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Biden urges Senate to pass universal background checks for gun purchases

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For the second time in a week, President Biden is ordering flags lowered to half-staff because of a mass shooting. CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O'Keefe, CBS News' Skyler Henry, and Politico White House correspondent and associate editor Anita Kumar spoke to CBSN's "Red & Blue" host Elaine Quijano about the push for gun legislation from Democrats and where it heads next.

Video Transcript

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ELAINE QUIJANO: Hi, everyone. I'm Elaine Quijano. It is good to be with you. Thanks for joining us. For the second time in a week, President Biden is ordering flags at the White House be lowered to half staff to honor the victims of a mass shooting. 10 people were killed Monday after a shooter went on a rampage at a crowded supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. The victims included a 51-year-old police officer who responded to the scene of the attack.

A national order to lower flags had just expired last night. It was for the eight people killed in a string of shootings at Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta area last week. On Tuesday, President Biden urged lawmakers to pass new gun control bills.

JOE BIDEN: The United States Senate-- I hope some are listening-- should immediately pass the two House-passed bills to close loopholes in the background check system. But I want to be clear. Those poor folks who died left behind families. It leaves a big hole in their hearts and, and, we can save lives. Increasing the background checks just like they're supposed to occur and eliminate assault weapons and the size of magazines.

ELAINE QUIJANO: The most recent polling from Gallup on the issue found 57% of the country supported stricter gun control laws last fall. But at least one Democratic senator, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, has already come out against the House-passed provision expanding background checks for all gun sales. Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says the bill will get a vote.

CHUCK SCHUMER: Two summers ago, the Republican leader, then the majority leader, promised there would be a debate in the Senate on gun violence. But it never happened. It never happened. This Senate will be different. This Senate is going to debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Today, our hearts are with the people of Colorado and with everyone whose lives have been touched by gun violence.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Ed O'Keefe, Skyler Henry, and Anita Kumar join me now. Ed is CBS News Senior White House and Political Correspondent. Skyler is our CBN News Correspondent reporting from Capitol Hill and Anita is a White House correspondent and Associate Editor for "Politico." Welcome. It's good to have you all.

Ed, let me start with you. While gridlock seems to be the default on most things political, is there any indication that lawmakers can do anything, even something incremental, in an attempt to deal with these mass shootings?

ED O'KEEFE: Probably too soon to say, Elaine, at least in this case. But I think the fact that you didn't see a groundswell of calls for action today beyond Democrats that normally would after a situation like this is an indication that this is not necessarily an issue that's going to move easily through the Senate.

It got through the House with Democratic votes, some proposals did, and others are coming. You heard the president call for the Senate to pass those proposals. But to have Manchin and other Republicans who might normally be willing to talk about this issue say that those House proposals are nonstarters is a signal this could take a little while.

It is crass and I know bad music to the ears of a lot of people when they hear us talk about this kind of stuff this way and we've done it way too many times in recent years. But the reality is, unless the president decides to put a lot of muscle behind this and force the issue, it's unlikely to get serious consideration any time real soon.

Could it become part of the broader push over the course of this year and next? Sure, but it has been for Democrats really now for more than a decade and, unfortunately, probably will continue to be for several years to come.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah. I mean, you're right. It is, I think, to some ears, crass to hear about this. At the same time, you have activists who are very much aware of how difficult the political terrain has been on this issue well before now. Skyler, let me ask--

ED O'KEEFE: And Elaine, let me clarify when I say unfortunate, because I'm sure there's some thinking, why would he say that. Unfortunate because the fact that it continues to come up and unfortunate because there is so much support for this in the country and it's another example of the kind of issue that Congress can't sort out when there are clear calls for things like expanded background checks, limits on the size of weapons and magazines, things like that, that this is one of those chronic issues that keeps coming up. Unfortunately, like many others, that they can't get it done.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Right. It's a discussion that we continue to have in this country. Skyler, so let me ask you. In a grim coincidence, the Senate Judiciary Committee already had a hearing on gun violence scheduled for this morning. Could you summarize both sides of the debate?

SKYLER HENRY: Yeah. Well, I think, really, kind of what Ed was speaking to, just in the amount of times that Congress has had to address this issue and really the fact that it is a grim coincidence that the Senate Judiciary Committee was actually having a hearing about that issue today. But really, lawmakers are standing firm, for the most part, in their stances, with Democrats calling for more strict background checks, especially with these two bills that passed through the House.

Senator Schumer announced today that he is planning on introducing them at least on the floor today, but you also had Republicans on the other side who essentially said that just because you have a stronger background check doesn't necessarily equate to lowering the amount of gun violence. We saw Senator Ted Cruz say today that this was a bit of ridiculous theater in terms of the Democrats' remarks.

