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President Obama Speaks Out on Shutdown; Supreme Court Examines Campaign Finance

Aired October 8, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the president calls Speaker Boehner, and then calls him out.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're not going to pay a ransom for America paying its bills.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: So the president's position that listen, we're not going to sit down and talk to you until you surrender is just not sustained.


BLITZER: So there's lots of talking here in Washington, but no negotiating. Is there a new opening to end the standoff? Are both sides just digging in? Guess who else the president pointed to in his conference today? CNN's own Newt Gingrich. Now the "CROSSFIRE" host is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He'll fire right back.

Plus, tainted chicken. Hundreds of people are sick from salmonella poisoning. Are there enough federal inspectors to protect the food supply as the government shutdown drags on?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

All day long, it's been a battle of news conferences and sound bites. President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, members of Congress, all making their cases to the cameras. But most Americans would prefer they talk to one another, end the partial government shutdown and avoid defaulting on America's debt. So is there any hint, any hope that that could happen any time soon?

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He was there. He listened very closely to what the president had to say.

What's the answer, Jim, any hint whatsoever of even a little progress?


No price at this news conference President Obama came out swinging at Republicans, but then as he was almost finished taking questions from reporters, he seemed to crack the door open just a bit to a potential breakthrough.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It wasn't long after President Obama walked to the podium that it sounded as if the standoff was once again at a standstill.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's stop the excuses. Let's take a vote in the House. Let's end this shutdown right now. Let's put people back to work.

ACOSTA: But as President Obama moved his way through the final moments of a one-hour-six-minute news conference, he laid out a small peace offering to Republicans. The president said he would accept a short-term increase in the nation's debt ceiling and agree to some kind of mandatory bipartisan committee to discuss the budget and health care issues, but only after the government is reopened and a default is avoided.

OBAMA: They can attach some process to that that gives them some certainty that in fact the things they're concerned about will be topics of negotiation.

ACOSTA: The proposal came just a few hours after a rare phone conversation between the president and House Speaker John Boehner who complained earlier in the day Mr. Obama was refusing to negotiate.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Listen, there's never been a president in our history that did not negotiate over the debt limit, never, not once.

ACOSTA: The president also trying to put some distance between Boehner and Tea Party-backed Republicans, conservatives who he accused of questioning whether a debt default would actually wreak havoc on the economy.

OBAMA: So when I read people saying, no, this wouldn't be a big deal, we should test it out. Let's take default out for a spin and see how it rides. I say imagine in your private life if you decided that I'm not going to pay my mortgage for a month or two.

ACOSTA: At his second news conference of the day, Boehner insisted the president's words were not enough.

BOEHNER: What the president said today was if there's unconditional surrender by Republicans, he will sit down and talk to us. That's not the way our government works.

ACOSTA: The dueling news conferences were a reminder that Washington remains is in full crisis mode, something the president said he regretted.

OBAMA: We have got to stop repeating this pattern. And I know the American people are tired of it. And to all the American people, I apologize that you have to go through this stuff every three months, it seems like.

And Lord knows, I'm tired of it.


ACOSTA: Now, the White House did issue a veto threat saying the president would not sign off on a Republican version of a budget super committee. But the biggest surprise of the day, during that entire news conference, the president was not asked about some of the problems with Obamacare. So not only has the government shutdown failed to stop Obamacare, it's actually given It some cover.

BLITZER: Yes, because reporters weren't even asking about it even though there are plenty of problems, plenty of glitches in this first week of Obamacare.

The conversation ended between Boehner and the president without any word about when they might meet, get together, continue the dialogue, is that right?

ACOSTA: That's right. Wolf, but as you heard the president say, he is willing to start talking with Republicans again. He even offered to take them out to dinner.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jim Acosta over at the White House.

We're looking all the ways the partial government shutdown is affecting people all across the United States. Guess what? A new outbreak of salmonella poisoning is raising serious questions about a very important federal job, keeping all of our food safe.

Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's been looking into this part of the story.

What are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this outbreak started before the government shutdown and inspection was not the issue, but the government agency that tracks outbreaks and measures how widespread they are and issues warnings, they were working with a bare-bones staff when the outbreak started. With the outbreak still going on, there is a concern about tracking it from here.


TODD (voice-over): Nearly 300 people made ill from salmonella poisoning, primarily on the West Coast, the source traced to raw chicken products from three California plants run by a company called Foster Farms.

The inspectors from those products are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Are they sitting at home? Could this outbreak have started because of the government shutdown?

TOM JOHNSTON, "MEATINGPLACE": The shutdown has not affected USDA's food inspection to any major degree. The vast majority of inspection personnel are still working because Congress has generally viewed their function as a necessity.

TODD: And according to a USDA official, the investigation into this outbreak started before the government shutdown. Experts say the salmonella made it into the marketplace simply because some of the naturally occurring pathogens in chicken slip through sometimes.

But the shutdown is drawing another major concern regarding this outbreak and it has to do with the Centers for Disease Control.

(on camera): While poultry inspectors are still on the job, the CDC has furloughed a lot of people, which means that the absence of people who could track this salmonella linked to the outbreak could put us all at risk.

