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Biden orders flags lowered to commemorate 500,000 U.S. COVID deaths

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The bells at the Washington National Cathedral tolled 500 times Monday evening, marking 500,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19. CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes, CBS News senior White House and politics correspondent Ed O'Keefe, and Politico White House correspondent Eugene Daniels spoke to "Red and Blue" host Elaine Quijano about how President Biden is commemorating the lives lost as he pushes Congress to pass his relief bill.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Hi, everyone. I'm Elaine Equiano. It is good to be with you. Thanks for joining us. Tonight, the country is commemorating the more than half a million people in the United States who have lost their lives to COVID-19. The bells at Washington's National Cathedral are set to toll 500 times, once for every thousand lives lost to the virus.

[BELL RINGS]

In the 6:00 PM Eastern hour, President Biden is set to speak from the White House, addressing the pandemic's toll. He is issuing a presidential proclamation ordering flags to be lowered to half staff for five days in remembrance of the 500,000. It comes as the state of the public health crisis appears to be improving. New hospitalizations from COVID are down 62% nationwide from last month, but top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warns now is not the time to let down our guard.

ANTHONY FAUCI: This is a horrible landmark that we've now reached. And even though the numbers are coming down, as you've shown, on the deflection of cases and hospitalizations, we really can't declare victory quite yet because we have vaccines that clearly are the light at the end of the tunnel, but we know that there are variants out there.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Meantime, President Biden announced changes Monday to the Paycheck Protection Program. The government has opened a two week window for businesses with fewer than 20 employees to apply for forgivable loans that many, especially women and people of color, missed out on before. The president is also urging lawmakers to pass his COVID relief plan, speaking specifically to those opposed to its size.

JOE BIDEN: Is a starting point, not the ending point. Critics say the plan is too big. Let me ask a rhetorical question. What would you have me cut? What would you leave out? The American Rescue Plan targets $50 billion to support the hardest hit small businesses after this program expires at the end of March. Would you not help invest in them? Would you let them continue to go under? Would you leave them out again like the previous administration did?

ELAINE QUIJANO: Nancy Cordes, Ed O'Keefe, and Eugene Daniels join me now. Nancy is CBS News chief White House correspondent. Ed is our CBS News Sr. White House and political correspondent, and Eugene is a White House correspondent and co-author of Politico's Playbook Newsletter. Welcome. It is good to see you all. And let me begin with you. Right after that clip that we played, President Biden did express some openness to ways to lower the cost of his plan, and you asked White House press Secretary, Jen Psaki, about that this afternoon. Let's listen to that.

ED O'KEEFE: On the COVID bill, the president talked a little while ago about it and noted that there are some concerns about the size or the price tag and asked, what would you cut? Would the White House be OK if it went North of $1.9 trillion for whatever reason?

JEN PSAKI: Well, I think the president proposed the $1.9 trillion size because he felt that was the-- those were the components that were needed to meet the moment we're facing. And certainly, you know, he looks to Congress to negotiate through what can be added or subtracted from that package, but he has had the key priority components in it because that's what he felt would meet the moment. That's what health and economic experts were telling him, but--

ELAINE QUIJANO: So, Ed, what is the line that the Biden administration is trying to walk here?

ED O'KEEFE: At this point, they're just hoping to get this thing passed and passed quickly. And, you know, while it looks like it's skating towards passage in the House pretty easily later this week, at least that's the expectation, there still remain some big questions about what will happen to it once it gets over to the more closely divided Senate where you're going to need every single Democratic vote and potentially still have an opportunity to pick up some Republican support.

So there's questions about, you know, to what extent, if at all, do you keep in talk of raising the minimum wage? Are there elements of the funding for schools or for cities and states that could potentially get changed to reflect differences across the country, some municipalities that maybe are doing better or worse than others. But overall, you know, this package is moving relatively intact towards the finish line, certainly in the House and probably in the Senate.