Now, one of the interesting things is a bit of a talking point, if you will, from the Democratic side, saying that now isn't the time for thoughts and prayers but more so time for action here. But again, as Ed said, time and time again, we've had this conversation, whether to increase the severity of background checks, ban assault weapons, things like that.

And we should also point out that Senator Patrick Leahy announced today that he plans on introducing a bipartisan bill that would at least make straw purchases illegal, and that's essentially where one person would buy a gun for another person if that second person wasn't allowed to do so, whether they couldn't because of a background check.

So he feels as though at least having that measure out there could potentially reduce the amount of gun violence, but it doesn't appear as though this bill is going to be easily passed here through the Senate. Now, the president was asked about it today, if he feels as though he has the political capital to get these gun control measures through.

He said he hasn't counted yet. But as we've talked about, Senator Joe Manchin does not appear to be a part of the Democratic line, if you will, that political line to vote for the measure. So it'll be interesting to see just where everyone falls when these bills ultimately do come out to the floor.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Anita, these gun control goals from President Biden are not new, so why now? And we heard Skyler and Ed touch on this, but what specifically has the reaction looked like?

ANITA KUMAR: Well, I've been talking to people all day, some of those advocates that you were just referencing, and they are waiting for the White House to come out with a plan. If you'll recall, when Joe Biden was campaigning for president, he talked about these issues and said that, on day one, he would have a package of proposals to release, and we just haven't seen that.

We're about two months into the presidency and we haven't seen it, and some of these advocates are getting frustrated and impatient because they feel like it should have already happened. It shouldn't take a mass shooting, they say, for people to talk about this because people are being killed in this country every day and they want this plan to come out.

So what we're hearing, though, from the White House is that they have done a series of meetings with advocates over a series of weeks and months, and that they are now in the phase of writing a plan. So these are writing proposals that would both be executive orders or executive actions that some of the federal agencies could take, as well as specifically talking about the legislation they support.

Now, the president, of course, has mentioned some today and some other legislation and in the past that he does support, so some of these things will not be a surprise. But it goes back to what Ed said. Is he going to stand behind it and really push this issue? And that's what a lot of advocates are waiting to see. How much does he push this?

Does he call on Congress to do more? Does he call up Republicans and say, let's try to make a deal? And we haven't seen him do that yet and they're still hopeful that it will happen in his first 100 days.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, we'll continue to watch that. In the meantime, Ed, I want to ask you about the Postal Service. So Trump appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, unveiled what the "Washington Post" calls the largest rollback of consumer mail services in a generation as part of a 10 year plan for the agency. So Ed, what would these changes do and is DeJoy's future at the agency in question at all?

ED O'KEEFE: Right. Well, among other things, it would essentially push the universal standard for getting your mail delivered to six days from three days. Normally it's supposed to take about three days for your mail to get from point A to point B at the most. Now it would be up to six, and they stress it would probably still take about three or four days, but in some cases, it could take up to six.

I think some people would scratch their heads and go, wait a second. In recent months, it's been taken a long time, longer than usual, for mail to get from here to there, so this isn't necessarily a big change. But by increasing the length of time, you're reducing the quality of the service and saving money because there won't be pressure necessary to get that postcard, say, from Maine to Southern California as quickly as possible or within that three day limit.

The other thing he's trying to do is something that postal leaders have been pushing to do most of this century, and that is to close some of the smallest, least profitable post offices or postal stations across the country. There is a big difference between a post office that processes mail in the back room and smaller locations that are mostly just retail locations where you drop off mail and then it gets sent to a bigger facility somewhere nearby and then on to a regional processing facility.

Did this former political reporter used to cover the Postal Service? Yes, he did, so he knows the dirty details of all this. That is a politically unpopular move when you are talking to members of Congress because if there's one thing members of Congress get mail about, written and electronic, it's about touching mail service.

So it's a politically explosive issue for many of these lawmakers, especially those from rural states, a lot of states out west, where traditional mail delivery really is the only way they're able to get things sent to and from their homes.

Amazon, for example, while it's purchased a fleet of vehicles that we see all over the roads now and airplanes, ultimately relies on the Postal Service to carry packages to some of the most remote sections of the country. People may not realize that. So do UPS and FedEx. So by touching the Postal Service at all, you're potentially cutting off big parts of the country.

But DeJoy turns around and says, look, we've allowed this to fester for too long. It's unprofitable. We're losing billions because of the way pension laws are written. He's trying to make changes. He is allowed to continue serving as postmaster general even though he's a Donald Trump appointee because it's one of those positions that overlaps presidential administrations, and to remove him would require Senate confirmation of three Biden appointees to the Postmaster General Board of Directors who would then ban together with other Democratic appointees and try to boot him.

