Special: Abortion Rights Under Fire & the Latest on COVID Restrictions

May. 21, 2021 AT 9:11 p.m. EDT

The Supreme Court announced it will take up a case that challenges Roe v. Wade, as states pass new laws restricting abortion access. The panel also discussed the latest CDC guidance on masks, and how businesses are struggling to adjust in a post-COVID vaccine world.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

This week the Supreme Court announced that it would take up a case about a Mississippi state law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The conservative-majority Court could end up overturning or weakening Roe v. Wade, and states have already been moving to limit abortion access. On Wednesday, Texas enacted a new law that would prohibit abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. The law is expected to face legal challenges. That comes as a number of other states have moved to restrict voting access – abortion access, rather.

Joining me tonight are four reporters covering it all: Asma, political correspondent for NPR – she’s going to be – oh, she’s here, great that you made it – political reporter and co-host of the NPR’s Politics podcast; Jeff Zeleny, chief national correspondent for CNN; and joining me in studio Andrea Mitchell, chief Washington correspondent and chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, and host of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports; and Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News. Thank you so much, all of you.

Asma, I want to start with you. How might this upcoming Supreme Court case put pressure on President Biden to protect Roe v. Wade given his support for a woman’s right to choose?

ASMA KHALID: I think it’s going to put an extraordinary amount of pressure on him, in part because he is essentially now seen as the last barrier to upholding Roe versus Wade given the new conservative majority in the Supreme Court and the fact that this coming back up as a discussion in the Supreme Court. You know, throughout the campaign he had said that he supports Roe versus Wade, essentially. And there was, you know, some conversation back and forth, I would say, over the years where Biden has shifted and has evolved on his support for abortion, but I would say at this point in time he knows that there is a strong base of support within the Democratic Party for this, he knows that this is a huge issue. And look, I will say that you saw that when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away and you just saw the amount of extraordinary investment that was going to Democratic – you know, Democratic base voters when you look at ActBlue, things like that. This is a huge motivating factor for the Democratic base, and Joe Biden knows that.

MS. ALCINDOR: Abortion is definitely, as Asma said, a huge motivating factor for the Democratic base after RBG passed away. Andrea, I want to come to you. Tell me – and we’re going to zoom in a little bit – tell me about this Mississippi case, why it’s so different from others, why it’s so important.

ANDREA MITCHELL: It’s an extraordinary case because it is the first time that Roe is actually being really challenged directly, the first time since the Casey case. This is the first case where they’re actually challenging the right for a woman to have abortion before viability, before 23 weeks, so you could only have an abortion up to about 15 weeks in this case. It would basically eliminate the right to abortion in most cases. And so it apparently came to the Court – it came to the Court in September, before RBG died – before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died – and then, after she died and of course, you know, Justice Amy Coney Barrett came onto the Court, there were apparently 15 discussions about this case in the intervening time and most of the Supreme Court reporters thought, well, it’s going away, they’re obviously not going to take it up – and then they did, to the surprise of many. And with this conservative majority, there is a feeling that this is the first real – really significant challenge to Roe, and it would of course overturn precedents, but it is a five to four conservative Court right now.

MS. ALCINDOR: Jeff, I want to come to you because Andrea just laid out this idea that, of course, the conservatives have the power now in the Court. I want to talk to you about how this relates to the judicial legacy of former President Trump and Mitch McConnell. How will they have a say, possibly, in this case, even, of course, as they won’t be sitting on the Court, but their legacies will be there?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, no question about it, I mean, President Trump, you know, will have a long-lasting legacy on the Supreme Court, you know, because of, as Andrea was just saying, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to not retire, of course, and these discussions, you know, were underway before. If she, you know, were still on the Court or if she had retired years ago and she would have been replaced by a liberal justice, this would not be happening. So without question this Court and federal courts across the land have the Trump and Mitch McConnell stamp on them, without question. It is one of the biggest legacies of the Trump presidency that cannot be taken away from him in the short term, and you know, for Mitch McConnell this has been his life’s work. You know, the central focus has been confirming conservative justices up and down the federal bench, and many of these justices that have been confirmed under his watch are quite young, so we’re talking generations and decades of action here. So this is going to be a central issue in the midterm elections. Democrats – Senate Democrats and House Democrats already are raising money around this, trying to rally their base behind them, but the reality is the Court is what it is, and even if there is a retirement before next month – which is possible, not necessarily expected, but we’re always on the edge of our seat in Washington around this time of year about a Supreme Court retirement – it is not going to be a conservative justice retiring almost certainly. That would be astonishing. So this is going to be a major case next year, and until then both sides are going to, you know, try and seek a political advantage here and rally their own supporters.

MS. ALCINDOR: Rachel, Jeff just said that this is probably going to be and will likely be a central part of the elections. Tell me a little bit about what your reporting says about that and how this might impact campaigning for candidates.

RACHEL SCOTT: Yeah, this is going to be a central issue for the midterms, but not only that; I think it’s going to be a lot more fuel for progressives, who we just saw weeks ago try to push, you know, legislation that would expand the Court. They say President Biden isn’t going far enough. So this is going to be another issue, yet again, that we’re going to see Biden feel this pressure from the left because of this central issue. I remember covering the protests when President Trump was pushing for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to replace RBG on the bench, and the outrage because of the fear of this. But you already see this reflected in the states. I always say look at the states, and in about, you know – you have about 60 – you have about – sorry, not 60 – you have – you have about 30 states that have already moved to restrict access to abortions, including Texas just this past week, so it shows you that all of the Republicans are going to be rallying behind this. It’s definitely going to be a central issue for the midterms.

MS. MITCHELL: And the Texas – the Texas law would restrict it after six weeks.