(voice-over): A CDC official tells us many of its scientists who track foodborne pathogens who were furloughed were brought back. But there was a delay in the exchange of information about the outbreak. That worries food watchdog groups.

PATTY LOVERA, FOOD AND WATER WATCH: Is this food getting further into the marketplace if you're not warning people that you're losing opportunities to WARN people not to eat it or to remind people to care because of salmonella or to figure out did the outbreak occur because we haven't put those pieces together?

TODD (on camera): Another key piece of information we may not be getting is this resistant to antibiotics, right?

LOVERA: Right. It's a new thing that we're able to track now is the salmonella that is making people, is that bug going to respond to the antibiotics you would use to treat it? It happens more often recently. And again just I haven't seen that in reports from the government because we're not getting complete reports.


TODD: A CDC spokeswoman told us there are signs of resistance to antibiotics in some salmonella strains in this outbreak, but because of the government shutdown they haven't been able to track just how widespread those strains are. So, that is a major concern.

BLITZER: States are still tracking all of this.

TODD: That's right. States do track it. And that's how the system works. State officials do identify these cases, but the problem it's the CDC that puts it all together to see if cases in different states are linked or not. And with these people out, these CDC scientists who do that linking, they haven't had that information. Now they're coming back together, but there was a delay there.

BLITZER: Yes, a serious delay. They got to catch this. Brian, thanks very much.

Up next, a millionaire's fight to give more money to politicians. Could his Supreme Court case make it easier to effectively buy a campaign? And Newt Gingrich is riled up and ready to respond to something that President Obama said at his news conference today. The co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and he will respond.


BLITZER: At a time when many Americans are simply furious at their elected officials, it may be hard to imagine that some people out there would want to give a lot more money the politicians. But in fact that argument was made to the United States Supreme Court today in a major new challenge to campaign fiance limits.

And guess who helped plead the case? A high-powered politician, the senior Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

Here's our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Shaun McCutcheon made big bucks with his electrical engineering company in Alabama. He's a millionaire with a problem most persons don't have. He's given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates since 2010, but for him, it's not enough.

SHAWN MCCUTCHEON, PLAINTIFF: I gave a lot of money, and I wanted to spend more.

JOHNS: Right now, the law says individuals can donate no more than $123,200 total to candidates and political parties during an election cycle. McCutcheon filed a lawsuit that would allow him to give as much money as he wants, even though he admits that politics is just something he does for fun.

MCCUTCHEON: I consider politics to be a hobby.

JOHNS: Hobby for him, but with potentially serious consequences which could change the way elections are paid for starting with next year's midterms. It was enough to bring a personal appearance in court by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who also filed a friend of the court briefing McCutcheon's support.

President Obama also weighed in, opposed.

OBAMA: There aren't a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way, where you can basically have millionaires and billionaires bankrolling whoever they want, however they want, in some cases undisclosed. And what it means it ordinary Americans are shut out of the process

JOHNS: The limits are supposed to keep corruption or the appearance of it out of politics. In court, Justice Elena Kagan said, "Someone who gives lots of money would get a very, very special place at the table."

But Justice Samuel Alito dismissed such ideas as wild hypotheticals.

McCutcheon says he's not trying to buy influence. He's just likes politics. A main argument against the limits is that they infringe on free speech.

TOM GOLDSTEIN, FOUNDER, SCOTUSBLOG.COM: And it's very likely that the conservative members of the court are going to view this as too much an infringement on your right to participate in the political process.


JOHNS: The idea that money equals speech has been a winning argument at the Supreme Court before. Today, Antonin Scalia suggested when it comes to the First Amendment, the law should not discriminate, even against the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

BLITZER: Interesting case. Thanks very much, Joe Johns, for that.

Let's dig a little deeper right now with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. He's a real scholar when it comes to the Supreme Court.

What do you think, the pros and cons? Basically, this would make Citizens United look relatively pale.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: The conservatives are winning on this issue. And they care deeply about it. And they are in the process of deregulating American campaigns.

All of the regulations that are in place are basically aimed at limiting the power of money, but if you believe that money equals speech, that giving money equals speech, as five members of this court appear to do, you can't limit. And this is not the middle. It's not -- it's still part of the beginning of the deregulation of American campaigns.

BLITZER: More money's going to be involved, if you can believe it, in politics, assuming the Supreme Court goes along and accepts this.

Let's switch gears, talk about the debt ceiling, raising the debt ceiling. Congress is supposed to do that. But some have suggested that the president could do it by himself by invoking the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The president spoke about that today. Listen to what he said.


OBAMA: I know there's been some discussion, for example, about my powers under the 14th amendment to go ahead and ignore the debt ceiling law.

Setting aside the legal analysis, what matters is that if you start having a situation in which there's legal controversy about the U.S. Treasury's authority to issue debt, the damage will have been done even if that were constitutional.


BLITZER: The 14th Amendment, among other things, says the validity of the public debt authorized by law, including debts incurred from payment of pensions and bounties for services and suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

So does that give the president potentially, worst-case, nightmare scenario, the U.S. about to default, an opening?