Today, the Senate Majority leader, Chuck Schumer, saying that the Congress overall is on course to get this to the president for his signature by March 14th when unemployment benefits are set to expire.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Nancy, it's interesting. There's still some Democrats who may need to be convinced by the Biden administration that this bill raises the minimum wage. And this weekend, Senate budget committee chair, Bernie Sanders, said that he is confident the parliamentarian will allow it to be included, but Nancy, is the party all on board?

NANCY CORDES: No because there are two key Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have been pretty unequivocal about the fact that they can't support a $15 minimum wage even if it does make it past the parliamentarian sometime in the next 12 to 24 or 48 hours or so. And so Democrats are going to have to figure out a way around that. They have really made no bones about it.

Now, Joe Manchin has said he might be open to something more like an $11 minimum wage, and then you could potentially build on it from there, and there's even talk that the White House might be trying to sweeten the deal for someone like a Joe Manchin who comes from a red state of West Virginia where Manchin says it would just hurt small businesses too much to raise the federal minimum wage that quickly.

Well, the White House might try to sweeten the pot by adding in some more money, some more funding for those very small businesses to try to get Manchin on board with an $11 minimum wage. And already, the president himself has been signaling in the past few weeks that he, too, would be open to a step by step approach like that. So, everyone, it appears, seems to be laying the groundwork for the possibility of some kind of compromise position here that doesn't take you all the way to $15 an hour right away.

ELAINE QUIJANO: This is the thing that we have been talking about for some time, that mid-March deadline that is so critical. And we know it's certainly been, of course, on President Biden's radar. Overall, more broadly, how are things looking to hit that?

ED O'KEEFE: Looking pretty good. They got out of the House Budget Committee today with essentially a party line vote expected to be taken up by what's called the House Rules Committee next. They're the ones that set the agenda for the floor and what exactly might potentially be allowed to be amended to this legislation, but Democratic leaders anticipate it would be by the end of the week, maybe over the weekend, that the House would pass this legislation. Again, we expect it to go on a mostly party line vote. I suppose the question is, are there any Democrats, potentially, who would not vote for it given the size and scope of the legislation?

And from there, it heads to the Senate. What's unclear there, of course, is, A, will conversation about a minimum wage increase be in the bill, or is that considered non-germane and therefore have to be taken out? If they have to change it, how does that happen? Does the bill get considered at all at the committee level, or does it go straight to the Senate for amendments and for changes? And if so, how does that upset potential Democrats and Republicans who might be inclined to try to support at least some of this?

But we've seen very little movement to suggest that there is active wooing of Republicans who might somehow sign onto this, especially if it's going to pass the House with that minimum wage increase in it. As it appears, it probably has to in order to get enough support. So, you know, again, while it may be on a glide path this week in the House, keep an eye on the Senate beginning next week when things could get quite interesting, and various elements could get changed around.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Eugene, I want to switch topics here on you. Later in the show, we're going to be discussing President Biden's attorney general nominee, but I want to ask you, Eugene, about the growing opposition to Office of Management and Budget Nominee, Neera Tanden. There were some early indications that her confirmation was going to be difficult. Why did the administration group ahead with it?

EUGENE DANIELS: I think, you know, you heard in Jen Psaki, Press Secretary, today saying that President Biden likes Neera Tande and thinks that she can do the job. She was kind of dodging a little bit when she was asked whether or not the president-- what he thought about the tweet that everyone's so upset about, right? You have-- she, for four years during the Trump administration, on Twitter criticized the Republicans, also criticized some Democrats. Bernie Sanders brought that up to her at one point.

And so this is something that they knew was coming. I think they thought they'd be able to keep things together a little bit longer. Joe Manchin, the first Democrat to say he would not be supporting her, and then you have Susan Collins, Mitt Romney do the same thing, and it's hard to see, if she doesn't have all 50 Democrats, where she finds these other Republican votes at this point. It doesn't seem-- Chuck Schumer also said that, you know, he thinks she's going to make it through.

