive bill sometime in late next week or the weekend. I wonder how much it’s going to resemble President Biden’s proposal, especially when it comes to minimum wage, because I think a lot of people want to know is it going to hit that $15 mark or not.

ANNA PALMER: Democrats have to play a flawless hand here to meet the deadline, one of the deadlines that Joe Biden has set out, which is March 14th when he said that they’re going to sign this bill into law. That is a very short amount of time. Right now the next week is key for House Democrats to pass this bill. The issue of minimum wage, obviously, raging with progressives trying to push it and make it part of the bill. It appears it will be part of the House bill, but again, the Senate is a whole different ballgame and right now by parliamentary procedure and arcane rules that have to deal with spending bills it appears that it will be thrown out and will not be a part of this bill. I think there’s going to be a lot of wrangling around that, and certainly in terms of Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the Senate, he’s going to need to pacify the progressives who want this to be a part of it in order to get it passed, because it’s going to be a party-line vote. They’re going to need every single Democrat and Kamala Harris to get this bill across the finish line.

MS. JIANG: And of course, a big part of this bill, Yasmeen, is a focus on vaccine distribution. Before I let you go, can you talk about this rush to get as many people shots as possible before variants of the virus really ramp up? Because I know a lot of experts are worried that it’s a race against time.

MS. ABUTALEB: Right, I mean, the vaccinations are obviously the key to reopening and getting life back to normal as quickly as possible. But the other piece of this that you mentioned is that the more virus spreads, the more opportunity there is for variants to spread and for there to be other mutations of the virus. And so experts know, and the administration knows, that the best way to prevent against these variants from really getting out of control from becoming the dominant strain in the U.S. is to vaccinate as many people as possible. Even though the vaccines may be a little bit less effective against some of these variants, they still offer some protection. And the more you can prevent the infections from spreading in the first place the more you can protect against the variants really getting out of hand.

MS. JIANG: And I think Republicans are on board with money for testing and vaccines but, Ed, this morning you reported that local mayors across the country are urging lawmakers to really think about that $350 billion that they want for state and local aid. And I wonder if the pressure on Republican lawmakers is enough, or if that figure is just too expensive for them.

MR. O’KEEFE: I think it’s one of those things that Republicans would like to support and might were it standing alone as an option to be voted on up or down. But the sort of traditional Republican argument, or the most common one we’ve heard in recent weeks is they consider this what they call a blue state bailout, that most of the cities that are facing budget shortfalls are larger, Democratic-controlled cities, most of them inside Democratic-controlled states. But in the conversations I had with the Democratic mayor of Baltimore and with the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City they said no.

If you were to go to most big and small cities and towns across the country, they’re having a very similar problem – a lack of tax revenue, a shortfall that’s caused by, you know, the inability to write parking tickets on people who are downtown either working or shopping, convention centers not holding large meetings, tourists not paying the hotel tax. All of that revenue that these cities and towns may rely on across the country has dried up and it’s unclear when or if it will ever come back.

So as the mayor of Oklahoma City said to me, we’ve been responsible for helping dole out federal programs to help small businesses, to help, you know, community organizations that are helping, with dealing – you know, helping the homeless or other low-income Americans. What cities now need as employers, and some of the largest employers in their states – cops, firefighters, and others – is their own federal relief program. And that’s what they’re hoping this would do. It has broad bipartisan support from more than 400 mayors across the country, certainly a handful of governors in both parties also say it’s necessary.

Whether there will be Republican support for that specific proposal, or the entire package, remains to be seen. One of the sort of underreported but somewhat noticed aspects of this past week, and it was a crazy one, was that the Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, noted again she’d heard from the White House. They were still talking about finding a way potentially for at least some Republicans to vote for this COVID relief bill once it gets to the Senate.

MS. JIANG: And they’re already talking about what’s next. I mean, this week we saw Democrats roll out the president’s sweeping immigration bill. And Ayesha, I wonder why you think they decided to go forward with that now when a lot of us expected that, you know, they’d be talking about an infrastructure plan by now.

MS. RASCOE: Well, it seems like – and, you know, reporters tried to nail down White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on exactly what the strategy was for rolling it out. You know, she talked in very broad terms that this wasn’t really political. They look at this as moral issue. I think what we’re seeing is, you know, the Biden administration is trying to say that they’ve learned from what happened during the Obama administration where many Hispanic groups and immigration groups felt like they were – on the left – felt like they were left behind. That they were put on the back burner while Obama went after, you know, passing Obamacare, passing – you know, trying to get climate change – a climate change bill passed. And that they ended up on the back burner and nothing happened.