TOOBIN: No one know, Wolf. No one knows whether the president has this power. And it's a measure of the desperation of the system that people are reading into the 14th Amendment this power as somehow, as the president said, a rabbit out of the hat to allow him to bypass Congress.

But I think there are all sorts of problems with this idea. Legally, we don't know if he has this power. Politically, the president doesn't want to let Congress off the hook. And, practically, even if he did it, as the president pointed out today, this debt would be legally under question. And that would defeat the whole purpose of giving certainty to the markets. So I just think this is a nonstarter as an idea.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, as usual, thanks very much.

Coming up, several members of Congress arrested near the U.S. Capitol. We're going to tell you what's going on.

And one of the hosts of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," Newt Gingrich, he will join us. He wants to set the record straight after he got a shout-out of sorts from the president at his news conference.


BLITZER: Members of Congress have been arrested in a large demonstration near the U.S. Capitol that went on despite the government shutdown.

Let's go to CNN's Erin McPike. She's got all the details.

What happened, Erin?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a number of House Democrats were taking part in a long-scheduled rally on the Mall calling for comprehensive immigration reform and a number of those House Democrats were standing in the street that's right in front of the Capitol. Police ordered them to move, but they didn't. So they were arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

Some of those members be very familiar to our viewers, including Charlie Rangel and John Lewis and Jan Schakowsky. Of course, many of our viewers may be wondering why they were able to gather on the Mall, because as we have been talked about for the last week, the National Mall is legally closed because of the government shutdown.

But we're going to spin around here and show you part of what's been going on. This was part of a stage that was used for the rally, but even though they're not supposed to be gathered on the Mall, the National Park Service told us that under the same First Amendment rights that are allowing Honor Flight veterans and their families to visit the veterans memorials on the National Mall, other groups will be granted access to the park for First Amendment activities, so obviously, another loophole in getting around this shutdown -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin McPike on the National Mall for us, thank you.

President Obama had plenty of tough words today for the current House speaker, but he also brought up the name of the former House speaker who used to be in the crossfire.

And the former Speaker Newt Gingrich joins us now. He's the co-host of "CROSSFIRE."

Newt, the president gave you a little shout-out at his news conference today. Let me play the clip.


OBAMA: Back in the '90s, we had a government shutdown. That happened one time, and then after that, the Republican Party and Mr. Gingrich realized this isn't a sensible way to do business. We shouldn't engage in brinksmanship like this.

Then they started having a serious conversation with President Clinton about a whole range of issues, and they got some things they wanted. They had to give the Democrats some things the Democrats wanted. But it took on, you know, a sense of normal democratic process.


BLITZER: Is that the way you remembered it, Newt?

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN HOST, CROSSFIRE: I'm always amazed by President Obama's either misunderstanding or deliberate falsification of history.

And there were at least three occasions on this particular press briefing where he clearly was just factually false. That's one them. And since I was a witness, let me correct him. We had a very tough, but very consistent negotiation with President Clinton.

Unlike President Obama, President Clinton kept talking. We talked by telephone. We talked in person. We negotiated. We had a clear understanding of where each other was. And we understood that neither of us had the right, either representing the legislative branch or the executive, neither of us had the right to just walk out of the room.

So there's a fundamental difference. In the end, we both got something fairly significant. We got a commitment to get to a balanced budget. As you know, Wolf, the only four balanced budgets in your lifetime in a row were coming straight out of that. We got welfare reform. We had the first tax cut in 17 years. Clinton got certain things he wanted badly, for example, the children's health program.

But President Obama clearly is wrong about that, just as he's wrong about the history of the debt ceiling and the history of the continuing resolution.


BLITZER: Let me interrupt you, because he said that, after those two government shut down, one for about a week, one for about three weeks, it was only then that you and President Clinton decided to begin engaging in what he called a sensible way and all those things you just talked about, the balanced budget, the programs, the taxes. All of that was worked out in a sensible way. It wasn't worked out during the showdown leading up to those two government shutdowns.

GINGRICH: Look, that's just plain factually wrong.

As President Clinton indicated recently on "PIERS MORGAN," he and I talked regularly. We talked all the way through the process. It was covered by the news media. They knew that we were going down to meetings at the White House. We began to sort out what we could agree on.

And, you know, the other thing that was much more candid back then -- I went back and reviewed some material after the president's comment today. President Obama likes to say that the Congress is being unreasonable. I made a point back then that President Clinton had a gun. It was called a veto pen.

And so there was a balance of power, exactly as the founding fathers intended. The president could veto. The House could refuse to pass money bills, and we had to get together. Now, I believe that none of the things that followed would have occurred without that difficult struggle, because I thought we had to get President Clinton's attention that we were serious.

I think the House Republicans have the same problem today. There are games being played by Senator Harry Reid and by President Obama that are clearly just gamesmanship. They have nothing to do with serious government.

BLITZER: Well, let's hope, following this government shutdown and the crisis over raising the debt ceiling, everyone starts behaving in a sensible way and gets some real business done.

Newt Gingrich with a little historic advantage. He has the added advantage of having lived through that history and been directly involved in it.

Thanks very much, Newt, for coming in.


BLITZER: And that's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Thanks once again.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.