That is a possibility. It's one that's been indirectly blessed by the White House, so it could come later this year once those new postal supervisors are in place. But this continues a push that he began last year and that he was trying to get done even before it became a real big political issue because he understood, as somebody who's worked in the mail industry, that this is a system that needs to be revamped.

Others turn around and say, look, it's literally in the Constitution. This is a government service. It's not designed to be a profit making entity. You've got to figure out how to make it work, but you can't operate it like a private corporation.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Right, and I would imagine, just very quickly, Ed, you have a lot of vulnerable populations, you talked about in rural areas. I would imagine there are a lot of seniors who also rely heavily on the mail in ways that perhaps people may not realize. And so when you're talking about essentially stretching out the time in between receiving mail, that can really be a serious sort of change for some of those vulnerable populations.

ED O'KEEFE: Absolutely. People who are relying on it for prescriptions, to get mail from their grandchildren, to get retail products, frankly, as malls have been closing across the country. I can think of family members who live in more rural parts of the country who've said they've had to turn to online purchasing and shipping because they can't go to the mall anymore, partly because of the pandemic, but also because they've been closing in recent years. So yes, it's a huge problem for big parts of the country, even if there isn't a mass of customers there that makes it a profitable entity.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah. All right. Well, Skyler, let's turn to another topic. I want to ask you about some new comments from Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois about the lack of Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders at the cabinet secretary level in the Biden administration. Here's the audio of what she said. Let's listen.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: President Biden will be the first president in 20 years without a cabinet secretary whose AAPI. To be told that, well, you have Kamala Harris, we're very proud of her, you don't need anybody else, is insulting. So when I asked about AAPI representation, the first words out of the staff was, well, we're very proud of Vice President Harris, which is incredibly insulting.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So Skyler, how much of a priority is this for the White House?

SKYLER HENRY: Well, they're certainly putting it on the forefront, and now the Senator told our Nancy Cordes that she is not voting for any more nondiverse nominees until the administration figures this out. Now, this is something that Senator Duckworth has been calling for for weeks now. And really, many different groups have been doing the same in terms of trying to get a more diverse Biden administration.

We've seen the NAACP and others come out to say that they want to see more inclusivity at all levels of leadership. Not just at cabinet positions, but also subcabinet levels as well. And here's why it's also significant, is that while the president's cabinet may be complete in terms of the nominees and everything else in confirmations, there's also those other subcabinet levels that still have to be confirmed by the Senate.

And if Senator Duckworth says that she's not voting there, you have to remember that the Democratic-led Senate is very fragile with that 50-50 vote, and so you have the administration now putting the focus on addressing that issue. What that ultimately looks like remains to be seen. We know that the senator has suggested many qualified individuals who could be eligible for these positions.

And, of course, this comes at a time where the spotlight is on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and so I think it really is something that will be addressed by the Biden administration. How it will be done remains to be seen.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right. Perhaps it is something that will come up during his first news conference. We will wait to see on that. Finally, Anita, on immigration, the Pentagon is looking at where they can house unaccompanied migrant children coming to the US applying for asylum. Now, you have some new reporting on the Biden administration's efforts to reunify children separated from their parents by the previous administration. This is an issue that first lady Jill Biden said that she's working on. What have you learned, Anita?

ANITA KUMAR: Sure. If you remember at the beginning of the administration, of the Biden administration, there were a lot of stories that were done that said the First Lady was going to take a very active role in this effort to reunify these families.

What we found is that she actually has no formal role in this process, and there are a lot of advocates and lawyers that are working with some of these children who are-- or some of these families, rather, who are saying, look, we really want the First Lady to get involved because we are afraid that this is falling by the wayside, this issue.

Because of so much attention had been placed on what is currently happening at the border, they are worried that people have forgotten or are not giving priority to these separated families. And so just to remind people, there were about 5,500 families that were separated under the Trump administration over a period of years, and some of those families have been found and reunited, but there are about 1,000 that haven't yet.

And so what these lawyers and advocates are trying to do is reunite parents and children. And it's just not that simple to just find the parents and locate the families. The Biden administration has to figure out what to do with the families. Will they allow them to remain in the United States? What kind of visas could the parents get? That sort of thing.

So there is some disappointment that, two months in, the Biden administration has not only not found the families, but not reunited any of them yet. They are hoping the First Lady can sort of change her mind and get more involved, really take part into this task force that President Biden has put together to reunite families and really give it a priority, make it a priority of this administration.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Really such profound implications when it comes to immigration policy. All right. Ed O'Keefe, Skyler Henry, and Anita Kumar, great to see you all. Thank you very much.