And this is a very difficult issue. So I think what you see Biden trying to do is say, no, I’m not like, you know, Obama. I am – you know, I’m going to roll out a plan on the very first day in office. And now we have the legislation. This is a priority for me. The problem is there are only so many trains leaving that station in Congress. (Laughs.) And so you’re trying to get this big recovery bill, this big rescue act bill. You’re trying to do infrastructure. And now you’re talking about immigration, which has been impossible to get done for more than a decade really. And so these are really huge things that they’re trying to get done.

MS. JIANG: All at the same time, which is very challenging for the administration. Well, we are going to dive into politics, so Yasmeen, we’re going to let you go. But thank you so much for your insights about the medical piece of this. It’s always great to see you.

MS. ABUTALEB: Thank you so much.

MS. JIANG: And turning now to Texas, a debilitating winter storm left millions of residents without power. The government’s response to the crisis paints a picture of the lack of preparation and of leadership. Texas Governor Greg Abbott tried to deflect blame by spreading misinformation about the root of the disaster.

TEXAS GOVERNOR GREG ABBOTT (R): (From video.) This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar, they got shut down and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid.

MS. JIANG: To be clear, there is no green deal, and Abbott later acknowledged that energy sources were not reliable and took responsibility for the failure of resources. Texas Senator Ted Cruz also faced criticism this week after he escaped to Cancun, Mexico for a family trip, leaving his constituents in the cold asking for help.

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) The decision to go was tone deaf. Look, it was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it.

MS. JIANG: All of this unfolding as the GOP struggles with an identity crisis post-Donald Trump, and the former president makes clear he is not backing down in the cold war with Senator Mitch McConnell. This comes after McConnell sharply criticized Trump following the vote to acquit him in last week’s impeachment trial.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.

MS. JIANG: Trump fired back, releasing a statement calling McConnell a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack. I want to start right there, Ed, because this is like we’re watching a very ugly, very public breakup that could have some real long-term implications for the Republican Party. And I hate to extend this analogy, but now it’s like the members have to pick who to stay friends with. So do you think this week’s war of words is going to have a lasting impact?

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, I mean, and this really in some ways is a continuation of what began during the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. Maybe this is just the next chapter, or the fifth season in an ongoing saga, in a party that now really is in the process of bifurcating. You’re with Ted – sorry, not Ted Cruz. He’s in – he was in Mexico. You’re with Mitch McConnell, who believes that you have to nominate candidates who can win elections in November, not candidates who can win primary elections. And whether that person is supportive of President Trump or stands apart from him, it doesn’t matter to Mitch McConnell, as long as they can win an election in states next year like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas. And, you know, ultimately win over independent voters, maybe even some Democrats who have not been fans of Republicans in recent years.

Then you’ve got the president, who of course – the former president – who believes you got to be with him, you got to do it his way, you got to support everything he does, and that’s the only way for Republicans to succeed. And what’s trickier too – and Anna knows this well – is you’ve got different political dynamics in the House and the Senate. House elections will probably be won in districts where you’ve got a large base of Republican support. And the way districts are drawn across the country those Republican districts are more likely to favor someone that prefers the former president. But when you got to win statewide elections in these large states for Senate seats, you’ve got to make a broader appeal. And standing with President Trump isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

How this goes into next year will have a huge effect going into 2024, whether or not he decides to run again. And really, you know, one by one, Republican candidates and Republican officeholders across the country are going to have to face this choice.

MS. JIANG: Of course, one of those lawmakers that has stood by President Trump is Senator Ted Cruz. And, Anna, you wrote in Punchbowl: Yes, Ted Cruz actually went to Mexico – perfectly capturing how unbelievable it was, and apparently how indefensible it was, because nobody has rushed to defend the senator. So what do you think this does to him politically, if anything, as he looks ahead?