MS. SCOTT: Six weeks, yeah.

MS. MITCHELL: Most women don’t even know they’re pregnant after six weeks.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, a crucial, crucial issue. Another issue I want to turn to is that cities across the country, including New York and Washington, D.C., are lifting COVID restrictions for fully vaccinated Americans, but there are still a lot of questions about how businesses will adapt to a post-COVID world. Jeff, you talked to a couple business owners in Michigan. Here’s what one of them said to you.

PATTI EISENBRAUN: (From video.) I had 120 people before the pandemic; I’m down to 70. I need immediate hire for 30 people. There’s just not the people out there right now.

MS. ALCINDOR: Jeff, how are people feeling about putting their masks aside and going back to normal?

MR. ZELENY: Well, there without question is a sense of optimism out really in all parts of the country as I travel, you know, really somewhere different every week and get – I was in Michigan just ahead of President Biden’s visit there this week and was talking to that owner of a brewery, and Patti told me, look, they’re trying to hire workers; a couple things are holding them back. One, they’re still only at 50 percent capacity, so that is, you know, limiting what they can do financially; but also, there are a lot of people who are not wanting to rejoin the service industry. So they are actually paying starting wages at $16 an hour and up from there. They’re offering a bounty, offering $1,250 for one of their existing employees to bring someone in to come and work in the restaurant. So all of this is really – you know, it’s certainly a sigh of relief, you know, being felt among business owners and patrons, of course, at these restrictions. There’s confusion as well, without a doubt, but the hiring shortage is a significant economic headwind that is facing this administration as well as, you know, rising prices at the grocery store, the gas pump, you know, and potential worries of inflation here. So for all of the sense of optimism that you really can feel out there – and we should celebrate that – there are some, you know, potential worrisome signs from an economic point of view that the Biden administration is watching very, very closely.

MS. ALCINDOR: Andrea, he was talking about worrisome signs. One thing that also has people worried is that there’s still a lot of vaccine hesitancy. About 38 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, but there’s still – that means there’s a lot of people who still don’t have the vaccine. How is that complicating reopening and the Biden administration’s strategy here?

MS. MITCHELL: It is, because they thought that telling people that they could go without masks if they were fully vaccinated would be such an incentive – people wanted the freedom of being without masks – and instead they were criticized for confusing messages and people not knowing when is it safe and when isn’t it safe, and it didn’t really land the way they thought it was going to land. Plus, now they’re trying to vaccinate children, you know, the children 12 years old – 12- to 15-year-old, 12- to 16-years-old, that a very important component to get kids back to school, and until they can get past this hesitancy they’re not going to have the herd immunity that they really need to reassure them and the public. Then, plus, do we need boosters? There was a whole debate in the last 24 hours about whether there will need to be a booster, when there will need to be a booster, and the answer is they don’t really know but most likely the older people who were in nursing homes and got the vaccine first would be the – those who would need the boosters soonest. And it’s not such a big deal when you think we give boosters for a lot of things, but it’s another added element that’s complicating things. Overall, though, you’ve got to admit this is good news. The progress on vaccination and the fact that the vaccines are proving to be far more effective than they had ever thought is all, you know, really positive.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, Asma, there is a lot of positive news here. There is also the idea that the vaccine – or I should say the virus and really the vaccine rollout, too, exposed the inequalities in our society. What challenges do you think still lie ahead, and what are people especially at the White House most concerned about when you look at that front – that equity front?

MS. KHALID: You’re right, Yamiche. I mean, there certainly were lower levels of vaccine adoption among Black and brown communities in particular. Look, I can just speak from personal experience. I actually got my first vaccine dose in Gary, Indiana. I was visiting my parents. It’s a heavily African American area, and they were sending out mobile clinics to the neighborhood, and there were so many residents coming across the border from Illinois just because folks within the local community were not getting vaccinated. There are, you know, certainly efforts by FEMA and others trying to get in whether that’s mobile clinics or setting up actual incentives. You know, you see that even statewide incentives, whether it’s financial incentives to get people to get vaccinated. But you know, I agree with Andrea that I think this is leading to a little bit of confusion because while – you know, while the CDC has said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask, you know, not all health-care facilities are adopting that same message. If you were to go into, say, your doctor’s office right now, they’re most likely not going to say take off your mask if you’re fully vaccinated, and I think there is a set of mixed messaging still from private businesses.

MS. ALCINDOR: And talking about that mixed messaging, there’s also this issue, Rachel, on the Hill with masks. There’s been a fight over it. Tell us what’s the latest on that.

MS. SCOTT: Oh boy. (Laughter.)

MS. ALCINDOR: And tell me a bit about who’s vaccinated on the Hill. The latest reporting was that Republicans were less vaccinated than Democrats.

MS. SCOTT: Yeah, it’s been quite a point of contention in the House chamber, especially, where there are rules to keep wearing your mask, and you see Republicans refusing to do so, and they’re being fined, and there’s been some contentious moments on the floor, Jamie Raskin talking to Marjorie Taylor Greene this past week talking about why aren’t you wearing a mask. They walked outside, I was on the Capitol Steps; they took photos being happy about not wearing a mask. And so this is just – just heightened tensions on the Hill already, even after January 6th, now over the mask mandate, but Pelosi’s facing some pretty tough questions on this as well about why she won’t relax this rule if the majority of the members are vaccinated. But as you pointed out, we just don’t really know yet the firm number when it comes to Republicans. You do definitely have some that have just come outright and say that they’re not getting it.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, well, that’s going to be an interesting space to watch with all of the tensions on the Hill. That just adds to all of this.

Well, thank you, all of you. We’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Asma, Jeff, Andrea, and Rachel for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Make sure to shine – to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you all the behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.

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