- High anxiety as the Omicron variant spreads and the battle over abortion heats up.
- This new variant is a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic.
- The Omicron COVID 19 variant arrives in the United States, upending travel, rocking the markets.
- Vaccine mandates are illegal, they're abusive and they're hurting this country.
- An intensifying political fights over vaccine and mask mandates, plus.
- [Protesters] Our bodies, our choice!
We will abolish abortion!
- [Yamiche] The Supreme Court hears arguments on upholding Mississippi law that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection ratchets up its work, as lawmakers get key Trump officials to appear.
(melodic music) - [Narrator] This is "Washington Week".
Corporate funding is provided by Consumer Cellular.
Additional funding is provided by the Estate of Arnold Adams.
Koo and Patricia Yuen for The Yuen Foundation, committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities.
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Once again from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
- Good evening and welcome to "Washington Week".
Tonight, we begin with the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The new strain is causing concern across the globe and here at home.
The officials have been insisting all week, there is no need to panic.
Still, there's a lot we don't know.
And here is what we do know.
Scientists say it appears to be more transmissible.
They're also studying how well our current vaccines work against it.
And experts say in most cases that have been identified so far, people had mild symptoms.
Meanwhile, the new strain has been found now in several states across the country.
And it's also shown up in more than three dozen countries around the world.
On Thursday, President Biden announced new plans to fight the virus.
They include stricter testing requirements for people traveling into the U.S. - We're gonna fight this variants with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.
- White House officials are also encouraging all eligible adults to get their booster shots.
But critics say president Biden's plan may be too little, too late.
And the administration is also under fire for imposing a travel ban on South Africa, which was the first country to identify the strain and several other neighboring countries.
Here's what the UN Secretary General and the President of South Africa had to say.
- The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the effected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.
- The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available to them.
Nor should they be collectively punished for identifying and sharing crucial science and other information with the world.
- Strong words as this variant continues to spread.
Joining me tonight to discuss the Omicron variant and pandemic politics are some of the top reporters in Washington.
Eugene Daniels, White House reporter and co-author of POLITICO "Playbook".
Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News.
Seung Min Kim, White House reporter for the Washington Post and Jonathan Martin, political correspondent for the New York Times.
Seung Min, I wanna start with you.
What do we know about the Omicon variant so far and how much do we know about how it's upending president Biden's messaging, given the fact that he wanted to be talking about infrastructure and really anything other than a new variant upending things?
- Right, well, we are learning more about the new variant every day, but you're right.
There is still a lot we don't know.
Dr. Fauci, President Biden's Chief Medical Advisor indicated earlier this week that we may know within two weeks or know more about the variant.
But for now, obviously, White House officials are not, you know, not taking anything for granted and have rolled out a number of additional steps to try to contain the spread.
You're talking about the new travel restrictions that the white House announced earlier this week, but this creates a lot of problems for President Biden clearly.
First, just in terms of trying to manage this pandemic, which of course is his top priority, but political problems as well.
You know, the White House has indicated, you know, for a long time that his political future is really tied to whether he can get this pandemic under control.
And we would love nothing more than for this to be not the main story.
So he'd go out and sell his infrastructure plan, you know, pass the Build Back Better agenda and travel the country to sell it.
But right, he is focusing on trying to control that variant.
And that is now again, his top priority.
- And Seung Min is talking about this idea of sort of all the challenges this presents.
Eugene, I wanna talk a little bit about what this travel ban argument in particular reveals about the Biden agenda, sort of how they're approaching the Omicron variant when you think about sort of the criticism that's happened.
I mean, the more that you hear people talk about, okay, you pick South Africa and all these other countries also have this variant.
It's also in states now in this country, as you said, many of these states.
And Jen Psaki today talked about them reserving the right to be able to do that more with other states, right?
That this is not just about South Africa.
And as you just heard a lot of folks in South Africa and also health experts in general, they're saying, you know, this also keeps these countries from being able to get more vaccines, make them to get the pandemic and their countries under control when they were already at, especially in a lot of these African countries, that some of them at levels of 2% vaccination rate in some of those and it's a global pandemic.
And so the only way to get a handle on it is for the entire world to be vaccinated and work through that.
- And a quick follow up, Mr. President did say today that the U.S. is gonna be shipping out 11 million vaccines, 9 million to Africa, 2 million to other countries.
And the White House has also been saying they have shipped out more vaccines to countries than any other countries and especially the ones combined really across the globe.
With that said, sort of how does that sort of deal with the pressure that the president is facing to do what you just said, which is try to share more vaccines to countries in need?
- Exactly, it's one of those things in America when you give people a little bit, they want a lot more from America.