They're working to figure out how to get her some more votes, and the same thing with the White House. It's hard to see where those votes come from, right? Is she able to get, you know, some of the other Republicans who voted for her a lot of her other counterparts? But it seems unlikely based on her history and that she was, you know, partisan for quite some time, and, you know, these tweets are coming back to kind of, it looks like, possibly, taint her confirmation.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Hmm. Well, Eugene, I also want to ask you about the news from the Supreme Court this morning ruling that New York prosecutors can access former President Trump's tax records. Now, he's promised to release them several times, dating back to when he was a candidate. Let's listen to some of that.

DONALD TRUMP: I'll release them when the audit is completed. Nobody would release when it's under-- I've had audits for 15 or 16 years. Every year I have a routine audit. Under audit, when the audit's complete, I'll release them. I will release my tax returns against my lawyer's wishes when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted.

Well, I'm not releasing the tax returns because, as you know, they're under audit. You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK? They're the only ones. Actually, I paid tax, and you'll see that as soon as my tax returns-- it's under audit. They've been under audit for a long time. I look forward to releasing that. I look forward to releasing many things. I'm going to release many things, and people will be really shocked.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right. So, Eugene, what comes next after this ruling?

EUGENE DANIELS: Well, one, someone is going to get to see these tax returns, right? It was a promise that, like you showed, right, that was made for years. The New York Times did some digging, and we were able to look at and see how much he had paid at some point. What happens now is reports that the investigators for the district attorney's office in New York will take the records from the law firm that represents President Trump's, former President Trump's accountants. And then from there, they were kind of keep digging.

What's happening in New York is something that I think everyone's kind of watching, right? It is a criminal investigation into President Trump, members of his family, and also their business dealings. And Vance, who is the district attorney there, has issued more than a dozen subpoenas, I think, in recent months, interviewing lots of witnesses, including employees of Deutsche Bank who loaned President Trump, former President Trump, quite a bit of money, and one of his top lenders.

So there's a lot moving in that arena. We know we probably won't get our eyes on a bunch of it, especially like these tax returns. I think people are expecting all of a sudden reporters are going to be able to start looking at them and digging into them. That's not really how it's going to work unless there is some kind of leak from the district attorney's office.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right. No doubt, people will be waiting to see if, in fact, there is any hint of information coming out of that office. Finally, Nancy, Republican National Committee chair, Ronna McDaniel, is scheduled to visit the former president in Florida this week. That's according to a Republican familiar with the meeting. Now, it comes as a Suffolk University poll shows about half of 2020 Trump voters would abandon the GOP for a hypothetical Trump party. Nancy, did those in Washington see this as a legitimate threat or more of a way to keep Republicans in line?

NANCY CORDES: I think that they see his continuing hold over the GOP as a threat. I don't know how convinced they are that he really would try to form a third party. But clearly, just the very fact that that Suffolk poll and the CBS poll before it showed that so many Republicans would be willing to follow him if he did break off of the Republican Party and form a third party is cause for concern among Republican leaders.

I mean, look at how much he was able to weaken, at least temporarily, the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, with his broadside a week ago regarding McConnell's comments about impeachment. This is someone who, even without Twitter, even without the bully pulpit of the presidency, still has the ability to make waves, to hurt people against whom he has various vendettas, and he is making it clear that he is not going away, and he's not backing down.

In fact, Axios just reported today that the president, when he speaks before CPAC, is going to say that he is the presumptive 2024 nominee for the Republican Party. So it's clear that he is someone who many Republican leaders, obviously, still feel that they need to make that pilgrimage to Florida and kind of kiss the ring before Ronna McDaniel. We saw Lindsey Graham heading down there, Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise.

I mean, this is a man who just left office. It's not as if it's been a long time since they saw him and were able to speak to him. The fact that they are making these trips down to see him shows that they are, you know, on one hand, wanting to pay their respects, stay in his good graces, and number two, keep him in the fold and keep this from becoming a circular firing squad.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah. It really is remarkable to see the number of headlines still being generated politically even after he's left office. All right, Nancy Cordes Ed O'Keefe, and Eugene Daniels. Thank you so much.