MS. PALMER: I think in the short term it’s a real problem for Ted Cruz. I think a lot of people already thought he kind of was missing a little bit of an empathy gene in general and this kind of plays into that stereotype. So certainly in terms of winning over Texas voters that’s going to be an issue for him, but in the long term it’s a much bigger problem for him. Ted Cruz clearly wants to run for president, has run for president, and the attack ad writes itself here, you know, when his state was in dire straits he decided to go on, you know, a fancy vacation with his family instead of actually pitching in and helping out. So I think this is going to be hard for Ted Cruz to recover from. I think the point that you – that we made in Punchbowl News this morning was the fact that not single member of the Senate Republican conference defended him or tried to help him out shows his own standing within his own conference.

MS. JIANG: And it’s not just a bad week for Ted Cruz, right? I mean, many elected officials in Texas are sort of grappling with their response or lack of response. Ayesha, I want to talk about those harrowing images that we have seen all week from the state. I wonder how you think this changes the relationship between Texans and their elected officials, and whether it exposed anything that they might not have known was there before.

MS. RASCOE: Well, it exposed a failure of government. It exposed, you know, there is, obviously, an independent streak in Texas, and you know, that’s an understatement, but you know, that they want to have their own grid, they want – they don’t want federal regulators coming in, but at the same time there were warnings that Texas would not be able – that Texas power generators would not be able to withstand a really serious cold snap, and that there should be – there should be weatherization and hardening of infrastructure, but that didn’t happen because these power generators were not required to. And they – and it costs money, it’s expensive, and so for the bottom line they decided not to do it because Texas doesn’t, you know, have – freeze over very often. But here you have a situation where you have people dying, you know, you have, you know, senior citizens, you know, babies in homes without heat, without running water. It is a horrible situation, and you have to imagine that people are going to want answers for how this could happen in the U.S., in the richest country in the world, how does this – how does something like this happen and what needs to be done to make sure that people are protected from these extreme weather events.

MS. JIANG: Yeah, and I think, you know, a lot of Americans across the country are watching this and asking, could this happen to me. So, Ed, I wonder if you think this will impact President Biden’s agenda at all as we all, you know, wait around and see when he is going to talk about his infrastructure plan.

MR. O’KEEFE: Well, it plays into two priorities. Infrastructure is one of them. Climate change is the other. Remember, he came into office saying there are dual crises facing the country and the world, one of them is climate change, and it is the stated policy of the administration to make concerns about it, addressing that concern, omnipresent across government, across domestic and foreign policy. And you know, this doesn’t happen. It’s not supposed to be below 40 degrees in Texas any time of year, let alone in February. There’s not supposed to be snow. This was caused by changes in climate, changes in wind patterns and weather patterns, and it just socked a part of the country that has never sustained this kind of a deep freeze before. I think that’s the other aspect of this, frankly, for many others across – many Americans across the country. Ayesha’s right, we have this perception outside the state of what Texas is. One of the things Texas is is unaccustomed to this kind of weather, so there was just a simple societal and psychological blow to the state this week because there are a lot of people who have simply never had to endure that kind of weather in that kind of state, didn’t know how to deal with it, and that is something that even government can’t necessarily deal with. But the other notable thing was hearing President Biden today, when asked about the situation in Texas, reiterate what he had campaigned on, that he would be a president for every state regardless of who it supported in the presidential election. That, of course, another way to contrast what he’s doing with President Trump, who we can recall at different times in different situations would criticize local and state leaders, often because they weren’t necessarily supportive of him, whether it was questioning the origin of wildfires in deep Democratic California or questioning the finances and the leadership in Puerto Rico, an island that doesn’t necessarily support his brand of politics. It was a reminder that Biden’s going to do it differently.

MS. JIANG: And one critic of President Biden was certainly Rush Limbaugh, a conservative icon who passed this week. And Anna, quickly, before we leave, can you just tell me what you think this is going to do for the Republican Party since he was such an impact?

MS. PALMER: Yeah, I mean, I remember when you look back at the ’90s and the Republican revolution it was he was an honorary member of Congress at that time. Oftentimes when Republicans have been in control of the chambers they’ve looked to him before they rolled out policy to see how it would play, how he would talk to people. I think the real question’s going to be who fills that void as we are looking at this Republican Party.

MS. JIANG: Thank you so much, Anna. That’s it for tonight. Another big week in Washington comes to a close. Many thanks to our reporters Ed, Anna, and Ayesha, and thank you for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and our website.

I’m Weijia Jiang. Good night from Washington.

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