We have given more vaccines, to other countries than anyone else, but they want more.
And people are also seeing us getting boosters, right?
We've been talking a lot about getting boosted in this country while other people in other countries, poorer countries, background banner countries haven't gotten any vaccine.
And I think that is the frustrations you're seeing with a lot of doctors and health experts is that the arguments we're having about vaccine, vaccine mandates when in other countries they'll take our expired vaccines, right?
And so that is causing issues for the president.
And as Seung Min was saying, because unless they get this pandemic under control, almost nothing else matters as far as the other things they're trying to put forward.
- Yeah, and Sahil, we could also be talking about a government shutdown.
We aren't, but conservative senators, they were possibly threatening to shut down the government over vaccine mandates pushing back against them.
What does that tell you about sort of where we are and how this fight over COVID has continued to be so political, even as a new variant spreads.
- It's a politically divisive issue.
It has been for months now, and that has not changed.
It's remarkable to think that we came one day away from a government shutdown while there is a new COVID variant that many people are concerned about.
But what this shows, what the events of this week in Congress show is that there is a passionate set of conservative voters in this country who don't like vaccine mandates, and they have a few of ringleaders in Congress, namely Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Mike Lee, who are willing to fight for their cause to the point of threatening a government shutdown.
I spoke to Senator Cruz about this yesterday, and he argued that he's not personally against vaccines.
He's been vaccinated himself, but he strongly opposes the idea of any politician or to quote him directly, any pissant politician, telling Americans (Yamiche laughs) that they must get the vaccine.
Now, Cruz ultimately backed down and accepted a vote on an amendment to the government funding bill.
It failed, of course.
Republicans don't have a majority and they don't have anywhere close to the numbers to force the issue.
And then the government was ultimately funded.
And for Cruz, I should say, this is a familiar tactic.
- He's threatened the government shutdown before over issues that cannot be achieved when Republicans are out of power.
Biden was not going to sign a bill that defunded his own vaccine mandate any more than President Obama in 2013 was going to sign a bill defunding the ACA, which Ted Cruz had pushed.
It's a familiar tactic for an ambitious politician who wants to be intuitive on.
- But he backed down this time.
And he didn't in 2013, - Yeah.
which does show you just how politically explosive this issue is.
The optics to borrow a cliched Washington word of a shutdown over a vaccine mandate in the midst, as you point out, of a resurgent virus with a new variant would have been really bad for the Republican party at a moment where, you know, they actually have a lot going for them politically right now.
So I thought it was telling me that Cruz thought restraint was the better part of valor there this week.
- A vast majority Republicans disagreed with him, which is one of the reasons he backed down.
- It's interesting because the last thing I'll ask about this until we of course, talk about it even more I'm sure, in other parts of the show, is this is coming as news broke that former President Trump tested positive before he got on a debate stage - Yeah.
- with President Biden.
It's sort of a remarkable thing to think about.
But when I think about it, I was thinking about, okay, so this is sort of the Genesis of how we got so politicized?
- How does president Biden cut through that, Jmart?
- How does President Biden start to convince people to get boosters and get more vaccinations if he's dealing with that?
- Well, I think part of the calculation that they're making in the White House now is yes, that we have to take this new variant seriously.
But if we're being honest with ourselves politically, what can we do in a polarized country to address this issue?
Can we really, with a straight face, go and say, we're gonna you know, impose, you know, mask mandates across the entire country knowing that they're not gonna be followed?
Not just by governors, but just by everyday people.
And I think that's a sobering thing for the White House is they're limited as to what they can do proactively to address this new variant because you know, more than a third of the country, perhaps even closer to a half of the country is just not gonna follow the guidance on this issue.
And when you're talking about the White House being limited on an issue, the other issue that we wanna talk about tonight is abortion.
It's another issue.
The president's limited on this week, of course, COVID wasn't the only healthcare story dominating the news.
One of the most contentious issues with also top of mind and that of course is, as I said, abortion.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Mississippi's restrictive law.
It prohibits abortions after 15 weeks without any exceptions for incest or rape.
This case is a direct challenge to the landmark decision, Roe V. Wade and during the arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the court's reputation would be tarnished if it were to overturn the nearly five decades old ruling.
- [Justice Sotomayor] Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the constitution and it's reading are just political acts.
I don't see how it is possible.
- But the conservative Justice has seemed ready to set new limits on abortion rights.
Here is Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
- [Justice Kavanaugh] If we think that the prior precedents are seriously wrong, why then doesn't the history of this court's practice with respect to those cases, tell us that the right answer is actually to return to the position of neutrality?
- The court is expected to announce its decision by early summer.
Seung Min, this is of course a huge case.
So many people, women, but also everyone around the country is really watching this.
Talk about the biggest takeaways of this week's arguments, but also the politics at play here.
- Right, right.
Well, the biggest legal takeaway of course, is really the future of abortion rights in this country and how limited or how broad the justices will eventually issue their ruling and what the impact will be state by state are definitely something that everyone is closely watching.
We'll probably be waiting until June to see what the Justices decide.
But there is a major political impact as well.
I mean, if this decision does come into summer, right in the middle of a heated midterm campaign where Democrats majorities in Congress are at stake.
And a lot of Democrats I talked to and Republicans I talked to this week, Democrats are definitely mobilized by this issue.
They say the fear that abortion access could be taken away, that is really gonna anger and mobilize the democratic base.
And what was interesting from the Republican answer to this is they kind of wanna focus on different issues.
Of course, it gets the conservative base excited.
But in terms of the broader Republican party, I talked with Rick Scott, who is a Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
I asked him twice, what is the impact of this case, this ruling on your party's voters?
And he's told me, "I wanna focus on inflation.
I wanna focus on the border.
Abortion is not something that they really wanna talk about, particularly in a lot of these swing states, where the Senate majority will be one in last.
- And also, you just mentioned Democrats being mobilized.
I also wonder what you're hearing from Democrats' views on changing the Supreme Court.
You wrote about it this week, tell us a little bit about what you heard.
- Right, so on Thursday I talked with 17 democratic senators the across the- - [Yamiche] That's why we want you on the show.
(Yamiche laughs) - Across the spectrum, you know, moderate to liberals, about what they heard at the Supreme Court.
And if that changes their mind about just the structure of the Supreme Court.
Now we're not gonna expand the court any time soon, but there is a growing faction of democratic senators who really view the current makeup of the Supreme Court and how we got there.
You know, Mitch McConnell blocking Merrick Garland.
A really contentious hearing with Justice Kavanaugh.
And Amy Coney Barrett being confirmed right before presidential election.
They see the makeup and how we got there as a serious problem.
So they are starting to at least think about mandatory retirement for justices or even term limits.
And again, long, long way before any changes could ever happen, but it certainly is a new development that was interesting this week.
I think you sense with combination of a few issues, most notably guns, voting, and abortion.
This sort of sense of real frustration boiling over among Democrats and Congress, given the fact that they are restrained by the filibuster in the Senate.
And I think the combination of the abortion arguments, the shooting in Michigan and now Stacey Abrams getting in the race for governor of Georgia next year has brought all those issues kind of back to the forefront in the same week.
And for Democrats in Congress, there's an urgency to address those issues now.
They won't say this on the record, but part of the reason is because they know that they're probably not gonna be in the majority a year from now in at least one chamber of Congress.
So there is this feeling of, "We have to address these issues now, who knows what's coming down the pike."
Not only in Congress, but perhaps in the White House now down the road as well.
- And Sahil, how you wrote about this.
Talking about sort of what Democrats are planning to do about them possibly trying to mobilize voters around this issue.
Take us into what you heard this week.
- Right, so plan A for Democrats is to codify the protections of Roe versus Wade into law, federally.
There's a bill called the Women's Health Protection Act that would do that.
It has passed the house of representatives.
It is sitting in the Senate right now.
It does not have a path to get through the Senate.
It has 48 sponsors.
It could get to 50 in a majority, but it doesn't have a way around filibuster.
So what is plan B?
Plan B for Democrats is to take it to voters directly and here they believe they have a real advantage in swing states and swing districts because the majority of the country is clearly pro-Roe versus Wade.
The difference has been Republicans have had a good thing going because they could mobilize their voters on the desire to overturn it without facing much of a backlash from the pro-Roe majority given that abortion rights didn't really seem threatened over the last half century.
- Now they're not only threatened.
They could potentially be gone in the coming months and that is likely to awaken the democratic base.
So they view this as a mobilizing issue.
And Republicans interestingly, as we've all seen, are less inclined to talk about this.
It's a little bit like the dog that caught the car.
What do they do now?
And Sahil, you're talking about sort of this idea of Democrats now maybe being awakened.
Jmart, you're talking about this idea of this confluence of frustrations among Democrats.
Eugene, I wanna ask you, what are you hearing what the impact of this being maybe a Pandora's box?
This isn't just about abortion rights.
We've been hearing from some sources.
You turn over a 50-year precedent case, this could be about voting rights.
This could be about LGBTQ rights.
- No, absolutely.
There's a lot.
People see the turning over precedent as something that can happen over and over and over again.
I just got engaged.
People were talking about, is this something that they could use to go and take Obergefell versus Hodges away, right?
Take same-sex marriage away.
And that is something that Democrats and some Republicans are even worried about, right?
Because things that have been settled law for 50 years, right?
Something like abortion that we kind of, most people have taken for granted is in the cross hairs and you talk to abortion advocates and they're pretty certain that something is going to change, right?
They're not exactly sure how much of it is going to change a rule or be waived, but that abortion is gonna be restricted in some form in this country.
We will wait and see if that actually happens.
But you heard Brett Kavanaugh who kind of talked about precedent in all of the justices before they go into the Supreme Court.
Talk about how important precedent is, but he talked about how they can get rid of precedent - Yeah.
- that, you know, when necessary, the Supreme Court can do so.
So that does change things because most of the justices have not said that publicly and definitely not on issues like abortion and some of the other toughest and most divisive issues in this country.
- [Yamiche] Yeah.
- Kavanaugh was quick to emphasize that if the Supreme Court does a limit row, that it would be kicked over to legislators, which mean every election could determine this legislative body either in states or in Congress makes abortion legal or illegal.
And going back to this idea of what Jonathan was talking about when it comes to frustration.
One thing that I hear from Democrats is that they're frustrated about sort of a credibility issue that American democracy has.
And that sort of brings it to the updates on the January 6 investigation.
On Tuesday, Mark Meadows, who was chief of staff for former President Trump agreed to appear before the committee investigating the Capitol attack and share documents with lawmakers.
Wednesday, the vice chair of the committee, Representative Liz Cheney had this warning for former President Trump.
- Any communications Mr. Trump has with this committee will be under oath.
And if he persists in lying, then he will be accountable under the laws of this great nation and subject to criminal penalties for every false word he speaks.
- And again, powerful words here, Jmart.
- [Jonathan] Yeah.
- Talk a bit about, is there a shift in sort of the intensity of this committee now that Sabannon- - Yeah.
- Got indicted.
It seems like people are at least showing up.
We don't know what they're gona say, but at least they're saying we hear you.
We might come.
- With respect to Liz Cheney, I'm skeptical that President Trump will show up at the January 6 commission anytime soon.
Yeah, it does feel that way, that there is a sort of increased intensity.
Meadows' cooperation I thought was striking.
Obviously, his lawyer urged him to do that.
(Yamiche chuckles) I think it's pretty safe to say.
They're, I think, doing more interviews, they're talking to the Secretary of State in Georgia, who the former president famously talked to and urged him to find some votes.
- [Yamiche] Yeah, 11,000 in particular.
- This time last year.
So look, I think that they are getting more serious and this is picking up in intensity.
And the question is, when this thing does come out that this investigation does come out, you know, how is it perceived?
Can it crack the polarization in this country that is so darn strong right now?
It doesn't sound like anything can crack that, but does this start to sort of create at least some mild, small cracks in that polarization?
I think it remains to be seen.
The Republicans obviously, they're gonna paint it as a partisan investigation, but this is not going away.
And it's what I think McConnell feared, which is why he didn't want to have this hanging over the midterms.
It is going to sort of keep January 6th in the news, in the midterms, in a way that I think the Democrats would admit this, but I think politically is good for them and that the geo concludes.
- And going to Seung Min, were running out of time.
But in some ways, I wonder if you could talk a bit, we zoom out and connect all the things we've been talking about tonight.
In some ways, how concerned are our lawmakers, people that you talk to about just the fracturing of the United States?
When you look at abortion, January 6th, all the topics that we've been talking about, COVID.
- Right, right.
Well, it certainly, especially this week, we saw so much fragility in all of these fronts.
Whether it is keeping people who were responsible for the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol accountable.
Whether there are 50, you know, five decades worth of abortion access that could be at stake.
And obviously, with the severity of the COVID pandemic coming over and over.
And obviously, there's a role for lawmakers and policymakers to play here in all of these things.
But in this polarized environment, can both parties come together to, you know, investigate or to codify certain issues or to defeat a pandemic?
It looks really hard and difficult right now.
- Yeah, it is hard and difficult.
And I think there's a lot of things that are still up in the air about the January 6th, abortion, but this was a robust conversation.
So I wanna say thank you all to all of you.
So that's it for tonight.
Thank you to Eugene, Sahil, Seung Min, and Jonathan for your reporting.
And don't forget to tune in on Monday to the PBS News Hour.
The secretary of veteran affairs will discuss the most pressing issues facing former service members.
We'll continue our conversation on the "Washington Week Extra".
Find it on our website, Facebook and YouTube.
I'm Yamiche Alcidor, thanks for joining us tonight.
And now we leave you with the sights of the holidays in Washington.
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